SocialCops was a finalist at the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition (2013) held by the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. We came out as the winner of the Information and Communications Technology prize. It was one of my initial successes as an entrepreneur and, in the process, SocialCops has learned a LOT. I’m trying to summarize my learnings with what we did right and what we did wrong so far.
#1: Know your problem before making the pitch.
I’m surprised by how many people who dream of becoming entrepreneurs get this wrong. In the field of social enterprise, it is surprisingly easy to get this wrong, trying to solve a disease in India, Kenya, or Bangladesh as you sit in your plush office in the developed world connected to Google and sipping on a white chocolate mocha from Starbucks.
I’m guilty of this mistake too. I am lucky I realized in good time that, to make the pitch, the problem had to be clear and real.
I was once part of a team that was trying to create a solution to eradicate Japanese encephalitis — the single most important cause for deaths in North India. We were a team of engineers, doctors, and biologists and we immediately began to hypothesize — the problem must be that they are unable to detect JE fast enough, the villages are too far away from the medical units, the capacity isn’t good enough, blah blah. Based on these assumptions, we created an innovative model for a low-cost PCR machine. Think of the possibilities of being able to install a device in each village and training a villager to use it. We would eradicate JE and change the world!
Yeah, right. Upon going on ground to the village (and I’m glad we did this before we started building our product!), we realized that access to medical care was not a problem at all. A simple 10 minute trip from every village took us to the nearest medical unit, and the villagers claimed they had no problems seeing a doctor if they needed. Then what was the problem? The resilient villagers had a mentality of trying not to visit doctors until and unless their condition becomes critical in order to save money. Many lives were lost because, by the time a doctor actually saw the patient, he was in too critical a condition to be saved. So the solution to this problem would be to actually educate the villagers to encourage them to visit the doctor more often and NOT a low-cost PCR machine.
The best founders are generally the ones who are solving a problem that pains them, annoys them, and irritates them. Why? Because they know the problem so well that THEY are the first customers of their product. So they build a product that they would use themselves. Just like Larry Page and Sergey Brin did when they were frustrated with Alta Vista.
Upon I competed on a global level, my biggest takeaway was that the teams that knew their markets well did a better job of convincing the judges as to why their solution was necessary. I guess the same will go when you convince investors to invest in you, your employees to join the company, and people to use your product.
#2: Talk to as many people as you can.
There is no such thing as an idea that is going to be stolen. After 6 months of working on my startup, I’d like to tell everyone — NO, it’s not as simple as stealing an idea. Go online and look. No idea is original.
When we started SocialCops, we thought we were the only ones who had ever created anything like this. As we delved into the subject, we came across stories and case studies that made us realize that no, we weren’t the only ones. True, we had created our own niche and own business model — but most of that came from simply identifying the problem that we wanted to solve and then going out and talking to as many people as we can.
Contrary to popular belief, your idea is hardly going to make 1% of your pitch. (Peter Thiel, Paul Graham, et al. agree with me on this.) Your success will be determined by much deeper things — how much hard work are you putting in, how willing are you to absorb new ideas and pivot, how good are you at convincing different stakeholders to adopt your solution and help you solve your problem.
So stop worrying about telling people about your idea. If it was as simple as stealing your idea to solve the problem you are solving, maybe you should find a different problem.
So formulate your problem, have a solution in mind, and get talking to people — and be ready to change your solution depending on what you hear from the ground.
#3: Pitch a story, not a solution.
Investors invest in YOU — the founder of the company — and not the idea that you propose. Your pitch should convey why you are singularly better than the other 10 people in the room, 100 people in your city, and 1,000 people in the world who are trying to solve the same problem you are working on. Why does this problem pain you so much that you are willing to risk the joys of a happy married life and a fat monthly paycheck to solve this problem? Convince them with your story.
Powerpoint presentations are passé. Man spent millions of years telling and retelling stories before the powerpoint was invented. Why does Steve Jobs win over people? Because he stands in front of this larger than life screen and talks, as he makes it about HIM. Not his slides.
#4: Know your audience, the real people you need to pitch to.
Get your audience to relate with what you’re saying. We had a great pitch coaching session with Jacob Colker (cofounder of HUB Seattle) and Michael “Luni” Libes (Managing Director of Fledge) in GSEC, which taught me a few different ways of doing this:
1. Use a single important stat and CONNECT it to something people can remember.
For example, every year 3.5 million people die of HIV. The population of Seattle is 600,000. That means everyone you know, everyone you see on the street, everyone around you – and 6 times of that will die in a year.
2. Use a connection that almost everyone can relate to
For example, the P&G Mom video does a great job of this. Why? Because everyone has a mom, right?
3. Show what you’re talking about by using props
Bill Gates let out mosquitos during a recent TED talk he was giving about eradicating malaria. Talk about driving the point home.
I believe if your (#1) is strong, and you do (#2) well, you will automatically have a good solution to a big problem. Spend time on (#3) — it might take days and millions of revisions. (#4) can be mastered with practice and rehearsal. Steve Jobs spent days rehearsing before a launch. Same for Barack Obama.
You are the message. What inspires you is the message.
Photo from Singapore International Foundation.