Feedback two female founders received and rejected.
We flew in early enough the night before to have dinner in the hotel bar while we rehearsed our pitch. Perhaps the Brussels (yes, this is the correct spelling although it doesn’t sound as though it should be pluralized) sprouts oddly paired with cherry tomatoes and lime were a tip-off that the next day would be strange. We joked that our California food sensibilities were too sensitive and that it gave us an excuse to eat more french fries. It was our first fundraising pitch together as Founder and Co-Founder. We were meeting with a regional arm of an internationally well-known angel forum. Shivering on our short walk to the stately downtown building we laughed wondering if the other entrepreneurs invited to pitch would all be Mark Zuckerberg or Elizabeth Holmes type savants, leaving us to appear “er” (older, tired-er, middle aged-er).
Checking in we quickly relaxed learning the other presenters were fellow mid-career escapees from the jungles of tech, retail, life sciences, medicine, aeronautics, transportation, and law. We were in the last slot, presenting 7th around 3 PM. Everyone was given a strict 7-minute presentation timeframe with a 1990’s looking countdown clock stationed beside the podium, signaling what seemed like the end of days. There was a screen positioned to the right of the podium for the presentation to be viewed by the audience; standard room setup.
Sidewinding, steamy condensation formed a Turkish bath wall of windows along one side of the room. I gazed outside at the bountiful rain, with my heart in my throat like it was Disneyland and Christmas morning combined coming from drought-damaged and fire traumatized California. I calmed my nerves while each presenter shared their big idea, problem statement, solution, and request for funding. We heard about new a diabetes drug delivery system, a holographic presentation tool, digital event management platform and strategy for integrated opioid addiction treatment. I was inspired by my fellow entrepreneurs’ heart, determination, courage and subject matter expertise.
When it was our turn, we strode up confidently, excited for our 7 minutes of story-telling and 5 minutes of Q & A afterward. We had decided to split the presentation in half with my partner (the Founder) handling the opening section, and I took the close, roughly an equal division. We each stood on either side of the screen, so we weren’t blocking it from the audience. When my partner finished speaking she handed the microphone to me. During the Q & A, we swapped the microphone back and forth as needed. The audience of 80 potential investors seemed very engaged, asking many energetic and thoughtful questions.
We saw few signs of classic late afternoon adult low energy and waning attention; no nodding heads, glazed over eyes or distracted phone use. Rather, we saw many taking notes and leaning forward in their seats, smiling and sending us positive head nods, which we appreciated. Many eagerly pursued us individually with further follow-up questions at the cocktail hour afterward.
We left the next day, presenting to another angel group in another square-shaped state in the middle of the country, part of “Silicon Prarie”, as it has been called. Again, despite the chilly conditions outside we were met with a warm and responsive audience that asked insightful and smart questions.
The next week after we returned home we connected with the angel forum Managing Director to receive feedback on our presentation and to discuss interest from the potential investors in attendance at both midwest locations. When the immediate next steps related to the individual investors became clear, we eagerly sought perspective on what the Managing Director believed worked/did not work about our pitch. As this was our first pitch and more importantly our inaugural pitch working together we valued his perspective on what we could improve the next time, as we knew there would be many next times.
He began as many of us do when providing feedback, generalized and positive- not wanting to hurt any feelings and therefore it was not very useful or actionable. He said we did a “good job.” We were “on our game.” We “knew our stuff” and got “people excited.” We could hear over the phone he was hedging, and we genuinely wanted to know how we could become exceptional at presenting our business case for investment, so we continued pressing him for more specificity. After about 15 minutes of our pushing for more detail and him continuing to provide vague compliments but with an undercurrent of hesitancy he finally said it:
“ NEXT TIME, STAND CLOSER TOGETHER.”
It took us about 20 seconds for the words to permeate fully. We each silently conjured our own flawed visual of us blocking the presentation screen entirely from the audience. I envisioned us huddled together as a tight twosome up in front of the audience, rather than on either side of the screen. We probed for further understanding, to be sure we understood the feedback origin. Was there some informal, unspoken protocol we had broken when there were two presenters? Did our one mic handoff mid presentation rattle the audience that much? Despite being genuinely eager for feedback, my partner and I could not reconcile this feedback with any sound presentation council as it would mean blocking the screen and diminishing the view of the audience from our slides.
Finally, as we became increasingly frantic in our quest for understanding, he said: “you want to make sure people understand you get along.” And, that’s when I knew it was a different world for two women raising money.
If I had listed 10,000 potential points of feedback we may hear about before the morning of our first pitch, I would never have considered we needed to worry that the room of mostly men would think we did not like each other if we did not stand together for 7 minutes.
If I had known this I would have not only stood beside my business partner, I would have given her a big sloppy kiss on the cheek while holding her hand and gently caressing her hair. Actually, I would not have done any of that- because I believe the audience seeing our slides on the screen behind us matters to the storytelling narrative more.
Ultimately, I learned that while every nuance matters during a pitch, it’s up to you to decide what matters the most, including when to embrace and when to reject feedback. During the past year, we have given over 75 pitches, with us in every presentation configuration imaginable. Of course, we have stood together many, many times and proudly, happily so. But, not because we need to show we like each other. Because it makes good business sense based on the configuration of that room, at that time, in that space for that pitch, for that audience. That’s what grown-ups must do, they make smart choices in the moment.