Entrepreneurs thrive when they offer valuable solutions. Their boundless persistence to refine their products and deeply understand their intended market is a well-known attribute of the most successful exemplars. That dedication can carry them far, but how do they take their concepts to the next level? And how do they go about convincing investors of the viability of their idea at an event like the Galant Challenge?
Hosted by the McIntire School of Commerce’s Galant Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Galant Challenge, an annual “Shark Tank”-type pitch competition, invites seed- and early-stage ventures from the UVA community and beyond to present their ideas and connect with funding. The 2022 edition featured teams including University alumni, faculty, and in one case, an undergraduate. On the afternoon of April 1, they pitched their ideas to a panel of expert investors and an audience of McIntire board members and Commerce School guests.
Dating back to 2012, the Challenge had already connected startups with nearly $5 million in capital over a span of 10 years. But in this, the 11th edition of the event, entrepreneurs were particularly successful in securing funding to help them take their ventures to the next level. The actual amount of funding received may, in total, be less than $5 million, as these investments are subject to customary due diligence and negotiation. Mark Galant is confident that, in any event, total investment will be in the millions of dollars, making the Galant Challenge among the largest such collegiate funding vehicles in the country.
Yet despite how compelling teams’ pitches may be, the excitement and time constraints of the event can make it challenging for presenters to properly distill their various messages for quick consumption by potential investors and to productively engage with them.
We spoke with representatives from each of this year’s teams to discover how they went about getting ready to introduce their innovative solutions and products at the Galant Challenge—and to learn how others might follow in their footsteps when trying to persuade investors about their own ventures.
In preparing their pitches, some teams already had a head start, as they had recently delivered a chunk of the essential data and messaging to other would-be backers.
Greg Werkheiser (Law ’00) of ARtGlass, a company developing augmented-realty software for cultural and historic attractions, looked backwards to prep for the future. “Our team began by considering our previous successful pitches to investors and partners and identifying the elements we thought would be most relevant to present at the Galant Challenge,” he says, noting that they also described their newest product, TourBuilder, to ensure that the pitch felt fresh.
For Eric Mayton (A&S ’07) of Cerillo, a product- and software-based creator of tools for scientific research, his pitch was already completed, since the Challenge took place when he was in the middle of a fundraising round. After putting his deck together, he says that it was only a matter of sharpening his presentation through repetition: “I practice with a trusted adviser and iterate, iterate, iterate until it’s ‘perfect.’”
Jenny Lucas (McIntire ’99, M.Ed. ’04) and Katie Williams (A&S ’00) of beverage startup Navy Hill also found that the timing of the event lined up with a fundraising round they were building their deck for, providing a head start on producing their pitch. “We were already pulling updated stats on our industry and gathering sales data and velocities on our current retailers,” Lucas says. “We then were able to tailor the pitch to the Galant Challenge requirements. The trickiest part was narrowing our pitch down to 10-20 slides!”
Darrell Jervey (A&S ’86) of Warehowz, an on-demand warehousing marketplace solution, decided to begin prepping with research, learning about his potential “customers”—investors—and aspects that would appeal to them. “We looked into the history of the Challenge, the judges and their backgrounds, the past awards, and the criteria upon which they based their decisions. Once we determined it was a good mutual fit, we investigated the current status of previous participants. Next, we modified our existing pitch deck to include each of the criteria that were presented to us as important to the judges.”
For Devan Coombes (A&S ’22), an American Government and Politics major enrolled in the Entrepreneurship Minor at McIntire, her family-owned Neverland Books was up and running, but wasn’t in the habit of pitching to investors. Her sustainably focused Virginia-based venture rescues books to resell in batches, but she admits that her inclusion in the Challenge was last minute; Entrepreneurship Professor Chip Ransler suggested she apply a week before the event, when Professor Eric Martin, Galant Center Director, was speaking in class. She was connected with Mark Galant (McIntire ’80) himself for help with what would be a frenzied preparation process.
“It was a crazy week of back-and-forth with Mr. Galant, working on a deck! I had never worked on one, and this was completely happenstance. Mr. Galant, Professor Martin, and, of course, Google were great resources,” she says.
McIntire Professor Brendan Richardson of satellite imagery and geospatial data platform Astraea has been teaching UVA’s Venture Capital, Entrepreneurship, and the Entrepreneurship Capstone courses at the Commerce School for years. He says that he and his teammates knew what to do, as they have been listening to pitches or pitching investors for most of their careers. As such, he begins planning by determining the time allotted to present and field questions, and gauging the profile of the audience members to discern their level of tech and business sophistication. From that point, his team creates slides to explain their industry, the problem they aim to solve, why it matters, their history of customer traction, their unique selling proposition versus their competition, revenue projections, the amount of capital being raised—and how that funding will accelerate the company to reach a higher level.
“While this is a pretty general outline, it, hopefully, achieves the critical goal, which is to convey to investors in the audience why this is a no-brainer investment: 1) It’s a big opportunity; 2) our company has a key and best-in-class solution that solves real pain points for customers; 3) customers agree and are buying; 4) growth is happening, but it’s not too late to get in; and 5) the future is enormous and, by extension, could be incredibly profitable for an investor who comes in now,” Richardson says. “That’s the underlying message you want to convey. Doing that in five minutes in front of an audience that doesn’t know much about what you do, your industry, and the potential means the pitch has to be very, very well honed.”
Everyone we spoke with insists that practicing the pitch is crucial in order for it to resonate with the audience. But how do they know when they’ve reached the point that it’s as perfect as Mayton strives to achieve during the iteration process?
“Practice with trusted advisers who have experience reviewing pitches,” he says. “It’s in good shape when you feel comfortable presenting and are receiving continuous positive feedback during practice sessions.”
Richardson believes that pitching is like storytelling about the present and future of your startup. And as storytelling and pitching are each an art in their own right, getting the slides they show and speech they say to synch up perfectly requires a good deal of practice.
“It’s a performance. Like a TED Talk or a very short, high-stakes play. The slides provide a backdrop, but you have to know the lines you want to speak and the message or pieces of info that are important to convey along with the slides,” he explains, pointing out that he and his team typically run through their pitch at least 12 times—but often many more times than that—before they consider themselves good to go.
He also says that entrepreneurs should be prepared to ad lib during the Q&A section, as slides tend to inspire inquiries from a wide range of audience members. “They often have questions you haven’t thought of, so you have to be good at improv as well!” he says.
Jervey, Werkheiser, and Williams agree that practice, repetition, and feedback are tried-and-true methods for achieving their intended results. Williams says that the Challenge’s five-minute limit on presentations was a demanding aspect for her and Lucas, as they were trying to cover years of exemplary accomplishments, planned new launches, and expected areas where funds would be dedicated.
Given the timing of her inclusion in the event, Coombes was understandably harried, but she continued going over her pitch as best she could. “I spent every night leading up to the Challenge working on it because my entry was so last minute. If I had more time, I would have tried to get it in front of as many eyes as I could.”
Pitch Pro Tips
Having now gone through the process of prepping and pitching for the first time, Coombes’ advice for future entrepreneurial teams is to remain truthful about themselves and their product. “Be authentic. If your passion shines through, your audience can tell. I think this is especially important for pitching to investors; they’re investing in you as much as your startup,” she says.
Jervey agrees: “Show your passion, and keep it as simple as possible. No one will invest if you don’t believe in what you do and can explain it in terms people can understand.”
Simplicity has also proven central to Mayton. He notes that his product is designed for a specific customer base that may be unfamiliar to investors. “Keep your audience in mind, and speak to them in a language they understand. ‘Keep it duckies and horsies for me.’ Detailed conversations will come after the pitch. The presentation is to get them excited.”
For Werkheiser, tailoring the message for the audience is key: “Have a clear understanding of what a specific potential investor is interested in, and then adapt your pitch to align with their interests while staying true to your company. A successful pitch answers a question for the potential investor. In short, it is about identifying where there is synergy between your company or product and the investor’s interests,” he says.
Lucas passes along some “fantastic advice” that came directly from Mark Galant: Have extra slides ready toward the end of the pitch that could support possible questions. But ultimately, she says that being an expert about your own company and having a clear-cut idea for its next stages are crucial: “No one knows your company better than you do! While preparation is important, we know our business and where we want to take it.”
Richardson passes along what he considers the most useful advice for pitching, which comes from a YouTube video by venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki.
“He calls it ‘30-20-10’: 30-point font, 20 minutes, and 10 slides. In other words, use nothing smaller than 30-point font in your slides. They should be more about graphics that support your talking points. Do not make the investor read a bunch of text on the slides. If they’re reading, they’re not listening to you. Twenty minutes—be able to tell a compelling story in 20 minutes or less. If it takes more than that, you’ve probably lost the attention of the investor. Ten slides—not 50! If you can’t tell a compelling story about your startup and why it deserves funding in 10 slides, you’re not ready to pitch,” he says, recalling a second piece of advice regarding successful pitching.
“Pitching investors is a numbers game. You’ll probably pitch 10 investors to get one really good one who’s interested in what you do. Keep pursuing investors and taking meetings. You will find the right people who get it. They’re the ones you want, because they see your vision for the future. And you’re going to be stuck with them for a while, probably 5-10 years if you’re early-stage. So, make sure you like them as people, that they’re ethical, smart, and willing to help, and add value,” he insists.
“You’re going to make them a lot of money if you’re successful. They should want to help you achieve that however they can.”