Elevator pitch contests get ideas off the ground

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Getting a successful business off the ground takes an array of skills, but who knew that talking fast was one of them.

For the competitors in last fall’s elevator pitch competitions sponsored by the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC), the skill could get them a chunk of money to start a new business or expand an existing start-up. Standing before a panel of business growth experts, each entrepreneur had two minutes to introduce themselves, explain their business, describe their model, outline their growth plans, and describe what they would do with whatever money the panel decided to give them.

The elevator pitch is so called because it’s how long an entrepreneur might have to pitch a business idea to a potential investor that they randomly and hypothetically encounter on an elevator.* They have only a short time until they reach someone’s floor, so they have to talk quickly and focus tightly on their business and their goals while providing an overview of their business idea or commercial opportunity.

* This presumes the elevator is in a reasonably large city with a downtown full of tall office buildings and long elevator rides. In low-slung Iowa City, no elevator pitch would last long enough for an entrepreneur to do much more than blurt out the name of the business.

“Venture capitalists often judge the quality of an idea and management team on the basis of the quality of its elevator pitch and will ask entrepreneurs for the elevator pitches to quickly weed out bad ideas and weak teams,” says Lee Groeschl, associate director of JPEC and one of the elevator pitch competition judges.

In the competition,* some speeches were polished models of efficiency that made even admittedly crazy business ideas look like they’d be able to issue their IPOs any day now. Other entrepreneurs struggled, their voices cracking under the pressure of describing pretty much everything about their dream business before their faux elevator ride came to an end.

* Held in a seminar room in the Pappajohn Business Building, not in an actual elevator, though that would have been interesting, if a bit cramped.

“Some are more practiced than others,” says Groeschl.

It’s one of several competitions that JPEC and the Iowa Centers for Enterprise (ICE) offer each year to help UI faculty, students, and staff learn how to find financing for their start-ups, while providing more than $100,000 in seed money. They host the ICE Elevator Pitch Competition each fall, and also the Rose Francis Elevator Pitch competition for undergraduate students. In the spring, JPEC hosts the New Venture Challenge and the Volding Business Plan Competition.

In addition to the campuswide competitions, JPEC sponsors the Pappajohn New Venture Business Plan Competition and the Iowa Pappajohn Business Plan Competition, which are both statewide competitions.

JPEC also cosponsors with the College of Engineering the Hubert E. Storer Engineering Student Entrepreneurial Start-up Award, and presents awards to the most successful businesses operating in the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Lab (BELL), an incubator for UI student-owned businesses.

Last fall’s elevator pitch participants brought a wide array of business ideas, ranging from green lawn mowing services and salsa makers to cancer fighting drugs, medical equipment, and apps, apps, apps.* Apps that help people read a foreign language, apps that let people donate money to college students, apps that refer products to YouTube viewers who might be interested in them.

* People sure are app happy.

And then some businesses are just for fun. Starjacker.com is an online gossip column that lets people post stories of seeing or meeting with celebrities in public places. It’s co-owned by Adam Pyatt, an application developer in ITS, and Matt Mason, an application developer in Human Resources.

“We’ve had the site going for about a year and we were looking for some additional resources to help us market it,” Pyatt says. “We weren’t sure if the judges would give us anything since most of the other competitors have technology or engineering or biotech businesses. We’re just a fun little business, nothing like those.”

Despite that lack of gravitas, their presentation paid off and they were awarded $1,000.

“We were doing this more to get feedback than anything else, and we got more than that,” Pyatt says.

The top winners in the ICE elevator pitch competition were Michael Abramoff and Jim Folk for their business, Idx, and Ryan Flynn and Yusung Kim for their business, Exobray. Each received $10,000 in seed money.

Top honors in the Rose Francis Elevator Pitch competition for undergraduate students went to Jill Williams-Tyler and Kristine Kaufman for their business, Sassi Bands; Casey Everts, Robert Hu, and Andrew Wright for their business, Dibzees; and Alex Sturwold for his business, Alexander Developments. They each received $2,500 in seed money.