We at Sprosty Network recently co-hosted our third scaleup event with the Microsoft Accelerator. If you’re not familiar, this accelerator is a Seattle-based, 16-week program that works to provide tech startups – after a rigorous vetting process – with the industry connections and support needed to scale their business. It’s one of the few scaleup accelerators I’m aware of – programs for startups that are ready for the explosive growth that will give them “first to scale” advantage over competitors. (Another, of course, is our own RetailXelerator)
This most recent Microsoft Accelerator class brought together some of the world’s most innovative, early-stage machine learning startups. Selected from 26 finalists and evaluated by 50 panelists, the final 10 startups focus on a wide range of solutions, from reinventing retail labor scheduling (Percolata) to optimizing maintenance costs on the world’s oil and gas pipeline infrastructure. It was a high-quality class with an impressive, diverse range of solutions. All past early development, and in pilot or scale deployment stage.
We’re honored that the Sprosty Network is routinely tapped to provide guidance and guidelines to startups in the Microsoft Accelerator, as they prepare to meet with prospective clients. Given that the prospects for the machine learning round included Walgreens, BBDO, Walmart, United Health Group/Optum, Carlson, Intel Capital and others, getting this meeting right for these startups is critical, as any of these discussions could potentially “make a company.”
We gave the machine learning startups seven points to consider before taking that first meeting with a potential dream client. This advice, after watching hundreds of startup and scaleup pitches ourselves, reflects a strong bias in terms of how to best ensure a successful pitch:
- Know the people in the room. What roles are represented in the meeting – who are you meeting with? Most corporate clients have complex landscapes for decision making, especially when it comes to product investments. Do your best to understand that landscape, and who exactly will be in the room with you. If you can, find an internal champion who cares about your solution and can help vouch for it.
- Know the company. Don’t go in without doing your homework. Do your research. What are the macro trends for the company? CEO priorities? Quarterly earnings performance? Are there any gaps in financial performance that your solution can address? Have a sense of what can you do for the client that others in your competitive set cannot do.
- Be clear in terms of the problem your product will solve. Do your research. Have several hypotheses of how you can be valuable, and frame your solutions against the challenges your prospective client is talking about in public (or private, if you can get that intelligence).
- Leverage your network. Personal introductions are the strongest assets to have in your sales and marketing toolkit. Building your network, then leveraging it to get prospective clients’ attention, will earn you the introductions and insight that no amount of PR/marketing can.
- Be ready in the moment. If you prepare well, your product’s fit for the clients will look “obvious.” But be clear: “obvious” is the result of weeks of research and preparation. Make it absolutely clear to the client how your product helps their business succeed. Have a strong conviction in your pitch – show that you believe that your solution will be valuable to them. And listen to what your potential client surfaces as problems. Always listen and learn.
- Be clear about what you want. We’re always surprised how often a startup thinks that, after a stellar presentation, the client will “just know what to do next.” Don’t wait for it – ask for it. What are the three things do you want at the end of the meeting – specifically, that you want the client to do? And are these things that can be done with the least amount of effort? Be ready to state these asks at the end of the meeting.
- Don’t assume you’re meeting with the decision maker. Understand who ultimately makes the decision to invest in your product – and if that person isn’t in the room during your pitch, tailor your conversation to help make it easy for those at the table to endorse your product to the right person.
These guidelines might seem obvious, but they’re not – there is a significant amount of work that precedes any client pitch. Extraordinary meetings are the result of a ton of preparation, but that work always pays off.
In fact, we watched it work for one of the machine learning companies in the Microsoft Accelerator. Taking this advice to heart ahead of a pitch the next day, the startup quickly discovered that the potential client was spending over $1 billion to solve the problem their solution addressed. Armed with this knowledge, the startup’s client pitch, one day later, turned into a real relationship and the beginnings of a pilot contract.
You can do the same.