Discover the entrepreneur in you (Part 3): Making the right pitch

An important skill an entrepreneur should have is how to make an elevator pitch.

What’s an elevator pitch? Imagine yourself stepping into an elevator.  Inside the lift, is the greatest venture capitalist (VC) in town whom you have been wanting to meet to pitch for funding for a great idea. The door shuts. There’s just the two of you. You have 30 seconds before the elevator reaches the destination. You have a captive audience. This is your biggest chance to make that pitch.

If you can get the VC excited enough about your idea, he could ask you to call his secretary to schedule a presentation where you may get 30 minutes to make a stronger case. Otherwise, he might just say “interesting idea” and move off when the lift stops. You may never get a chance to meet the VC again.

Of course you can use the elevator pitch idea to sell anything, whether it’s funding from a VC, or getting a sales opening from a major prospective client, or simply trying to impress the girl (or guy) of your dream. Making a strong impression to someone new in the first 30 seconds (or perhaps a minute or two) is critical. It need not be in an elevator. It can be any moments where you have the undivided attention of someone important for a short period.

I had my elevator pitch moments. When I first approached Ngee Ann Polytechnic to secure their agreement to license their software to us, I was turned down for being too inexperienced. I looked at our situation. It was just my wife and I in the team, backed by some modest investments from friends. We needed stronger credentials.

I recalled meeting an elderly gentleman by the name of Chan Kai Yau a year before, who had then told me he was a retired Director of Education at MOE. He had enquired my age and confidently told me he had signed my O levels certificate. I checked and it was true. I dug for and found his name card. He was then the Secretary of the Board of the Methodist schools in Singapore.

I called, and he was in office. It was fortunate because he went to the Methodist church office only occasionally. I wanted Mr Chan to be chairman of our proposed business and to be a founding shareholder. I needed someone credible to back us, not just to get the agreement from the polytechnic but also when we do approach schools for business.  

It was an elevator pitch. If I pitched it well, I could get a meeting with him to explain my business plan. If not, he would hang up on me. I made a quick introduction of myself and surprisingly, he recalled our brief conversation a year ago.  In less than 2 minutes, I explained my business plan and we scheduled to meet me over lunch. Over lunch, I had an hour to make my presentation.  He kindly agreed to consider being our chairman and to put a token investment into the business.

Despite having Mr Chan backing us, we were rejected a second time by the polytechnic. They had two other suitors then. It was the peak of the dotcom fever. Stratech (soon to be public listed) and another education company were interested to work with the polytechnic. We were nobodies in the industry, with modest capital, no experience and no team in place.

Then I chanced upon a Straits Times report that the former Permanent Secretary of MCDS (now MCYS) and MOE, Mr Er Kwong Wah had retired early from the civil service and was now running a football school. He must surely be an entrepreneur! Perhaps if having one retired Director of Education was not good enough to make our case, I could appeal to Mr Er’s entrepreneurial spirit and add a retired Permanent Secretary to strengthen our case.

The brash young man in me bravely checked the telephone directory (there was no Google then), found his contact and made my second elevator pitch. The pitch had to be efficient. Within minutes, he agreed to a meeting at Siglap Coffee Club, where we met for over an hour and he agreed to be our advisor. Later, he became a founding director and shareholder.

I further roped in two of my former colleagues at NUS School of Computing, an Associate Professor and a lecturer to also become advisors. Still, we were rejected by the polytechnic; although this time they gave us the chance to make a full presentation to a high-level committee. But that will be for another story how we finally got our business going.

In the course of running our e-learning business, there were other elevator pitch moments to get customers. Sometimes I would chance upon a school principal or someone responsible for the purchasing decision in a casual event or at some exhibitions we were doing. Every chance meeting could be an opportunity for an elevator pitch. You either interest the person to secure an occasion to make a full presentation or you get the boot. An entrepreneur is constantly selling. It can be to investors, clients or even to interest a key person to join your operations team. You have to learn to be thick-skinned. Rejections are the norm. Get used to it.

I recall being given an opportunity to present our business to a Datuk with diverse investment portfolio. It was an organized meeting at the introduction of a friend. We made an hour-long presentation. Three hours later, his manager called. We haggled over the investment price a little and we secured $500,000 in new capital that day, a rare feat after the dotcom bust. That was after many rejected presentations to countless others.

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft made a call to MITS, the maker of the Altair 8800 microcomputer in January 1975 to make a pitch to sell his software idea to them. Bill Gates was a student at Harvard then. That would be an elevator pitch moment for him. He secured their interest to present his software to them a month later. With the successful phone call, Gates and Paul Allen worked tirelessly to develop their software in time for the presentation, and subsequently formed Microsoft.

As a new politician, I learnt quickly what it meant to do the elevator pitch. I initially helped with the East Coast GRC team in a few of their walkabouts. I then started my own walkabouts, totally inexperienced. I had only one party member with me and a handful of well-meaning friends completely new to politics themselves. For a few days, I noted the body language and verbal responses of people that I met as I presented our party brochures and myself to them. I was taking too long to make my case. I was saying all sort of random things. I did not seem to connect.

Yaw Shin Leong came to my house one evening and went through my pitch. He gave me valuable pointers of how I came across. I had to adjust my message. It has to be authentic and precise.

I looked at what constituted my strengths, what our party stood for, and what it would take to convince someone to vote for me. We had lots of ground to cover too. I started my campaigning only in end March. Joo Chiat is almost entirely private residences. Campaigning was limited by the weather and it rained frequently in the evenings that period. Campaigning was effective only in the evenings between 5.30 pm to 8 pm when the house owners are home.

I needed a short and clear message to be effective and efficient. Over the next few days, I crafted a 20-second elevator pitch to Joo Chiat residents. It would cover my local boy branding (since I am campaigning in an area I have lived my entire life in), my essential professional experience to portray credibility (I chose my initial career as a teaching staff of NUS School of Computing and now an education entrepreneur) and my belief in having stronger alternative voices in parliament (I believed most private residents were more concerned about national issues).

The message worked better. We covered more ground in a shorter time. With a consistent elevator pitch, I could build a branding. My supporters walking with me had a consistent message to pitch. Residents who were impressed enough after the pitch will then engage me in further discussions where I could make a stronger case for their votes. Some seemed convinced enough with the 20-second pitch. Some would reject me after my pitch and that is something a politician has to learn to accept.

The elevator pitch was even more important during visits to condominiums where we were given limited time by the management committee to make our rounds. It was critical in coffeeshops as well, where you need to turnaround quite quickly to avoid interrupting someone’s meal.

In whatever job capacity or life situation you are in, do not underestimate the power of a good elevator pitch. Be conscious of how you make your impact in the first 30 seconds. Acquire and polish up this skill. Learn to be precise in your points. Be clear how your message may be taken in by the recipient. Learn this skill well and you will find it useful someday.


One comment on “Discover the entrepreneur in you (Part 3): Making the right pitch

  1. JJ,

    I understand what you mean. What you’re saying is in life if you want to succeed, you need to have good communication skill. If you can’t get your message clearly across within a short period, most likely people will shut you off ! In what you wrote here, you have admirably good fighting spirit! I believe and wish you will do well in whatever you pursue in the years ahead! It is a pity I don’t have friends that have such character like you around!

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