The Art And Science Of Selling Yourself

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How a contestant stole the panel’s heart for an unexpected victory in a competition for business ideas.

Jimmy Toussaint had done everything wrong that evening. No PowerPoint presentation, no visual aids, and no proof of concept; he didn’t carry any of that. It was his non-conformance that made him distinctly stand out from the crowd that evening. Yet, in the end, he was declared the winner.

The moment the name of the winning idea was announced, the auditorium resonated with gasps. Followed by a few seconds of lull. Followed by applause. Not the cheering kind. But that kind that is a courtesy. It became clear that the audience did not expect Jimmy Toussaint to win. As they packed up their belongings and left the auditorium, their faces carried a similar expression: confusion. Their collective conscious echoed loudly with one question: “Why him?”

The “Fast Pitch” competition is Columbia University’s version of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” a popular reality show where aspiring entrepreneurs pitched their ideas to a panel of potential investors in an effort to raise capital for their business ventures. In this annual competition, contestants got 60 seconds to pitch their ideas to a panel comprising successful alumni, venture capitalists and established entrepreneurs. They got another 60 seconds to answer questions from the panel. The contestants were assessed based on viability of their business (30 points), defensibility of their business (20 points), clarity of the venture’s value proposition (30 points) and stage presence and salesmanship (20 points).

Launched to promote entrepreneurship by seamlessly integrating it into the University-wide program, “Fast Pitch,” is now in its fourth year. The much anticipated event draws more students and recent alumni each year, amplifying the quality of the participants. This has made the competition more difficult to judge with winning teams scoring in extremely narrow ranges with each other.

The prize is a $500 gift card. But the recognition of being the “Fast Pitch” supremo trumps that. Previous winners have gone to launch their ideas into viable businesses. Winning this competition also makes it easy to secure seed funding from “Columbia Technology Ventures” – the office that manages inventions and intellectual properties that take shape at the University, works with commercial partners to execute licensing deals and helps launch startups. If you are serious, this competition would act as a gateway to gain visibility from bigwigs who influence funding decisions that can help launch startups.

Not-so-serious-appearing Toussaint was among the last few of the 26 teams to present their ideas that evening. Within seconds after getting up on stage it became apparent that most of the audience was not interested in listening to him. While some shifted in their seats restlessly wanting to call it a night, others began fidgeting with their mobile phones, unimpressed by Toussaint’s non-showy presence and pitch.

Toussaint stood out from the crowd that evening. In an auditorium filled with eager participants dressed to impress in power suits and gelled hair, Toussaint wore khaki pants, a Carolina blue Columbia University T-shirt and a black scarf with gold prints. His head was shaved clean. He looked like the rugby player he is. Of the 26 teams competed that evening only Toussaint came without a power point presentation or for that matter anything to show. There was something more: unlike so many others who could barely contain their nervousness, Toussaint spoke to the judges as if he were their friend.

His idea was simple but well thought out. “Imagine you are trying to call someone,” Toussaint began addressing the panel, “you would hear a ringtone until someone answers the call. Advertisers can use this time to play targeted advertisements to mobile phone users.” Not only could this idea benefit advertisers with a captive audience, it could also excite the users by offering incentives, such as free talk time, in exchange for subscribing to this service. Toussaint explained that this idea, that he called “Adcomm Mobile,” would be very successful especially in developing countries with a significant number prepaid mobile phone users as free talk time is as good as money.

Finally, it was time to announce the results of the competition. “There was great energy and showmanship here this evening,” said Rene Baston, the industry interactions and entrepreneurship director at Columbia, as he got up on stage to announce the winner. “And the winner is Adcomm Mobile!”
The excited and visibly surprised Toussaint sprung up from his seat in front of me and hurried to the stage to claim his prize. “I’m shocked,” he sighed when I congratulated him, as he got off stage.

Toussaint’s disposition defied text book conventions. He didn’t play by the rules. He didn’t seem to care about winning. But he remained genuinely optimistic about his idea as he dodged questions from the panel after his presentation.
Toussaint is a part-time student at Columbia College who carries himself with a deliberate air of mystery. He declined to give his age quipping, “I want to remain young forever!” He is in his junior year and recently changed in major from financial economics to computer science. Right now he lives in Brooklyn but his family is originally from Haiti. He still has strong ties to the island: his family is building a boutique hotel there and Toussaint is overseeing the project, traveling frequently for work.

Toussaint began building the “Adcomm Mobile” algorithm in the summer of 2013. He plans to launch “Adcomm Mobile” in developing countries, starting with Nigeria. His business partner’s father is a dignitary there and Toussaint hopes to leverage his resources. He is not too worried about funding. “I’m lucky I’m very close to people that have money,” he answered rather casually.

While he exudes spontaneity, Toussaint will appear extremely thought-out only after you have spoken to him for a while. That too, only if he chooses to open up to you. He agreed that his friends think that he is least likely to become a tech entrepreneur, pointing to him as the guy who’s “probably going to work for Goldman [Sachs].” So, how did Toussaint win that night? Could the recipe for his victory be reproduced another time, at another place, by another person?

“It was fascinating right? He didn’t have a deck!” said Kevin Zhang as he bewildered at the prospect of Toussaint’s victory in a competition for business ideas, even without something as simple and essential as a PowerPoint presentation. In the two years that he’s been judging the competition, Zhang has never seen anything like it.

Zhang is the president of the student-run organization for rising entrepreneurs at Columbia, called CORE. A strong advocate for building prototypes, he said, “If you have something only then can you pitch.”

In complete agreement with Zhang is Chris McGarry, the alumni entrepreneurship director at Columbia. “There is a difference between fiction and non-fiction. It’s a factor I call real world. You need empirical evidence that backs up your claim,” emphasized McGarry. Like Zhang, he advocated having a “factual proof point” or having something “tangible” to show. McGarry was quick to disclose that he had coached and advised a team that contested this year and was surprised that they didn’t win, especially after following all the rules of the book to a tee.

Uri Weg, however had a completely different perspective. Weg is a Columbia alum and seasoned entrepreneur. He graduated in 2006 from the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and is presently working on launching a new startup.

“This was an interesting idea,” Weg’s face lit up as he recalled Toussaint’s pitch. Weg liked that Toussaint’s presentation emphasized on strong practical ideas over “half backed” prototypes. “For this marketing strategy the potential is huge; it can become a billion dollar opportunity,” he said. His excitement for Toussaint’s idea was apparent from the number of superlatives he used to describe it. ”Think about it, if a company like P&G where to use [this strategy] to advertise in a developing country, this could become a massive, massive company.”

As to Toussaint not having a PowerPoint presentation, Weg said, “99% of the times when you explain an idea in a pitch, you don’t use slides.” He exposed that there is a huge gap between what is being taught in school and what really works in the market. “It’s one of those things that they teach you in business school that is wrong. [When you do use PowerPoint] you’d send a maximum of 10 slides to investors and they don’t even look at it.” An effective pitch is one that people can understand even without PowerPoint slides. Toussaint was able to accomplish this.

Weg and Zhang described how the panel selected the winner of the “Fast Pitch” competition this year.

As the crowd in the auditorium dispatched for refreshments that were being served outside in the hall, the panel of five judges and the organizers huddled around a single laptop near the base of the stage. Some hunched down from the edge of the stage to catch a glimpse of how the scores tallied. Perched on the edge, one judge controlled the laptop. While others huddled around in a semicircle, they discussed the different participants and their ideas. Their murmurs were muffled by the cacophony of the chatty participants in the hall outside the auditorium.

Weg and Zhang confirmed that there was consensus among all the judges for the top three pitches. The competition was between Alexander Isinhue’s patent-pending “Retractable High Heel” shoes, Emily Washkowitz’s online platform for gifting, “Sharewell”, and Jimmy Toussaint’s “Adcomm Mobile”.

The three ideas had their own strengths and were worthy of each other’s company as the top three. According to Weg, Isinhue displayed a lot of showmanship by presenting “Retractable High Heel” shoes: the shoes were worn and its retractable feature demonstrated by an attractive model. His presentation was clearly the crowd’s favorite, attracting a lot of applause, although it was difficult to judge whether the cheers were aimed at the idea or the model. “Sharewell” was presented extremely well by a debonair and confident Washkowitz. And, Toussaint “winged it” with “Adcomm Mobile”.

With instructions given to the judges that the person with the highest score need not necessarily win, the voting pursued a subjective path that evening.

New York venture capitalist and former CEO of Huffington Post, Eric Hippeau said that he typically asks three questions before funding a venture: Is this a big idea? Is this the idea of the moment? Who is the entrepreneur? The first and second questions can be quantified. The third however is open to subjectivity. While qualifications such as business and academic pedigree is important, the decision to fund rests on the entrepreneur’s “X” factor. The je ne sais quoi quality of a successful entrepreneur is not something that books or business schools teach you to cultivate. It is an art as much as it is a science. It is the stuff that icons like Steve Jobs and Larry Page are made of. It is not so much about selling but drawing others to your idea.

Toussaint had this figured out. His calm and friendly disposition during the “Fast Pitch” competition was because he was well prepared. He spoke like a man who believed in his idea and wanted the panel to believe in it too. Zhang has seen Toussaint participate in similar events at CORE. “He seems very passionate about entrepreneurship,” said Zhang who has spoken with Toussaint at several occasions over the past couple of years. Isn’t entrepreneurship all about “doing” and “pivoting” performance until it reached perfection?

But there was something more: his attitude — confident but not arrogant, friendly but not fawning, prepared but not over-doing it. He was not just selling his idea, he was selling himself. It was not just Toussaint’s idea that he sold that evening. He sold himself.

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