Research is a foreign concept to many startup folk. In startups we’re very focused on building something that will immediately sell and make a profit. Researchers aren’t necessarily looking to build finished products to be sold today (although occasionally that does happen). They’re exploring what’s possible within a domain in order to stretch our thinking about it.

Last week I had the chance to chat with Andy Lippman, Nicholas Negroponte and others at the MIT Media Lab and they and constantly repeating “What if you could do this?” or “What would happen if we had that?” Their projects aren’t constrained by the practical market realities that bind most startup folks.

Given that, you wouldn’t imagine these folks could teach a startup anything about selling. You would be dead wrong. These folks pitch sponsors constantly and they are good at it. In fact, I saw more great pitches in an afternoon than I’ve had startup folks give me in the past 6 months. Here’s what made them great:

  1. Your pitch should start with the vision – Startups often skip talking about the vision and rush to pitch you the thing you can buy right now. But vision is important for setting the frame of reference for what you are trying to accomplish. Before Rick Borovoy showed us his Junkyard Jumbotron and Electric Price Tags projects he explained that he was exploring how we could make interacting with our mobile devices more social in the real world, something we immediately saw the value of. John Moore’s explanation of his vision for more patient-directed healthcare helped us understand the importance of his I’m Listening project.  Starting with the big idea not only sets a frame of reference for an audience that may know little about the space you’re working in but also helps underline the importance of what you have created.
  2. It isn’t real until you can show me something – Not once on this tour (or any of my previous tours) did someone try to talk to me conceptually about a project without showing me something. That’s more than I can say of about half of the startups I’ve chatted with in the past 6 months (and I’ve been guilty of this in the past as well). Talking about it just isn’t the same as showing it.
  3. Every employee should be able to do the pitch – When we got to the Responsive Environments group, we were early and the person we were supposed to meet with was in another meeting. A grad student in the area immediately offered to show us a demo and it was great. Can everyone in your company demo your product to a potential investor?
  4. You should be ready to pitch at the drop of a hat in as little as 10 minutes – Running late, we had 10 minutes for someone to show us what the folks in the Affective Computing group have been working on. “That’s not a lot of time.” the grad student remarked before diving into his pitch which included a demo where we took part. Not a lot of time but more than enough for someone who’s prepared.
  5. Practical examples make your pitch better – The Responsive Environments folks have the Media lab building wired with sensors and can show you where the heating system is failing. The Affective Computing folks can show you where the happiest parts of the campus are. Practical examples of where your products are being used are powerful, even if it’s just showing how you use it in your own company.
  6. Pitching a lot makes you good at it – Throughout the whole day I didn’t see anyone who looked nervous when they pitched us. Sometimes the demos didn’t go exactly as planned and it didn’t bother them too much. They continued on like folks that had done these pitches a thousand times.  Practice will improve your pitch a lot.

If a group of research folks can do great pitches, there’s definitely hope for the rest of us.

Bonus Pitching Link – I loved this post by the founder of Swayable called What I Learned by Pitching 300+ Times in 4 Days where she relates what she learned about pitching from doing a ton of them at SXSW.