How to Win a Startup Pitch Competition

Article Provided by Trey Bowles, CEO and Co-Founder of The DEC.



Win or lose, startup pitch competitions represent a great opportunity for your business to generate buzz, connect with potential mentors and advisors, and even begin the process of securing investors. Pitch competitions can also help you to sharpen and hone your mission, strategy and other key components of your business model. Entrepreneurs would be well advised to approach pitch competitions with these “fringe benefits” in mind.

That said, winning a pitch competition could provide you and your team with a sense of instant validation. Competition is a defining feature of the startup landscape, and you’ll need to exploit whatever advantages you can in order for your business to thrive. Keep these tips in mind as you prepare to enter the fray.

Play the game the right way.

What is the format of the competition? How much time will you be allotted? Is your presentation reliant on a single spokesperson, or can it be more free flowing and allow for the articulation of multiple points-of-view? How will the Q&A be handled? On what criteria will the judges be scoring your presentation?

First, make sure you address the main points that are listed on the judges’ scorecard so you can check the boxes on that sheet and then cover the other important areas you want to communicate to the judges. For example, if the judges are grading you on information about your “team” and you don’t talk about your team at all during a pitch, how can they give you anything but a low score? Do you shoot yourself in the foot by not playing the game by their rules?

Make your preparations specific to the competition at hand. Don’t deviate from what’s expected of competitors. Certainly don’t attempt to wrest control of the process from the moderator or judges, or try to slip in content that hasn’t been requested. What’s true of successful test-taking applies: Follow directions, show your work where applicable and don’t try to bend (or break) the rules.

Think outside the PowerPoint box.

We all know brevity is essential to any pitch. PowerPoint is one of those tools that can truly enhance a presentation. Expert users know how to leverage PowerPoint to effectively convey information that doesn’t transmit (or stick) well orally. But how many times have you sat through a presentation in which the speaker simply repeats the information on their PowerPoint slides? Is this really an efficient, or particularly exciting, use of anyone’s time?

Less is more. If your audience is too busy reading the 17 lines of copy on each slide, you’ll distract them from actually listening to the key part of your presentation (that would be you!). If there must be a graphic component to your pitch, be creative with that aspect of the presentation. Remember that PowerPoint slides are visual and, as such, can make an emotional appeal. What if your PowerPoint dispensed with charts, figures and language altogether and instead used simple graphic elements to suggest, illustrate, persuade and inspire? Can you really make an effective argument about how innovative you are if you are trotting out the same kind of presentation these judges have seen time and again.

Consider “the TED talk” model here, and think about the ways in which all five senses, not just the visual, present opportunities to make an impression.

When it comes to defense, don’t be defensive.

In the course of your presentation, you may feel yourself being grilled by the judges. You may even receive some negative feedback. Don’t get rattled, don’t try and dodge the difficult questions and don’t push back (or push back only very gently, focusing on the facts and not your impressions of what you may have just heard). Yes, you want to show you believe in your idea and that you’re committed to it in the face of naysaying. But you also don’t want to portray yourself as inflexible, disingenuous, argumentative or petulant.

Use the Q&A time you have with the judges in a creative way. Yes, answer the questions they ask but make sure you also use that time to communicate information you didn’t get to fully cover in your presentation. Use the standard public relations mentality of ATM: Answer, Transition, Message. Answer the question they ask, transition back to something you want to talk about and then stick the message of your presentation. For example, if a judge asks you whether your technology is scalable, you answer “yes” or “we think so” followed by specifics: “but what we think is an important component of what we’ve seen is having already signed up 100,000 users, and with these three strategic partnerships will add another 500,000, allowing us to prove and showcase the scalability of our product.”

Side tip: Remember the last slide of your presentation is likely going to be up on the screen during the entire Q&A time. Put information on the final slide you believe to be most vital to communicating your company’s offering. If you have the CEOs of Netflix and Apple on your board, leave your team slide as the last slide. If you’re generating substantial revenue and cash flow, show your traction. Too often, we simply put “thank you” or our contact information on the last slide. Don’t squander that space! You need to control the pitch process and make sure you play by the rules, but also give yourself the ability to accomplish your goal of communicating your company to the judges

Accept any criticism offered, even if it isn’t constructive. Besides, it could be that the judges are simply testing your resolve and ability to remain focused. Go with their flow, as it were, while not allowing yourself to become distracted.

Remember that pitching is a performance. In your preparations, rehearse with your team and do some exercises to hone your improvisational skills. Put yourself in the position of a potential judge or have another team member take on that role and grill you on those questions you least anticipate being asked during your presentation’s offensive. Imagine the worst-case scenario for your pitch and see whether, in rehearsal, you can’t overcome or work around it.

Emphasize the “who.”

Of course, the “what” of your business is crucial. You want to make sure anyone walking away from your presentation does so with a firm sense of what your business actually does: the problem you’ll be solving, the essential service you’ll be offering, the unique benefit your customers will enjoy. But remember that you don’t have a monopoly on these aspects of your business model. Assume there are multiple startups out there aiming for exactly the same markets. What differentiates your company from these competitors?

Think of your company’s self in broad terms. “You” are a part of a larger group of mentors, advisors, co-founders and board of directors. The talent you’ve assembled and the “big names” you may have lined up as consultants and angel investors are all an essential part of the “who” of your organization. You can often create more interest, excitement and intrigue around your company if you highlight your team, your mentors, your strategic partners or investors. “You” are here to tell the story of your business. “You” need to communicate the passions that drive your team, the accomplishments to which you can already point, your willingness to be objective and be honest about your strengths and weaknesses and your ability to best represent yourself.

Being personable and charming is never a bad thing. However, these competitions are not popularity contests. Judges are gauging your competence as well as your credibility, and your confidence—how comfortable you are in your professional skin—is an index of that competence.

Give them something to remember you by.

Put yourself in the position of a competition judge for a moment. You’ve just sat through nearly 100 rapid-fire pitches. No matter how extensive your notes, you’re simply not going to remember every single critical detail about what you’ve just seen and heard. Your job as a presenter is to end your presentation with what long-practiced pitchers call a “memory cue.” Is there an anecdote, a joke, a gesture, even a catchphrase that can be the one thing the judges remember about your presentation?

These things may seem inconsequential, but memory does work by association. The simple fact that you relied upon a pithy metaphor to describe how your business will transform the industry could be the difference between your pitch fading into the background and the judges remembering your business’ future potential at all. And don’t be afraid to be literal here. Conclude your presentation with a call to action in which you tell—or better, show—your audience precisely what you want them to remember.

These five ways to tailor your business pitch for the competitive circuit are a proven model that I’ve seen many great entrepreneurs use in the course of my career. In the end, it’s important to learn from your mistakes and learn from those who have gone before you to make sure you put your best foot forward, regardless of your pitch’s audience.

For more information on how to put together knockout pitches, please visit our events page for information on programs, classes and events where you can get direct feedback on how to improve your pitch.

The Techstars Experience: Tyffon

Founder Guest Post: By Ken Fukazawa, CEO of Tyffon, makers of ZombieBooth and Show Your Disney Side

“Why don’t you apply to the Disney Techstars accelerator program? I think it’d be perfect for your company.”

A friend of mine said this to me about two weeks before the deadline for applications for the program. The main product of our company, Tyffon, is an app called ZombieBooth 2 that turns selfies into zombies. At that time, the app already had over 20 million downloads across the series, but the majority of users were men in their 20s and 30s. The nature of the app and its target demographics might not be considered suitable for Disney.


I’m not sure what made my friend think that the Disney accelerator would be a fit for my app, but once I had the idea in my head – I couldn’t let it go…

How it All Began: Inspired by Disney’s Haunted Mansion
I’ve always been inspired by Disney. When I was four years old and first visited Disneyland, their “Haunted Mansion” made a strong impression on me. The high artistic quality and variety of tricks made me feel as if I had entered a fantasy world, which inspired me to want to create similar things in the future. Based on this experience, I started to draw scary pictures of skulls, ghosts and zombies, growing up to become a child that loved frightening people. Without these experiences, ZombieBooth may have never been born.

When it came to apply for the program, I was apprehensive since there was very little time to prepare everything and because English is my second language, it made it even more challenging. In spite of all this, I completed our application before the deadline and we were selected to join the program!

Up until then, we had done business completely on our own, without any mentors or networking, simply developing code in earnest from a small apartment. At the time, the company was comprised of just three of us living in Tokyo, but we soon headed to L.A. to participate in the program. The four months we spent in the program were the busiest and the most fulfilling of our lives…

Working with our Sphero Heroes
The Disney Techstars  program was  an amazing experience for our company. One reason was that the other participants were from truly awesome companies. When the Sphero robotic ball first launched in Japan, I bought one straight away and fell in love with  it. When I got to the U.S., I was shocked to learn that one of our fellow cohort companies at Disney Accelerator was Sphero! The other companies also had tons of experience and cool products, so being able to sit with them side by side, sharing the experience of building our business and giving each other advice, was an extremely stimulating and meaningful experience.

The Power of the Network
Another benefit of this program is the 100+ mentors to guide you. Getting advice directly from respected experts, such as Disney executives, was extremely valuable. New ideas and different ways of thinking became ingrained in our thought process which helped to clarify our direction.

On top of this, we were introduced  to so many new companies and people — and this was the thing that was the most directly beneficial for us — the network. Until then, our company had only done business  in Japan and, therefore, we had very little connections in the U.S. However, by the time we finished the program, we had so many connections with many mentors, the people they introduced to us, Techstars’ staff, alumni, and more. From this network, we were able to meet with people from Disney Parks & Resorts, which then led us to developing an app in partnership with Disney…

Show Your Disney Side
Our new app, called Show Your Disney Side, allows you to transform your selfie into a variety of Disney characters such as Anna, Elsa, and Star Wars characters. The photo after the transformation moves around as if it were alive, allowing you to swipe the screen to make the eyes and face move, and also by tapping the screen you can make characters do special effects such as making it snow (if you are Anna). As with the Haunted Mansion characters (the ones that originally inspired me on this journey), the app was designed so you can unlock special content by physically going to the Disney theme park.


When Demo Day was finished, we were allowed to use the Disney Accelerator office, which was very close to the Disney campus, allowing us to walk to meetings and make progress while maintaining frequent communications with others. Everyone at Disney is extremely creative, and we were able to learn a lot from them as we developed our projects together right next to them.

Media Coverage Boost
From this direct networking, another great benefit was that we were able to grow our company’s presence externally. Right after Demo Day, the LA Times posted a large article featuring Tyffon, and after Show Your Disney Side was released, they also featured an article about the app and our company. We were also featured in a variety of media which allowed us to promote our company and our products much more widely. Without our participation in this program, it would have been very difficult for a no-name company like ours, without any marketing or promotional activities to speak of, to be featured in such influential media!

Give First Really Means Something
We received many more benefits from this program, but the last one I’d like to mention is the amazing people from Techstars. The team there gave their full support to all the participants, working hard to make the program as effective as possible. They truly live their value of “Give First.” Without the kind and professional support we received from all the staff, as well as our Managing Director, Cody Simms, we would have never been able to achieve these results. Not only that, even after the program was finished, they have continued to help us out in many ways and we have experienced first hand the “power of the network.” 

The Techstars global ecosystem has proven to be extremely valuable for the future life of our company and we are proud to be a part of it — Techstars for life!

To apply for the Disney Accelerator Powered by Techstars, apply HERE. Deadline April 19th.

(Are you a Techstars founder with a story to tell? Contact us at and let us know how you have experienced the “power of the network!”)


Techstars Ventures Raises New $150M Fund

Today, we are unveiling our third and newest Techstars Ventures fund.

Techstars Ventures 2014 is a $150M seed and series A fund. The fund’s strategy is to invest in companies emerging from the Techstars ecosystem, which includes Techstars accelerator program graduates, new companies started by Techstars alumni, and companies formed by Techstars mentors.

Since 2007, companies in our ecosystem of founders, alumni and mentors have raised more than $5 billion in venture capital from a diverse set of leading venture capital firms. We are incredibly proud of these existing portfolio companies, which employ thousands of people and have a total enterprise value of more than $42 billion. And, of course, we’re also very proud of the more than 1,500 Techstars mentors worldwide who through their efforts have changed the way that startups are created.

Through our venture funds, we’ve been co-investing alongside the angel and venture capital communities in Techstars companies since 2009. With this new fund, we will continue to  thoughtfully co-invest alongside the broader venture community in companies that are part of the Techstars ecosystem of founders, alumni and mentors.

When Mark Solon and I decided to raise this new fund, we knew the job was going to get much bigger and we’d need more focused help. Techstars has been growing as an organization and some true superstars have emerged.

We are thrilled to announce the addition of three new partners to the fund:

  • Jason Seats was the founder of Slicehost (acquired by Rackspace), and has managed both Techstars Cloud and Techstars Austin since joining us in 2011.
  • Nicole Glaros is a fantastic investor who has managed and provided oversight for Techstars programs in Colorado, New York and Texas since joining us in 2009.
  • Ari Newman founded Filtrbox (acquired by Jive) in 2007 and participated in the first-ever Techstars program that same year, then joined Techstars in 2011.

The Techstars team is now more than sixty professionals whose daily focus is adding value to our portfolio companies. We have offices with Managing Directors in Austin, Boulder, Berlin, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, London, Los Angeles, New York City, San Antonio, San Diego, and Seattle.

We would like to thank our Limited Partners who have placed their trust (and money) with us. It’s a small group of some of the most notable institutional investors in the world and we’re honored to have them be an important part of this new fund. We love nothing more than investing in and helping startups do incredible things, so thank you to all of the founders and companies who have allowed us to be a small part of their inspiring stories. Techstars is mentorship-driven, and we too have had incredible mentors help us along the way. You know who you are, and we want you to know we appreciate everything you have done for us. You have been nothing short of incredible as people, friends, and mentors to us. Thank you!

The latest Techstars Ventures fund is active and making investments today. We’re proud to already be invested in three promising companies: Distil Networks, Conspire, and Ello.

You can read more about our accelerators or Techstars Ventures, and of course feel free to contact us at any time.  

Techstars Announces Techstars Mobility, Driven by Detroit

Today, Techstars is announcing Techstars Mobility, driven by Detroit with our partners Ford Motor Company, Magna International and Verizon Telematics. Mobility and transportation are changing and we want to help the next generation of companies make it happen. Techstars is also committed to operating this program in Detroit, the center of the global mobility and transportation ecosystem.

Techstars Mobility, driven by Detroit will give 10 selected companies deep connections with our partners, $120,000 in funding and three months engaged with our extensive mentor network. Each of our program partners brings an important piece of the mobility industry into this Techstars accelerator:

  • Ford, one of the leading innovators in the industry since its inception who continues to lead with a focus on mobility and transportation under the direction of Bill Ford;
  • Magna International, one of the largest automotive suppliers in the world with connections and distribution channels to virtually all auto producers and into other transportation industries;
  • Verizon Telematics, who puts the connected in connected car with their terrestrial and satellite based communication solutions.

The Techstars program will be located in the growing entrepreneurial district of Detroit. There has been a recent renaissance in Detroit with many startups moving to the downtown area and venture capital becoming very active in the region. Throughout the development of the Techstars Mobility program, Techstars worked with Detroit based venture capital firms Fontinalis Partners, Detroit Venture Partners and Renaissance Venture Capital to recruit mentors and ensure capital was ready to deploy in the region. Many other venture firms have also contacted Techstars communicating their interest in bringing capital to Detroit.

Techstars will be bringing their proven accelerator model and extensive network of mentors, founders and corporations to Detroit to support this program. Techstars will also coordinate efforts across the Detroit entrepreneurial ecosystem as a member of the Detroit Technology Exchange (DTX), ensuring that Techstars can have a positive impact across the entire community. Techstars Mobility, driven by Detroit will run for three years with a new class of 10 startups each year.

The program kicks off June 9, 2015, and concludes with a Demo Day on September 10, 2015 where each team will present to investors, industry leaders, and the community at large. Ted Serbinski, formerly with Detroit Venture Partners, has been named as the Managing Director of Techstars Mobility, driven by Detroit. Ted and his team are full-time Techstars staff and will live and work in the Detroit area. Applications are being accepted through March 15, 2015.

Techstars++ Launches with Mayo Clinic

Today we’re excited to be rolling out Techstars++, a new program that leverages our network of corporate partners to provide new business opportunities to post accelerator program entrepreneurs. Techstars++ initially launches with the Mayo Clinic and we expect to announce additional partners soon.

Techstars++ offers companies from across the Techstars network the opportunity to extend their Techstars experience by spending time on site and engaging deeply with a relevant corporate partner. For example, after completing Techstars, healthcare-oriented companies can spend two weeks at the Mayo Clinic exploring business development opportunities and other synergies. A full time Techstars Program Director will reside on-site and work closely with the startups and the corporation to help maximize the opportunity. There is no charge to Techstars companies to participate in Techstars++.

After completing a Techstars program, relevant companies who participate in Techstars++ spend two weeks on site with the appropriate corporate partner and receive hands-on mentorship and business development opportunities from the corporation’s network of executives, partners, and community members. These corporations are exposed to some of the most innovative early stage companies and technologies in their area of expertise. Furthermore, Techstars++ continues to foster entrepreneurial growth by building the connective tissue that ties together the local startup community with the larger global Techstars network.

Techstars++ is one more way for us to extend our network to help our portfolio companies. If you’re a healthcare company who has gone through our program and is interested in Techstars++ Mayo Clinic, please email us at  Apply to Techstars today.

Announcing Disney Accelerator, Powered by Techstars

David and MickeyAt Techstars, we are 100% focused on changing the way startups are built by arming them with a massive interconnected network of amazing founders, mentors, and advisors. Building this network with high quality is our true north, and is why we exist.

Today we are adding a very powerful new node to the Techstars network. We are thrilled to announce Disney Accelerator, powered by Techstars, and based in Los Angeles.

Disney Accelerator combines the magic of The Walt Disney Company with the mentorship-driven accelerator model of Techstars to offer a unique advantage for technology startups in the media and entertainment space. Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney World, SportsCenter, Disney Store, Buzz Lightyear, Disney Infinity, Jimmy Kimmel, Iron Man, Yoda (!!!!) — the breadth of influence and impact that our new partner provides to culture and business is beyond profound. Disney has an incredible legacy of creativity and innovation that dates directly to the entrepreneurial spirit of Walt Disney himself.

Companies selected to participate in Disney Accelerator will receive $120,000 in investment capital to develop their ideas, along with mentor support from top Disney executives, including Chairman and CEO Robert A. Iger, and leaders from Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, ESPN and Walt Disney Imagineering, among others. Mentors will also include other entertainment industry leaders, venture capitalists, and of course our extensive network of entrepreneurs and executives. Participants will have access to stories, characters, technology and other resources from across The Walt Disney Company. The program begins June 30 and concludes with a demo day in September in which each team will present their product to an audience of industry leaders and investors.

In addition, I’m happy to announce Cody Simms as Managing Director of Disney Accelerator. Cody has been operating at the intersection of technology and media/entertainment since the late 1990s and has been an advisor, mentor and friend to many startups along the way. He most recently was Chief Product Officer at StumbleUpon and prior to that was VP Product for Yahoo!’s entertainment portfolio globally. He’ll be joined in Los Angeles by Techstars veteran Kelsey Morgan and program coordinator Yohei Nakajima, who joins us from the Santa Monica coworking space Coloft.

Visit for details on the program and to apply by April 16, 2014.

“Do or do not, there is no try.”

Accelerating FinTech: Introducing the Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars

Barclays and Techstars are today launching a program that will give ten innovative businesses the chance to shape the future of financial services. Barclays is a major global financial services provider with over 300 years of history and expertise in banking. Barclays operates in over 50 countries and employs approximately 140,000 people. Barclays moves, lends, invests, and protects money for customers and clients worldwide. This morning in London, we announced that Barclays and Techstars are in a partnership to provide ten FinTech startup companies startup funding and three months of deep mentorship.

We are excited to partner with Barclays on the next wave in FinTech. It’s a great opportunity for those entrepreneurs who have the right ideas that will make a difference in banking, whether it’s a new payment solution or a financial management tool.

If you’re working on a startup in the financial sector you’d be crazy to pass up this opportunity. In the Barclays Accelerator, you’ll have access to the top minds in the financial sector and you’ll build incredible industry connections. It’s a chance to do some amazing business development and network building in one of the worlds financial capitals. Become part of the Techstars and Barclays families and apply today!

One of the questions we’re frequently asked about the vertical corporate programs we power such as this one is, “Who is my investor?” The answer is Techstars. We only team with amazing organizations that truly know how to “give first” to startups and Barclays is no exception. They’re offering you mentorship, support, space, and funding. Your company will see plenty of opportunities but have no obligations. We think that’s important to understand.

Applications are open now at and will be open until March 31, 2014.  The program will begin in mid- June 2014.


[VIDEO] Celebrating Seven Years

Today is a special day. On November 14th, seven years ago, Techstars became official. The founders, David Cohen, Brad Feld, David Brown, and Jared Polis set out to help entrepreneurs with their mentorship-driven accelerator in Boulder, Colorado. It’s mind boggling to see its growth and impact across the world since the beginning. As of today, we have 300+ active companies, 27 acquired companies, 1200+ mentors, funding is $400M+ and our portfolio companies have created more than 2,000 jobs. See more here.

So the tradition continues with our mission to help entrepreneurs and create a powerful network of passionate doers. We could not have done it without the communities in each city, mentors and investors. Thank you! In honor of these seven amazing years, I propose today we all take the time to do something nice for another entrepreneur, big or small, it doesn’t matter… and why stop today?

Happy Birthday, Techstars! Time to blow out another candle and make a wish.

[VIDEO] FounderCon 2013

One of the challenges we face as Techstars continues to grow is maintaining an intimate network of relationships and fostering connections between our alums, mentors, sponsors, and investors. To be sure that we’re making the most of all opportunities, the Techstars alumni and staff come together at #FounderCon every year. Two weeks ago we had 300+ alumni founders in Chicago for our gathering, our biggest and best yet. We’re already heads down working on the agenda for next year.

#FounderCon 2013’s theme? Scaling Up. It was an incredible three days packed with networking, two tracks of lectures to attend in different rooms (business and technical), business development introductions to major brands like Bing, LG Electronics, Barclays, Motorola, Target, and more.  Special guests included Jason Calacanis, Jason Fried, Tim Sanders, David Grove, Jamie Cooper, and many others . We announced a partnership with CareerBuilder for a new talent network to help our portfolio companies hire faster.

Here’s a sneak peek at what went down in the Windy City. A huge thanks to Megan Sweeney, our talented videographer, for making sure we gathered all the evidence.

Announcing the R/GA Connected Devices Accelerator, powered by Techstars

Today we’re fired up to reveal the R/GA Connected Devices Acceleratorpowered by Techstars, in New York City. R/GA creates advertising and marketing products based in technology and design and has earned countless accolades over the years, including and Advertising Age’s “Digital A-List” and “Agencies of the Decade.” They’re the force behind the opening title sequence for 1978’s Superman to 2006’s Nike+ platform to 2010’s HBO Go connected device.

The program will target founders and startups focused on the Internet of Things. Entrepreneurs that are developing connected mobile apps, hardware, and connected devices should consider applying. Accepted startups will receive hands-on resources and support with integrated product design, branding, marketing, product engineering, and manufacturing. The time is ripe for connected devices. Startups accepted into the program will receive up to $120K in funding as well as mentorship from Techstars’ deep network and advice and support from development and design executives at R/GA.

“R/GA has a long history of working on groundbreaking products, services, and communications for some of the most innovative companies in the world like Nike, Samsung, MasterCard, and Unilever. We believe that our expertise in branding, design, and technology can positively impact the startups accepted into the accelerator. We can help these startups succeed and create opportunities for them to work with our clients.” – Bob Greenberg, R/GA’s Founder, Chairman and CEO.

Applications to the R/GA Connected Devices Accelerator will be accepted starting on August 19th through October 11th. Selected teams will be notified on November 8th. The startups accepted into the R/GA Accelerator will be announced in late November, and the Accelerator will kickoff in NYC on December 2nd. For more information about the accelerator go to