As a long-term entrepreneur and host of startup competition PITCH at Web Summit, Brendan Yell estimates he has heard ‘probably thousands’ of pitches from eager founders over the years.
The good, the bad, the ugly - he’s heard it all. As such, if there’s one man who knows what goes into a great pitch, it's Yell, the founder of ShopFree and the current Sydney director of Startup Grind since 2016.
Business News Australia spoke with Yell over coffee at the National Wine Centre in Adelaide this week ahead of his appearance at '_SOUTHSTART' about the perfect pitch, dealing with pressure as an entrepreneur, and building world-class businesses while based in Australia.
Once a year, thousands of hopeful founders descend on Lisbon, Portugal for Web Summit - a three day event described by The Guardian as ‘Glastonbury for geeks’ - to witness 105 startups go head-to-head in a ‘live pitching battle’ called PITCH.
The event, hosted by Brendan Yell, sees participants present in front of a panel of investors, members of the media and global partners for chance to be the winner of PITCH.
Those selected must demonstrate that they have received less than €5 million in funding and have not had a ‘discernible change in business model in the last three years’. They’ll be pitching to judges from organisations like Y Combinator. Winning could change the course of their business; the pressure is on.
Those who’ve pitched to investors know all too well the nerves that come with the process, but only about 10 per cent of pitches that Yell has seen are actually successful or lead to investments according to the entrepreneur, who is also the director of Twilio’s Startups business and a mentor at the Slingshot Accelerator program.
Speaking to Business News Australia, Yell said that if you can’t get the pitch right you’re going to struggle convincing potential customers too.
“What pitching does is it mirrors your ability to communicate what you do,” Yell said.
“That can be to an investor, but it just as well could be to a customer. If you can’t communicate what you do, then they’re not going to hang around and they’re not going to be interested.
“You’ve only got so much time to grab their attention, so I’m guessing that if you’re not very good at pitching, then you’re also not very good at explaining what you do to your customers.”
Yell explained that when it comes to pitching, brevity is key.
“I think the ability to distil what you do into a very short piece of information that people can understand is kind of an art,” he said.
“Probably the first thing that’s really important is to be short and sharp; let people understand what you do. The natural reaction of people, especially when they’re nervous is to over-communicate, but what you actually want to do is keep it concise.
“I also think pausing, and letting whoever’s listening actually digest what you’ve said, is important too. I think pauses when you’re pitching make it more powerful and more impactful.”
But what about red flags? According to Yell, overly confident personalities get in the way of a good pitch.
“Ego really tuns me off,” he said.
“I like confidence - we all need to be confident in what we do and staring startups is one of the hardest things you’ll do in your life. If you’re not confident about doing it, it’s going to be really hard.
“But there’s so much value in humility. Saying ‘you know what, we don’t actually know the answer to this piece just yet’ is actually okay. To fake an answer or say you know it when you don’t - that’s a big red flag.”
A swim in the ocean fixes everything
As a mentor, Yell is a fount of advice for entrepreneurs looking for a way forward in what is, for many, a taxing and isolating vocation.
The speaker, an entrepreneur in his own right, said that over the years he had noticed the one thing that held back founders was usually their own lack of confidence in the face of pressure.
“All of the investments I’ve done where they haven’t gone well, it wasn’t because they’d run out of money - they fail because the founder gives up,” he said.
“Resilience is the most important thing. If the founder gives up there’s no way forward from that.
“It is hard - there’s only so many punches in the face you can take before you get knocked out. There’s pressures from family, partners and friends asking why you’re doing this thing - it’s really hard!”
Yell said when he started his first venture he was single, renting an apartment and had the option of moving back in with his parents if things went south. Things were easier then.
“I’m married now, I’ve got three kids - my risk profile is different. That doesn’t mean you can’t do a startup when you do have those pressures; it’s just harder,” he said.
“When I did my second startup, my wife came up to me and said ‘How much longer is this going to go on for?’.
“So you have to make sure you’re committed because running a startup is like a rollercoaster - and it's not just day-to-day or week-to-week, it’s hour-to-hour.”
So how does Yell manage these pressures in his own life?
“A swim in the ocean fixes everything,” he said.
“A glass of wine is not too bad either, same with a nice meal with friends.
“I love my golf too - getting out on the golf course where all I have to do is focus on getting this little white ball into a hole is a great distraction from the day-to-day things.”
A trusted circle of those you respect is essential too, according to the founder.
“I think it’s important as a founder to have people that you can confide in and vent to, and just bring yourself up after a really hard day,” he said.
“That can be other founders, or it could be mentors or investors, but just to have that support network, I think, is important.
“Certainly what I’ve found is the only people who actually really understood what I was going through were people that had done it themselves.”
Building world-class businesses from Australia
Having founded his marketing and lead generation platform ShopFree in 1999, Yell was an early member of the bourgeoning San Francisco tech scene in the early 2000s and moved to the Bay in around 2004.
The founder was there for the Google float in August that same year - a time he described as ‘a heap of fun’.
“Just seeing all of that around was really exciting,” he said.
But in this new era of remote work and vastly improved online infrastructure, the founder believes that not everyone has to go to the US to make it big these days.
“The world’s a different place now, and you don’t have to run your startup in San Francisco,” Yell said.
He pointed to Canva as one example of a world-class business being run from its home base in Sydney’s Surry Hills.
“There’s been other companies that have gone over to the US because they feel that they’re just perceived a different way in the US market,” he said.
“For a lot of founders, the US market is the largest market - it’s the largest English speaking market and there’s just a wealth of opportunity over there.
“But you can run a world-class startup from Adelaide, you can run it from Australia, you can run it from New Zealand. I think that’s really what’s changed now.”
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