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Tales from SXSW Pitch

September 16, 2019 Startup Ecosystem

Three past participants share insights about why it’s worth it to apply for one of the world’s most visible pitch competitions.

Six Key Takeaways from SXSW Pitch

Apply: You’ll miss 100% of the shots you do not take. 

Work with Your Coach:Leverage their experience and their networks while not letting them dictate your story. 

Do Your Research: Watch past SXSW Pitch presentations and research the judges.

Strict Two-Minutes: There’s no leeway when it comes to timing. Your mic will be cut at the two-minute mark.

Practice Everything: Be in sync with the person advancing the presentation. Be prepared to answer judges’ questions succinctly and smoothly jump to specific slides.

Do It All: Get the most out of being a finalist by participating in all the SXSW Pitch recommended events.

In 2019, three Ann Arbor SPARK clients were selected from more than 800 applications to participate in SXSW Pitch — with two winning their categories. These three were the only Michigan-based competitors out of 50 total finalists, emphasizing Ann Arbor’s strength as a hub for innovation.

As the application deadline approaches for SXSW Pitch 2020, Ann Arbor SPARK and representatives from the three 2019 finalists — Erin Rose, founder and CEO of Every Two Minutes, Michael Moore, co-founder and CEO of Pathware, and Anthony DeFilippo, director of business development for Derq — are encouraging more Michigan-based startups to compete on this global stage.

What is SXSW Pitch?

SXSW Pitch takes place the first few days of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas in early March as part of the Interactive track. The objective of the event is to showcase innovative new technology to a panel of industry experts, high-profile media professionals, venture capital investors, and angel investors. There are 10 categories, each with five finalists competing for the top prize. Each finalist will have a strict two minutes for the pitch and four minutes to respond to judges’ questions.

According to Erin, “The application process is fairly straight forward and similar to other pitch competitions.” There are some optional components, including a video submission. “Consider a previously recorded pitch versus spending time and money to create something new,” suggested Margarita Hernandez, Ann Arbor SPARK director of entrepreneurial services. While the deadline is mid-November, applicants can shave off more than $100 from the application fee by taking advantage of early deadlines in September.

Review the eligibility requirements to see if your startup meets the criteria.

Congratulations, You’re a Finalist! Now What?

Derq receiving its 2019 SXSW Pitch award for the Artificial Intelligence category.

Once notified that you’re a Pitch finalist, make sure you steel yourself for the work ahead. The months leading up to the event will be intense as the competition has a number of milestones for you to meet. According to Anthony, “You’ll want to be fully bought into the SXSW experience because you may have to pass on other opportunities that come up during the same timeframe. This is not something you can wing and hope it all works out.”

Erin adds, “While prepping for pitch competitions is already a lot of work, this was a whole lot of ‘extra’ — you’ll spend the bulk of the time trying to get your pitch down to only two minutes.”

The Pitch Coach

Early on, you’ll be assigned an SXSW Pitch coach whom you will work with remotely. Take advantage of their experience and knowledge of the competition while also remembering you are the expert on your company and product. “While the pitch coach is valuable, take advice with a grain of salt,” said Michael Moore co-founder and CEO of Pathware. “Everyone has their own preferences, their own perspectives. The more data points you can collect, the more you can hone your pitch.”

When it comes to the slide deck, you’ll need to meet the specific formatting requirements of the competition as well. Erin emphasized that you’ll want to keep it concise. “My coach encouraged me to add a lot of slides, switching it up practically one slide per sentence to hold the attention of the audience. This was an area where I did not follow the coach’s recommendation and stuck to just six slides, which was a benefit when we needed to quickly jump to a specific slide during the Q&A session.”

Michael Moore of Pathware, with special guest Komal Doshi of Ann Arbor SPARK, receiving the 2019 award in the Health & Wearable category.

Michael stresses, “Your pitch and every slide should answer why you matter, why are you here, and why the judges should want to listen to you for two minutes.” Anthony added, “We focused on our story, explained the big problem we are solving, and why we are really good at it.”


Ahead of the competition, you’ll learn who the other finalists are in your category, as well as your judges. “A little research about your judges will tell you a lot about what they want to hear during your pitch,” said Erin. “Watch past SXSW pitch videos and observe the judges’ questions. There’s a bit of a formula and you’ll be able to practice what types of questions you’re likely to receive.”

Preparing for Austin

Once the finalists are announced, you may start receiving media inquiries about your company. Erin encourages finalists to, “have your headshots ready and a short company description prepared.”

Check out an article featuring Pathware published after SXSW made the finalists’ announcement.

Outside of the competition, you’ll need to prepare for your arrival and stay in Austin. Prices of almost everything will increase significantly while you’re there. Leverage your networks if you need to find budget-friendly places to stay. Also, consider arriving a day before the masses. “Everyone I spoke to who arrived on Friday complained about finding transportation or overall congestion,” said Erin. “I had an easier time coming in Thursday.”

The weather is hot, and the footprint of the event is expansive. Make sure you dress appropriately and pack a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Always plan on needing more time than anticipated to get to your destination.

It’s Go Time

The SXSW Pitch schedule is three days long. The first day you’ll get to practice your pitch twice in front of judges — but not the same individuals who will judge your final pitch. According to Erin, “Absolutely go to this practice, it gets a lot of the jitters out. You’ll also receive additional feedback from the practice judges at this time.” Michael says, that any pitch competition comes with feedback from judges that can sometimes be disheartening. “Try to rise above that. Go into each pitch focused on what you want to learn from the experience.”

When it comes time for the actual competition, Erin recommends that you have a friend record your pitch and another person that you’re in complete sync with advance your slides. “When a judge asks a question about a specific slide, they need to navigate to that content quickly.”

Practice delivering answers to the judges’ as well. Michael encourages succinct answers, “You want to give enough time for other panelists to ask questions.” When it comes to answering questions from a particularly argumentative judge, Erin recommends that you to develop the skill to pivot questions that feel confrontational and deliver answers that prioritize the information you want to convey.

The benefits continue the day after the formal competition. Finalists have the opportunity to participate in an exhibit-hall style event for a few hours where people interested in learning more about your product and company, including investors, will seek you out. According to Erin, “For me, that was almost more valuable than the actual competition.”

Value Beyond the Pitch

All three of the companies have experienced positive outcomes due to their participation in SXSW, beyond the competition. “The press coverage pushed by the SXSW alone generated a lot of visibility,” said Erin. Anthony agreed, “Once a VC hears we were an SXSW Pitch finalist, there’s almost immediate validation of our technology at a global level.”

For Pathware, the impact was even more direct. “One of the SXSW panelists who is also a VC followed up with us after the competition,” said Michael. “We are now in discussions which has led to other venture capitalists being interested. SXSW also led to the first closing of our seed round. The impact of our participation was very significant.”

Look for Ann Arbor SPARK at SXSW

Ann Arbor SPARK is once again collaborating with others from across the state for Michigan House 2020. Interested in learning more? Check out last year’s partners and programming.

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