Three months ago I set in motion something that would get me and a co-founder under a lot of pressure, uncomfortable and at the same time catapulting our business months ahead.
When we applied for the global Pitch@Palace program founded by Prince Andrew, I really didn't think we had a chance of even making the shortlist and I soon forgot about our application.
Six weeks later we received an email advising that we'd been selected to take part in the program - Whoa! Awesome! But what did this actually mean?
I hadn't heard of Pitch@Palace before, it was the first time it was coming to Australia and I only knew it involved a 3 minute pitch accompanied with one slide. Our initial reaction was how on earth was this even achievable!
We spent the next few weeks working really hard on our pitch and each time we thought it was done, we found more improvements. We did dry runs with our families and people that had no prior knowledge of our business in order to get feedback for further iterations.
A week out from our pitch day we received an email that was talking about palace protocols, etiquette and how to address His Royal Highness! We didn't even know that Prince Andrew was actually going to be here... in Australia... to JUDGE our pitch. The nerves really started to settle in now and I found myself reciting our pitch in the shower, out running and in the middle of family dinners with kids looking at me sideways.
Round 1 - NSW at Macquarie University
On 25th Sep we were in the NSW group at Macquarie Uni. Each state group had 20 businesses pitching with 8 that would go through to the next round. We wanted to stand out so we bought really bright suits, but then we got scared stupid that it might come across disrespectful and clown-like, which was exactly the opposite of what we wanted to achieve.
In the end we decided to wear just the jacket and tie but not the matching pants.
On arrival one of the security guards thought we were the entertainment! Shortly after, we were out front of the building (Macquarie Uni's awesome new incubator) and the palace team turned up ahead of Prince Andrew.
Our fears were immediately put to rest as the team grabbed pics for social media, so we jokingly promised to wear matching pants if we made the finals!
On to the more serious stuff, this is us waiting in the wings for our turn to pitch. At this stage we were terrified as we'd learnt the audience was filled with investors, very well connected business people and others that could really make stuff happen.
A key part of the pitch instructions was to have an 'ask' of the audience. Our request was for HR Leaders or CEO's that would be willing to try our software in their teams and provide us with brutally honest feedback.
We did our pitch and we were nervous. So nervous that we couldn't really remember even being on stage.
Here was our first big surprise. By the time we sat down from pitching I had an email from a senior leader that was in the audience saying she would love to try our software in her team. This blew us away as we realised this event was far from just a pitching competition.
There was a terrifically diverse set of businesses pitching - AI, drones, social good, fintech and each accompanied by very inspiring, passionate founders. This made it impossible to gauge how we went so we didn't even attempt to guess. We didn't need to wait too long with the judges handing the results to Prince Andrew to announce the 8 that would go to Boot Camp for the next round.
Our name was the last one called out - we were through to the next round!
This wasn't the end of the day though! There was a good hour of networking with the audience where we had our minds blown again. Numerous people from very well known brands sought us out with an offer to try our software in their teams, put us in touch with their HR leaders and we also received great feedback on our pitch, such as "smile more" and "don't hide behind the lectern" among other constructive improvements. After reviewing the video of our pitch, their advice was spot on! We might have thought we owned the stage, but the stage actually owned us.
Round 2 - National Boot Camp at Wollongong Uni
7am the next day we were on a bus down to Wollongong Uni with 24 finalists (8 from each of the state rounds) for the Pitch@Palace Bootcamp. The format of the day would be presentation training from TV actor Andrew McFarlane and then being matched with an 'Elevator' - a business person to help and mentor with our pitch content. We had Michael Bassingthwaighte who was perfect for us with his health insurance company that had made it onto the Aon Best Places to Work list! A personal aspiration I also have for Crewmojo one day:)
With all the advice and training under our belts, in the afternoon we were pitching to a new set of judges and an even bigger audience.
I didn't envy the judges job of making their decision with such diversity in the businesses that were pitching.
This is Prince Andrew announcing the final 12 that would be pitching two nights later at Government House in Sydney. Crewmojo was lucky enough to make it through among stiff competition from all over Australia.
Again there was a networking event where we secured genuine business connections that are now helping us in a magnitude that we never could have imagined.
National Finals at Government House
On day one we promised matching pants if we got through to the finals...
Ahead of the finals, the Pitch@Palace team had shown us a guest list of attendees for the night. We were encouraged to pick 2 or 3 key contacts that we wanted to speak with, and the team would make the introductions. The names on the guest list left us in awe and they seriously represented a dream audience for each of the entrepreneurs.
Arriving at Government House, the atmosphere was a whole new level of pressure, excitement, fun and anxious tension. The way the event was organized was clearly to give the entrepreneurs every chance of success. Everything the Pitch@Palace team did was to give us the best opportunity to put ourselves forward in the best possible way. We were able to experience the stage prior to the audience arriving, there was plenty of rehearsal time, we were fed, watered and even given choice of microphone type - it really was all about the entrepreneurs.
As the pitches kicked off, there was something Prince Andrew did that struck us as a really authentic expression of the whole program. Prince Andrew was not in the audience. Instead, he was backstage mingling with all the entrepreneurs, listening to our stories, watching the events unfold with us and taking genuine delight in the success of others.
We'd learnt from Andrew McFarlane it was good to get the blood flowing before going on stage, so we found ourselves doing a little dance beforehand. It seriously helped burn some adrenaline! So this was us giving it our all...
Whilst we didn't win a ticket to London for the global final, we felt like we were all winners just being in this growth program.
A huge congratulations to Hireup, Faebella and Nev House who have great businesses and they absolutely nailed their pitches.
Where to start, this was an intense learning experience on many fronts. Prince Andrew made no apologies for applying pressure on the entrepreneurs. And yes, the pressure was continually increasing at every stage, but at the same time the program was equipping us to deal with it.
The Pitch@Palace team were in our corner, they were down-to-earth, making sure we had introductions & business connections, and Prince Andrew was more like one of the entrepreneurs than a member of the Royal Family (I hope it's ok to say that).
This is not really a pitching competition, it's a platform to accelerate, amplify and expose the work of entrepreneurs - now and through the alumni after. Being a part of Pitch@Palace is a real and ongoing opportunity for growth, connections and contribution.
3 minutes and 1 slide doesn't sound like much at first. It's actually a very long time and you can fit a lot in. We iterated over, and over, and over so that every word was considered and every sentence was as efficient as it possibly could be...... but.....
We needed a better story. We could have done better at connecting with the audience. We could have done better at conveying the vision for our product and demonstrating the positive impact we anticipate having on people at work, all over the world.
About 'the ask'. It was a huge benefit that we thought heavily about what our ask would be in the pitch. We asked ourselves what is our biggest challenge right now? What would make a big difference in our business today? For us it was customers that would be prepared to try our software in their teams and provide feedback. The 'ask' is SO important and shouldn't be wasted because there is an audience full of people that can and want to help with your ask.
We made our slide a very simple one sentence message, this worked well for us because our spoken words were so 'dense' we didn't want people distracted with lots of words on screen. We're happy we kept the slide simple. It's also the image that appears in social media posts in the background, so by having a single clear sentence, we made a good fluke here as well!
Standing out with the bright suits was positively received...BUT we also had good feedback that our pitch needed to match the 'image' that we'd created in the eyes of the audience before we even got on stage. In our first pitch we certainly fell short of this as we kinda hid behind the lectern. We did get better, but there is plenty of room to increase our stage comfort and confidence.
We were caught by surprise with the volume of enquiries that were generated by the event. Whilst we were able to deal with it by staying up late and going through all the emails, we could have been much better prepared. In hindsight, I would have:
- Drafted a template email for an immediate acknowledgement
- Created specific content and instructions for those responding to our 'ask'
- Taken a small notebook for the networking events to make a quick note on conversations. There were lots of people and we had to think really hard about the context for some of the business cards we were looking at the next day.
I highly recommend a book that I was frantically reading in the week leading up to the pitch, ideally I would have read it a month earlier but my wife only bought it for me when she saw how nervous I was! "TED Talks by Chris Anderson (Head of TED)"
I would say this program has catapulted us 12 months ahead in terms of the customer trials we have secured, investor relationships started and significant exposure received. To be specific we now have 25 big name companies/organisations that have agreed to either trial our software or assist in other ways - this is a huge outcome, and something we are incredibly grateful for.