Three lessons learned from SXSW pitch competitions: What not to do

You couldn’t throw a free beer coozie at SXSW this year without hitting a pitch contest. The main SXSW accelerator had two days of pitches and six tracks, including one for wearables and one for healthcare. There was a pitch competition Sunday sponsored by Silicon Hills News, ATI, and Central Texas Angel Network and another […]

You couldn’t throw a free beer coozie at SXSW this year without hitting a pitch contest. The main SXSW accelerator had two days of pitches and six tracks, including one for wearables and one for healthcare. There was a pitch competition Sunday sponsored by Silicon Hills News, ATI, and Central Texas Angel Network and another one Monday held by Hatch.

Thrive On won in the health group for its mobile mental health support system. Skully Helmets won the wearable contest for its motorcycle helmet that features a heads up display. Sensible Baby won the Boot Strap award for the company that has done the most with the least. Its product is a sensor that clips to a onesie to monitor a baby’s movement. Synbiota won in the Innovative World Technology category. The Montreal company is working to make it easier to develop life science products by virtualizing the entire research and development pipeline.

Spot on Sciences won second place at the Sunday event.

Seratis Health won the Monday contest. Founded by a doctor, Seratis is a communication tool to help healthcare providers coordinate, track and analyze care across a team and to replace pagers.

Some of the entrepreneurs had promising ideas but poor presentations. Others took an individual experience and turned it into a a huge problem for thousands of people. Neither technique worked very well. I dropped in and out of the pitches and came away with these three lessons about what not to do if you’re selling a company to a panel of judges.

Don’t recreate the wheel
Two companies had good ideas to solve big problems in healthcare: diaper sensors to reduce urinary tract infections among dementia patients and a special shoe to prevent falls that is functional but not ugly. However, both of them also wanted to build the entire product themselves instead of licensing their products to companies that already have established businesses in both areas. Why not form a partnership with Dansko or Pampers? It may be less satisfying to build on someone else’s success than to start from scratch on your own. However, investors see that plan as short-sighted and frankly much more work than is already necessary for a startup.

Know the history of your sector
At an event over the weekend, Mark Cuban said that one of the biggest problems he sees among entrepreneurs is no understanding of history.
“A Google search is not enough to know who your competitors are,” he said. “It won’t tell you anything because the 200 companies doing what you want to do failed and took down their servers, so you won’t know they existed.”
People often say they have no competitors, “No one is doing what we’re doing,” which is the worst answer. But not knowing who has come before is almost as bad.
Find people who have been running hospitals or practicing medicine or working at a pharmacy for 15 to 20 years. They will know what has been tried and failed before and they might even know why.

Don’t generalize one experience to many to justify your business idea
One of the entrepreneurs built an app to convert handwritten notes on an iPad to print thank you notes. It’s an interesting idea and a way to preserve a personal touch in these digital times. But he explained that his inspiration for the company was the incredible trials he had to go through to buy a card and then mail it (uphill both ways in the snow). He talked about the agony of brides having to take a big heavy box of thank you cards on their honeymoon. Even if you chalk this up to dramatic license, it has no connection to reality and weakened his pitch. Healthcare entrepreneurs have more research and real numbers to illustrate the problems they are working to solve.

Maybe that’s why so many of them came out on top at SXSW pitch competitions.

[Photo from flickr user Matt Erasmus]

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