'Elevator Pitch' Contests Cast Light on Essence of Entrepreneurship

Business pitch contests are a popular pastime in the U.S. Part TV game show, part performance art, and part serious business, they offer good entertainment. They also capture the essence of the entrepreneurial experience in the U.S.

The basic idea of the pitch contest is simple. Entrepreneurs get up and, in rapid succession, pitch their business plans to a panel of judges. The judges select the best pitch and, in some contests, give a cash award to the winner. The proceedings usually take place in front of an audience that often includes many investors and successful entrepreneurs.

The "elevator pitch" (so named because it needs to be quick enough to deliver during a short elevator ride) is usually limited to one to three minutes. The entrepreneur (who is usually young and early-stage) introduces his business through a well-rehearsed script, often deploying a few PowerPoint slides and a product demo with the hope of making a memorable impression.

The recipe for success is well-known. A presentation must identify an important problem, introduce the product or service clearly, and show how it solves the problem. It must also establish the credentials of the team and explain why the business will beat the competition. Overall, the entrepreneur must capture the imagination of the judges and convince them that the business will make some people very rich.

That, of course, is the U.S. entrepreneurial success story in a nutshell. Problem – solution – funding – execution – get rich! It's a great story, and, just like on the popular TV talent show "American Idol," the contest audience gets to evaluate the talent, pick its favorites, and see whether the judges concur.

Earlier this month, I attended a Japan-flavored version of the traditional pitch contest. Organized by SunBridge, a venture investment firm, and held at Plug and Play Tech Center (a well-known incubation facility in Silicon Valley), the Jannovation Jam featured pitches by 30 entrepreneurial companies with a connection to Japan.

On the one hand, I was encouraged to see so many enthusiastic Japanese entrepreneurs present a range of interesting business concepts in English. On the other hand, I was reminded again of the mind-set gap between American and Japanese entrepreneurs. Many of the Japanese hopefuls focused heavily on their product, while giving scant attention to the "get rich" story.

However, the most lasting impression of the differences between Japanese and Western approaches came from the acceptance speeches of two of the winners - one Japanese and one European. The Japanese recipient thanked the judges and commented on how much he appreciated the chance to take part in an event that provided a spotlight and encouragement to Japanese entrepreneurs.

In contrast, the European CEO began his acceptance speech by noting that his company had won every pitch contest it had entered because its products were so great – and commenting that he would have been very disappointed had they not won again.

Although the confidence of the European CEO was perhaps more characteristic of Silicon Valley startups, the graciousness of the Japanese CEO reminded me that we have something to learn from Japanese entrepreneurs as well.

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