Slide after slide, I racked my brain, attempting to summon captivating content for my PowerPoint and Prezi slides. The students I taught were merciless and lightning fast in their judgement of my lessons on character education. I spent countless hours on nights and weekends preparing presentations that often burst into flames immediately upon breaching the atmosphere of my classroom. My students were quick to call me out at the slightest sign of fluff, asking hard-hitting questions with every point I tried to make. A failure to meticulously and masterfully respond to their real-time reactions to the lesson—the fidgets, the loss of eye contact, the furtive chatting to neighbors—consistently led to presentation implosion. I didn’t realize it then, but my students were helping me master the art of the pitch, a tool that I’ve employed hundreds of times over the last two years as an education entrepreneur.
My students, always direct and unrelenting in their criticism, were not unlike the investors that I will be pitching in January at the “Demo Day” conclusion of the Education Design Studio experience. Throughout my journey in the startup space, I have poured countless hours into presentations that are immediately derailed by a blunt question. Three hours of prep and three slides into a presentation, a potential investor peppered me with questions about the target market saying, “Thats great, but what do you know about your market? How big is it? How much money do they spend at the district level on this? The school level? Per teacher? In urban schools alone?” At the time, a year ago, I simply did not have the answers. Fast forward three months and plenty of market research later, I found myself pitching to the same investor, killing my market slide with all the answers to his previously questions, citations and all. Market slide executed with grace, the investor jabbed me with, “Great, now has anyone actually used your product?” I parried and countered with, “Yes, we’ve served five teachers in three states.” Then, he throws the unexpected haymaker asking, “But has anyone actually bought it?” Knockout.
Passion or Bust
As I found while in the classroom, one truly has to be passionate about the work to keep coming back, round after round of seemingly large defeats and small wins. This determination has luckily carried over into my startup journey and pushed me to keep moving forward after every pitch, every revelation that my progress is commendable, but not quite far enough. Even my latest stride—achieving sales—was sobered by yet another hard-hitting question and barrier to my venture’s success: Is it profitable? Jeffrey Babin, a Wharton serial entrepreneur who advises student-led startups in the Wharton Venture Initiation Program, teaches his students that, “If it doesn’t make money—if no one will actually buy your product—then your startup is simply a hobby, not a business.” Furthermore, he explained to me during an advising session that, “most startups never make it to the milestone of sales. Most startups never get out of the concept and product-development stage.” That principle is a widely held tenet within the startup space. For that reason, my partner and I were justifiably excited when we achieved our first few sales over the last couple months.
“Will It Scale?”
Moving into “Demo Day,” a culminating event that marks an opportunity to pitch to a sizable group of potential education investors who could help my venture reach new heights, I am once again confronted with pitch preparation. This time, my partner and I will pitch after a thorough vetting process from numerous advisors who have ed-tech and investment backgrounds. During the first round of that process, after presenting our sales traction, the advisors unanimously hit us with fresh doubts and questions about scalability saying, “But how will it grow into a big organization? It seems labor intensive…What kind of structure will support scale?” Like my students in Chicago, these advisors and investors are exceedingly shrewd and mercenary about uncovering deficiencies, and for good reason. My students’ education was a substantial investment in time and energy—150 hours of it submitted in my classroom alone over the course of a year. Likewise, a commitment of time and capital is undoubtedly expensive for investors and our pitch has to be superb.
Approaching the pitch of pitches this January—the five minutes of time that could garner the resources necessary to take a regional startup and transform it into a national business—I think of the lessons taught by my students and advisors. Unabating confidence, attention to detail, and a focus on the concerns of my audience are what we will bring to the table on Demo Day. My partner and I will paint the picture of our vision of national impact, leveraging the exciting results we’ve seen so far to illuminate how we can grow sustainably and profitably. We can be game-changing. We are positioned to be disruptive. We are pilots, speeding down a runway directly into the oncoming wind, map in hand, goggles tightly affixed, boldness in heart and hard-earned lessons in mind. Demo day, here we come.
- The Myth and Reality of ‘Disruptive Students’