There’s a remarkable pattern with some judges at startup pitching competitions. The entrepreneurs pull out all the stops, breathlessly pitch their idea to the judges and audience, and hope that their message comes across and that they don’t get in their own way.
Most of the time, the judges are empathetic, encouraging, and insightful. Occasionally, however, they can be condescending, judgmental, or overly critical. Sometimes all that determines which way they’ll go is their blood sugar levels or time spent of day.
At one startup pitch competition, weekend-working entrepreneurs presented their 48-hour-old ideas to a panel of judges, who were or from a management consulting sponsor. While most of the judges’ questions focused on clarifying the idea, a few stood out for a poor understanding of the idea or how these weekend hackathons worked. Some teams were grilled on details they couldn’t possibly know in 48 hours, while others were led astray with wild ideas that were poorly thought through. Still others were given criticism that reflected the judges’ personal biases and preferences over the startup idea itself.
This is common, but it doesn’t have to be like this. If organizers set the stage properly, and pitching judges commit to a few changes, these issues can be addressed.
1. Do judges’ questions in 2 rounds
Many judges want to engage with the presenters, and this is a great way to spark a discussion. However, these conversations often happen prematurely, before the judge has had a chance to fully understand the idea and the project.
That’s why there should be two rounds of judges responses, where the first round is limited to clarifying questions so they and the other judges can understand better. Then, a second round of feedback could allow for challenge or new ideas. This helps make sure that input designed to shape startup ideas is based on a solid foundation of understanding.
2. Get the right judges on board
In recent years, my hometown ecosystem of the UAE has exploded with a lot of startups, incubators, accelerators, pitching competitions, hackathons and demo days. This activity is great for the ecosystem because it creates awareness, but some of the panels are have people who lack enough relevant background to provide useful feedback.
Judges from Silicon Valley are a great reference for many events, but they may not have the background to meaningfully input into a local startup in the selling phase. For tech and prototypes, judges from Silicon Valley can guide founders into great new ideas. But for local partners, sales models, and how to target Middle Eastern customers, the feedback they offer may be limited.
In other cases, sponsors of events often sit on panels. This makes sense given that sponsors want to maximize their exposure, but if the sponsoring organization is very different that the startups being presented, there could be an issue. In one pitching competition, a judge from a sponsor recommended that instead of developing an app that managed inventory management and delivery using data, the startup invest in large warehouses and buy massive amounts of inventory, then create a large distribution network. The judge then went on to say they had set up something similar for a client of theirs. But for a startup in their first month, it made no sense.
By focusing on getting judges onto panels who have both startup experience and local experience, founders can get useful feedback and be appropriately challenged.
3. Set up rules in advance. First rule: be nice
Judging a startup event can be a grueling experience. A long day, low blood sugar, lack of caffeine, and an endless series of repetitive pitches can make even the kindest judge grumpy. But that’s all the more reason they need to focus on being constructive and inquisitive.
Unfortunately, that’s not what always happens. Sometimes, the desire to be heard, personal biases and preferences, and the interactions between the judges can lead to overly aggressive exchanges with startup founders. And when the judges hear something they don’t like, they sometimes get frustrated and increase the intensity and hostility of their questions.
For entrepreneurs that have worked hard to prepare for a pitch day, being overly critical can add little value and be discouraging. Setting up guidelines in advance that encourage judges to be kind and encouraging as a starting point can help prevent these type of interactions, and keep the event on track.
4. Leave personal biases and preferences at the door
Investors or entrepreneurs who have experience in a particular market often use their experience when evaluating similar ideas. If they invested in a company that relies on partnerships, they may struggle to see the value of going direct. If they built a company that targeted enterprise customers, they may not understand why a similar solution would target end-users. Nudging founders in a direction they know works is one way they can put their expertise to good use.
These biases, based on experience, are natural. But they have no place in a pitch competition, where startups deserve to have their ideas evaluated fairly and on their own merits. To make this happen, judges should be urged to leave these biases at the door, and avoid mental comparisons of the startups to previous experiences they or others have had. Perhaps there was a massive failure in the market. That’s no reason to hold new startups to that standard, except to advise them that funding may be more challenging.
Demo days and pitching competitions are great experiences for entrepreneurs. Getting ideas evaluated by knowledgeable judges is a massive benefit, and the training that comes with the preparation and presentation is unmatched. Done right, these events can add tremendous value to startups in a very short period of time. But this only happens if the evaluating judges are open, fair, and knowledgeable.