16 cities, 6 months, 400 startup pitches: How to ‘hook someone in’

The first student to enter, and thus graduate, American University’s Media Entrepreneurship program, Dena Levitz, just returned from a whirlwind tour of, well, the planet as the reporting fellow for 1776, the hot startup hub and incubator in downtown, Washington, D.C.

Dena visited me the other day at the School of Communication’s rooftop terrace, and I was so blown away by her worldwide wrap-up I asked if we could follow with a Q&A. She also will speak soon to the students who are graduating in May.

For context, Dena’s itinerary included stops in Tel Aviv, Amman, Nairobi, Bangalore, Toronto, Dublin, Berlin and Mexico City. Domestically she went to 1776 Challenge Cup events in Boston, Chicago, SF, DC and Austin. Phew. I asked her a few questions; her responses, with some editing for clarity and space, are below.


Q: So you just heard 400 pitches around the world. What should a starter startup never do?

It’s easy for entrepreneurs who have been working on an idea nonstop to get way too “inside baseball” about their company, especially when they try to explain it to others. Too many of the startup founders I saw did a pitch and they got fixated on one aspect of their business.

If it was an app they’d rattle off … every technical feature they’d built and fallen in love with. But the audience would have had no idea what was the basic premise of the app, what it actually did or who it was for. To this, I’d say practice the pitch in front of a layman, someone’s who not in that field or is not even in a startup. Anyone’s grandmother with no context or subject matter knowledge should be able to listen to a pitch and come away … able to, on a basic level, get what your business is.

When a Minute Feels Long

It may sound obvious but I saw a lot of startups get tripped up in the actual delivery of the pitch. For Challenge Cup they were doing one-minute pitches. It sounds like absolutely no time to explain anything of substance, but, really, if you plan out that minute well, you can say quite a lot.

Instead, what many founders would do was speed through, pack in what they’d say for two minutes into one minute so they were talking with the speed of an auctioneer. A pitch should actually be a story, when all is said and done. There should be a compelling beginning to hook someone in. You can’t say everything about a startup in a minute or a few minutes. But hit the highlights — there’s a $4 billion market, this is technology that is patented and no one else has, you have traction within the first few months — and then leave the investor or the crowd intrigued and excited enough that they want to know more.


“Please, please, please do not create another application that you claim will solve a city’s parking woes.”


Q: Any apps to avoid?

Please, please, please do not create another application that you claim will solve a city’s parking woes. We saw so many startups that are in the area of parking — specifically helping drivers figure out where there are open spots and, in some cases, allowing them to pay for the spaces via their phone. They were very similar solutions that are blended together, and, in the end, only one parking startup was a winner in all of the cities we visited.

Parking: Small. Replacing cars? Big

No one denies that parking can be a big gripe, and there are too many cars on the roads and, sometimes, nowhere for them to go. But ultimately just helping drivers find a place to temporarily park their vehicles isn’t solving the bigger transportation issues we have as a society. I’m much more excited by apps and solutions that are getting cars off of the roadways or allowing more people to utilize hybrid vehicles which are more transformative concepts. Rideshare apps, electric bikes. We saw a company that’s creating kits to turn any car into a hybrid. That kind of thing is much more exciting than just another parking app.

Q: What characterizes a good startup idea? A bad one?

I think first and foremost, a startup should be solving a clearly articulated problem. Everything builds off of that. A good startup also has a specific customer in mind and tests, asks and checks in with that customer to improve its product constantly. Often the solution starts simple and gets better and better because the startup’s founding team is open-minded enough to listen and adapt.

A bad startup doesn’t differentiate itself. It’s not nimble and it doesn’t adapt as it goes. A bad founding team, similarly, is a group of people who all have the same strengths, weaknesses and abilities. Diversity of ideas and skills is so key.

Q: Your biggest takeaway from interviewing startups around the world?

I think what struck me is how much of a difference the entrepreneur or entrepreneurs behind the business make. There really is no such thing as a purely original idea, so the experience, the background and the passion of the startup’s founding team matters quite a bit in differentiating what they’re doing. There inevitably will be stumbles and missteps along the way, so having co-founders who can persevere and pivot when needed is critical.

I was constantly really inspired by the entrepreneurs I met. In some cases they were taking really personal problems that had affected them and turning them into viable businesses that could both solve these problems and make money in order to be sustainable. For instance a startup called SheFighter was launched by a woman in Jordan who had witnessed her friend’s physical abuse at the hands of the friend’s father and brother. (She) had a martial arts background and decided she wanted to start a company that helped Middle Eastern women fight back. It’s a feel-good idea but she also has a franchise business model which is allowing the startup to scale. So far she’s trained thousands in Jordan alone and is spreading to Africa, the U.S. and on and on. That’s what entrepreneurship should be about.
(note from Amy Eisman: an earlier version said the trip was done in eight months; I should have said six.)