Putting Myself Out There

29 May 2015

In this post, I relate my first entrepreneurial experience pitching my idea to potential investors. I share the good, the bad, and the final result.

I have always dreamed of having my own successful company, being a leader to a company full of excited employees, building successful products that customers love. I've delayed that dream for a while. In my 20s, I realized that I had a lot to learn. In my 30s, I worked on learning the skills that I did not have and mastering the skills that I had learned as a software developer. So now that I have started my 40s and now have a family, I've decided that the time has come to get serious about the next phase of my career. With that, I did my first pitch.

My product pitch took about 8 months from start to presentation. There was a lot of brainstorming. I spent a lot of time finding competitors and reading through financial reports. I thought about what my product was going to do and the benefit that it was going to bring to customers.

About two months into my pitch development, I spoke to my potential investor and asked him what he looks for in potential investment opportunities. His advice was to focus on these concerns:

  1. Why is the product important?
  2. What is the market?
  3. Who are the competitors?
  4. How will I engage customers and drive sales?
  5. How much time and money are required for a minimum viable product?

Fair enough. This was good information to know because it helped me to try to focus on what was important to him. I spent the next six months refining the product idea, doing my research, and refining the pitch. I pitched the idea to friends, showed them my slides, talked to them about my plans. And I spent a great deal of time hoping that I was hitting all of the points that the investor wanted to know.

Finally, after enough rehersals, I felt that the time was right. I was as prepared as I could be. It was time to step up and do the pitch. I put together an executive summary document and sent out a calendar invite to my investor group. Within minutes, I received the first meeting accept response. The others soon followed.

THe day of the pitch arrived much too quickly. I was still tinkering with slides, trying to perfect my story. The day of the pitch, I rose out of bed at 4:00am and was leaving the house by 4:35am. My flight left Phoenix at 6:35am and I landed at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana at 7:40am. I was in my rental car minutes later, and at the location within about 30 minutes with traffic.

I still tinkered with slides for a few minutes throughout the morning, but then they all came together in the right order and I felt that the story was complete. Finally, the time to pitch came.

With a sort-of nervous confidence, I stood in the conference room and waited. My laptop was connected, the projector was working, and my presentation was showing on the screen. The investors entered the room and took their seats. I began.

I introduced myself and thanked them for their time. I reiterated my resume and gave brief highlights of my career. I then launched into my story. I introduced the product, gave a brief background to help them understand the context, and then I told them the product's story. I told them how the product would help doctors help their patients and how medical science would be improved and advanced by my product. I showed them how doctors could collaborate on research and patient care. I painted the best picture that I could.

Next I launched into the market and competitors. I tried to describe the market in terms of value. I covered the greater healthcare market, then tried decomposing it into science and medical publishing, and then dove down farther into medical research. I then talked briefly about the size of the US market in terms of percentage of GDP and the number of doctors and medical students in the United States.

I then highlighted the top competitors as I saw them in the market. I tried to describe their revenue and their product offerings. I tried to answer the questions as they came to me. And this is where my confidence started to waver.

Finally I went into the schedule for building my minimum viable product or POC (depending on the perspective). I told them the time frame that I was aiming for, the cost, and the list of features that would be included. This is where it really collapsed quickly. I found myself defending the features that I had chosen for inclusion, and ultimately fighting for my vision of the product. I saw that my vision that I had tried to convey was now being twisted into a different product that I was starting not to recognize.

Then the criticism started. How was I going to sell it? Did I know how I was going to sell it? Did I know that I could compete against these other companies? I'm just a computer scientist and software engineer. Why am I looking at a product at the medical market? Why not build a product for other software engineers?

The main investor was in full monologue mode now, explaining to me his past experiences and sharing with me information that I had not considered; not information about my product or my pitch, but about other investments and how they turned out.

One of the good things about being somewhat introverted is that I know when it's time to listen, and I did listen. I captured. I assessed. I analyzed. I was mentally making notes and changes to the next pitch.

Now, I could have taken this as a negative experience, but I never found this to be a negative. I knew that I had lost the pitch, that I was not going to leave the room with the funds to start my product. But this was a learning experience. I was learning fantastic details about the inner workings of a business that I have been a part of for the last 7 years, and it was fascinating. I felt that the criticisms that I was facing were not meant to tear me down, but helping me to make this better. I needed answers to the questions that I didn't have answers to. The criticisms were intended to make me and the pitch better.

In the end, I lost the pitch, but I gained an opportunity. I had the opportunity to learn by fire in front of a real audience. I learned what it's like to be challenged and grilled about my ideas. I learned that my idea was not bad, but the story has to be more compelling and better described. I learned that I have to be able to prove that I can compete in a market that, by all intents, I have no experience in.

As I left the meeting, I was undoubtedly disappointed. I felt a little let down. I didn't do my best. I missed the mark. I wasn't ready. But as the rest of the day went forward and I waited for my flight home, those feelings quickly passed. I learned a valuable lesson, and there will be another day and another pitch. Ultimately, while my idea didn't fly, it's still an idea that I believe in. It's a product that I believe in. And while the pitch didn't work this time, I have an opportunity to make the pitch better. And I have a desire to start building the product on my own.

When I come back next time, I'll have a product. I'll have an MVP. I'll have early adopters that have taken a look at what I've built. I will have a feedback loop, better market research, and a better sales plan.

I may have failed in my pitch, but overall I've succeeded. This was my first failure. It won't be my last. But it also won't be the only outcome. Success is coming, and I'm a little farther down the road to getting there.