For Aspiring Entrepreneurs, Pitching Competitions A Win-Win

By Sierra Hubbard The Keene Sentinel, N.H.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) "The PitchFork Challenge" is geared toward rural entrepreneurs. The pitch contest is open to counties with a population of 30,000 or less in southwestern New Hampshire and just across the borders of Massachusetts and Vermont.

The Keene Sentinel, N.H.

For those business-minded individuals looking to strike out on their own, local and statewide competitions encourage a successful pitch and offer a prize, if you can catch the judges' attention.

Kate J. Hickey, program director at the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship in Keene, said pitch competitions are vital for bringing ideas to fruition.

"Ultimately, it is because there is a need for money for startups," she said. "... So if you have a great winning business idea, you do need to pitch for money because traditional access is not always there."

"Especially in rural areas," Mary Ann Kristiansen, the center's executive director, added.

Kristiansen said the difference in growth post-recession between urban and rural areas was financing "that favors companies that are replicable, scalable and saleable, ... (and) that's not what rural people are doing, for the most part."

In 2016, Hannah Grimes launched its PitchFork program as a quarterly coaching event for budding entrepreneurs. A team worked with two or three participants for each session and taught them how to pitch their business ideas to investors, with no guarantees of funding.

Last year, however, Hannah Grimes tweaked its programming and created the PitchFork Challenge, a competition for a $10,000 cash prize.

Geared toward rural entrepreneurs, the contest was open to counties with a population of 30,000 or less in southwestern New Hampshire and just across the borders of Massachusetts and Vermont.

The challenge culminated with final presentations at the inaugural Radically Rural summit last September, an event hosted jointly by Hannah Grimes and The Sentinel.

"Having an ecosystem of pitch events is important," Kristiansen said. "The sad thing is, in urban areas and for tech, there is an ecosystem. You can go from one to another and kind of keep winning."

With that in mind, along with the crowds attending last year's Radically Rural from across the country, Hannah Grimes created a how-to guide for pitch competitions based on their experience with the PitchFork Challenge. Hickey said the guide includes samples of everything from rubrics to agendas and emails to send potential judges and applicants.

"It's very like nuts and bolts to project managing, running a pitch competition," Hickey said.

The guide is published on Hannah Grimes' website at hannahgrimes.com/pitchforkchallenge, and one of last year's judges ran with the idea.

Statewide pitch Laurel Adams is the president of the Regional Economic Development Center in Raymond, which launched its own statewide pitch contest this year: the Granite State Growth Competition.

"I had a tremendous experience with Mary Ann and Kate at Hannah Grimes. They did a lovely job with their pitch competition," Adams said.

After judging the PitchFork Challenge, Adams thought launching a similar contest might be a great way to celebrate REDC's 25th anniversary this year. The center is "in the business of helping companies grow," she said, with services that include financial planning, logo and website design, and social media training.

Adams said the REDC competition gives a jump-start for early-stage companies that may not yet be ready for the center's programs.

The statewide competition offers $25,000 to the winner and isn't limited to any field or industry. Because the center serves a range of rural and more populous areas, Adams said it didn't want to focus on just one subset of entrepreneurs, though there are still eligibility requirements.

In a twist from Keene's competition, the five finalists will pitch live at REDC's anniversary celebration at Birchwood Vineyards in Derry in May, and the winner will be announced live on-site. The center is also offering a pitch clinic that will be open to the public.

"New Hampshire has kind of a unique entrepreneurial environment," Adams said. "We don't tend to have a ton of venture capital angel investment here ... and I think these pitch contests are another creative way to help startups in the economy."

Kristiansen said the team at Hannah Grimes was elated to see another competition sprout up after the PitchFork Challenge, underscoring the need for an ecosystem of startups and a network of entrepreneurs across the region and state.

More contests like these also increase awareness of fledgling businesses, she added.

"People need to understand that they are starting, that they need our support," Kristiansen said.

Moments of clarity Roy Wallen is a business coach at Hannah Grimes with a plethora of experience in the pitching realm.

Wallen is the CEO of TendoNova, a developer of minimally invasive orthopedic technology with offices in Atlanta and Nashua, which recently won TechOut, a New Hampshire startup competition. TendoNova has also taken home several cash prizes and investment awards from similar competitions in the past year.

Wallen also leads Brookline-based Directional Healthcare Advisors, which helps health care technology startups become commercialized.

He described three forms of pitch contests: The first gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to practice pitching in front of investors -- akin to the original PitchFork program at Hannah Grimes.

The second is driven by the sponsor's interest, like the rural-focused PitchFork Challenge. Wallen said those contests offer constructive feedback to participants and, typically, a cash prize for the winner.

And the third is a competition that results in an investment award rather than cash, such as TechOut.

The obvious benefits of these contests are the prizes, Wallen said, whether those come in the form of money, investments or business trips. But he said there are countless intangible benefits, arguably the most important of which is the feedback from panelists and judges.

"You start to hear what is important to investors, and it also gives the opportunity to refine the story of what you're trying to do and how you present yourself to investors or the public at large," Wallen said.

The application process itself is valuable, he said, even if it appears daunting. Many paper or online applications restrict word counts, forcing concise answers, Wallen said.

"It helps the company leader to focus on what's important and what key messages need to be delivered," he added. One hurdle can be finding pitch competitions in an area. Wallen suggested signing up for newsletters with statewide business groups and publications, including N.H. Tech Alliance, Live Free and Start, BioNorth, and NH Business Review. Cast a wide net, he said, and follow what's happening in your industry.

Last year's PitchFork Challenge winner agreed that the application and pitching process "puts your feet to the fire," Wallen said.

"It's very clarifying, because you learn a lot about what you're doing," said Dan Profitt, owner of Butcher Pete's Mobile Meat. "When you're starting to do it at first, you haven't really put out into the air what it is to you or the world."

Along with learning how to properly pitch his company, Profitt said the competition gave him untold visibility and advertisement, adding that he generated nearly as much in revenue following the contest as the cash prize.

He used the money to buy equipment he needed, including a grinder and vacuum sealers. Profitt is also building a 6- by 8-foot refrigerated trailer that will serve as a "rolling butcher shop" behind his truck.

Regardless of whether a pitch competition seems intimidating, Profitt said he encourages any business owner to do it and not to be afraid of failure.

"Worst-case scenario, you get a group of professionals telling you what you could do better next time, you know," he said. "The best-case scenario is you win something."

Applications for this year's PitchFork Challenge are available at hannahgrimes.com/pitchforkchallenge.

Applications for the REDC Granite State Growth Competition are available at redc.com/granitestategrowthcompetition.

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