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Touring with the IBP - helping Finnish startups out

Since the Slush'09 event I have been touring with the IBP (International Business Program) across Finland, listening to startups, coaching, giving feedback and trying to give a few ideas on how to get things going. This has been interesting to me, as I am not a consultant, but an entrepreneur by class and nature. Usually I work with a few chosen companies, typically as an owner, board member, advisor etc. I have 10 successful funding rounds and several exists behind me so I know a thing or two about pitching, presenting and shaping a company to be interesting and successful. Semi-frequently I also get asked to act as a judge in a pitching competition, I'm up there presenting and talking myself about once every two weeks nowdays. So, it's been good fun with the IBP!

The project describes its own goal as : "International Business Program is offering help for digital business companies which have proved to be growth willing and estimated to have potential global competitiveness."

In essence; we try to make promising companies sprout, grow and be more internationally successful.

We have been touring Helsinki, Hämeenlinna, Kouvola, Tampere and Vaasa. The whole program has been free for the companies (sponsored by public ESR funding) and the format has been quite effective varied format: pitches, feedback, Q&A, written analysis from experts, one-on-one coaching, and plenty of good talks. It's not necessary to be a startup to participate, tho many have been clear startup cases, some even pre-incorporated ideas. While others have been actual corporations and well-established companies.

All together we'v had 33 companies participating so far. Here's my list:

Siltaloppi Productions - Videoarkisto.fi
Fitness Media (Maximal.tv)
Advant Games
Steam Republic
Kutalab (djonline.fi)
Pallo.com (in stealth mode, therefor no link)
CTS Engtec
Jalusta Technologies / Aptual
Simosol, Ltd
Webbinetti S&T Ky (kaitafilmi.fi)
Viestix, Ltd (Breeze Tags)
SongHI Entertainment
Red Tail
Aito Technologies

We also had a bunch that joined up, but bailed out for some reason or the other ;-)

I have been there throughout all the sessions and have listened to each of those companies pitch, given them all feedback, and written them some notes. There have been a few other established industry people doing the same. Namely the crew of Accelerando. and Timoteus Tuovinen from DOORStories.

After hearing 33 companies pitch (and naturally bunch of others outside this program as well) it becomes quite apparent what we need to focus more on here in Finland. One of the main points in illustrated here in this picture:

Which candy is the most delicious? The best thing, based on solid Finnish technology? Can't say huh?

Often enough neither can I.. This repeated quite a few times in the pitches and presentations of our companies: not really paying enough attention to differentiation, competition, competitive response and uniqueness..

If all the competitors in your market are like bridesmaids dressed up in their pretty black dresses. Then your startup simply HAS TO BE the gorgeous white bride that clearly stands out from the crowd.

Sounds simple enough? Differentiation, uniqueness and standing out clearly from your competition is one of the most essential things any company should have figured out. Also when you pitch your company it should be one of the first things you illustrate. Illustration can happen (or should happen) through captivating action; like showing the audience a demo of your product etc. It is OK to say it, but even better to show it; how much you differentiate from your competition.

In 2008 Jason Calacanis wrote these two (first here, second here) excellent posts about presenting and "how to demo your startup". Read them. Study them religiously. Take them seriously and act on them. This is amongst the best advice I have seen out there.

Differentiation for a startup is more important than things like relevance or price. It's more important than your revenue model. Get it figured out first and worry about the revenue model later.

I also like two kinds of companies: those that pick an opponent and go and pick a fight, and those that just ignore all the competition and mold themselves to be so different from anybody else that they just about create a category of their own; they go their own way.

If you have longer than a few minutes to demo or pitch your startup (some of the 33 companies there had a full 30 minutes), then you can go a bit deeper and use a structure like the one here by Sequoia Capital. It is also simultaneously one of the best structures to follow as your business plan slide deck.

Many companies I heard pitches from have excellent products, existing customers, many references and showcases on the market. But did they show them? Almost universally; NO. only very rarely did anybody show us any proper real cases and executed references at all.

One of the best things you can show in a pitch is a real demo of your product. Engage the audience with a story, a real showcase, show them a reference, talk about what you did for that customer, how valuable it is, and how it's different from the ability of your competition to deliver the same amazing value. You should do this as the first thing of your presentation (you should start with this) the rest is much more interesting if this first part arouses the interest of the audience.

What's the worst kind of presentation then? Here's a small list:

- Starting with your name, title and industry background (usually everybody in the audience can read; and they have been reading some preparatory material already and know your name for example).
- Going through the general market first and not even mentioning what it is that you do (general market is only interesting if the product is).
- Using only bulletpoint slides, preferably in black and white (boring everybody to death)
- Not showing your excellent product, despite the fact that you do have it
- Speaking only technical stuff and ignoring the minor things such as competition, differentiation, customer value, and revenue model... etc

A 17 part list of good pitching.

The opposite of this is an engaging exciting presentation that goes right to the point and really leaves the audience reeling from sheer awesomeness of it. What could it include then?

1. Start with a real demo or real reference case, show your product
2. Immediately explain what we see, how awesome and easy it is
3. Followup by what value it creates (problem it solves), how vital it is to the customer (how well it solves it)
4. Go into differentiation; show a few key competitors and explain why you are superiorly unique to them
5. Head into how much money you make and how
6. Next only one or two sentences about the market opportunity (why this is hot now?)
7. Showcase your excellent team in a memorable way
8. Throw in all the awesome customer references and wins you have accomplished. Show pictures, video or live demos of each quickly
9. Do the grande finale with a call to action: do you seek funding? customers? partners? state it!

In a short pitch my opinion is that you should totally ignore these:

10. No long introductions of yourself and your work history, plz. (it may be interesting that you are a paramedic by training, but it's certainly more interesting after you tell us about your amazing company first)
11. Explaining the history and evolution of the market (forget it, no time)
12. Financials (boring, forget it. If they like your company, they will ask and talk about the finances later on.)
13. Technical stuff about the product (unless its globally patented and very very cool like an anti-gravity machine, forget it. It doesn't matter how exactly it works underneath, it only matters what you use it for).

Besides the content, what else should you concentrate on?

14. Good open and exciting body language. Move around, engage the audience, make it SHOW that you are excited about the opportunities of your company!
15. maintain a good contact with the audience: have constant eye contact. Don't stand behind a podium or a laptop. Always use a wireless presenter when pitching so that you don't have to be there to push keyboard buttons.
16. Answers all questions after the pitch in a short efficient and honest manner. Challenge the people asking them: ask for justifications, more details and examples of what they really mean etc. Engage them in an intelligent rapid-fire conversation
17. Make your presentation materials very visual. All pictures and video and live demos would be the best. No text (except single words or a few words at the maximum) and absolutely NO bullet points and boring slides. A decent tool to use for this would be www.prezi.com

.. OK enough about pitching. What else did I learn from ICP clinics?

We have great companies and great products here in Finland. We need to be much much better in presenting them. We also need to think about differentiation, uniqueness, competition and summarizing it all much more. Growth potential is there, we just need to shape it out!

If this post has managed to grasp your attention and you want in; good news! That can be done. There will be a full day IBP camps coming up that you and your company can join:

IBP Camp Helsinki: 20.4.2010 (topic: internationalization and funding)
IBP Camp Hämeenlinna: 7.5.2010 (topic: partnerships and networks)
IBP Camp Tampere: 6.10.2010
IBP Camp in UK September/2010

The camps cost a negligible sum each (200 EUR + VAT) and there's room for only 20 companies: so joint up now! (there's a link below)

There are also more up and coming clinics (these pitching and coaching sessions):

Clinic Tampere 17.-18.5.
Clinic Helsinki 8-9.9.
Clinic Vaasa 23.9.

There's also a full GoToMarket package that you can apply for; the best companies get it. That means very competent people to help you out for a strongly supported fee (ESR public funding up to 75% and 10.000 EUR)

You can apply to all of those through this form here.

Don't be tied up with your digibusiness! Join us and we'll tackle the challenges you have together. I hope that the links and lists on this blog post would be a good start to take your company further.


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This post was mentioned on Twitter by tanelitikka: I have been touring with the IBP and watching 33 companies pitch & present. Wrote a blog entry about it here: http://ping.fm/yZYv7

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Very good

A very good article! One of your best ever written here!!!

Pls. keep on preaching about presenting skills in Finland!!!!

Pitch till you drop

I totally a agree with Talented Mr. Tikka is saying, I've seen so many presentations, pitches and lectures from Finns that have been sub par in the past 10 years.

And why I mention all three (presentations, pitches and lectures) is because at the very core, they are much the same. The basics can be learned and should be second nature to anyone in a start-up.

I really think that much of the poor quality of our pitches and presentations fail because of the very basic, thinking about your audience. what is it that will make them remember you, what will you do to make them believe in your story.

I think during the time spent in the Finnish educational system, I have give a fraction of the oral presentations my American counterpart would have, not once have I been assessed by my teachers, peers or colleagues on the presentation it self, but only on it's content. This is something I think this should be changed and needs to be changed. We should be Pitching till we drop..


You are right. Thanks for the tips man. They are greatly appreciated.

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