Sunday, November 09, 2014


Allow me to share a few lessons I learned while participating in a fast-pitch challenge at the Resilience Innovations Summit in Honolulu this past September.

 “Access to $40 Billion in World Bank Innovation Funding”.  Seriously?!  Beware of conferences that market access to funding and/or exposure to motivated investors – the returns may not be as advertised...

Ok, I admit I wanted to be swept up by the lure of participating in a competition at a conference in Hawaii to pitch to the World Bank with over $40B to throw at new innovations.

That’s why I half-consciously ignored advice not to go (because such events are more beneficial to idea pilferers than for obtaining grants) and why I chose to make only a half-assed attempt to validate the “$40B” claim (yes, World Bank did have this amount budgeted for 2014 grants but attempts to confirm their attendance fell on “deaf ears”).

So yes, I am as guilty as the next human in making “buy” decisions with emotion and not logic… That’s how humans roll. Period.

That said, I believe true bootstrappers and entrepreneurs are able to turn good and bad decisions into tangible value such as the lessons learned below.

My company is focused on developing (and most recently attempting to license) innovations with potential for extraordinary impact on people and the planet.  Leading up to the Hawaiian fast-pitch challenge, we were working on two related innovations (both at the proof-of-concept stage}:
  1. pECO BamBooster - A toolkit that  poverty-stricken individuals or families can use to transform natural bamboo of any length and diameter into standardized building components, and in turn, into  green products such as…
  2. pECO Pollinator - A craft-kit for constructing habitats (eg, a butterfly “motel”) that attract and rejuvenate pollinators and sustain a healthy ecosystem.

·         Attend “Investor Conferences” With Eyes Open – As mentioned, this Summit was billed as one that would be chock full of investors seeking to fund new innovations. In fact, once there, I prospected the Summit and full attendee database and turned up zero, nobody, nada that even resembled an investor! Lesson: Don’t expect investors to be present unless you get specific names in writing from conference organizers…
·         Leverage Conference Attendee Database – If the conference offers access to the list of attendees, use it to get a read on who is attending and to set up meetings pre-, during- and post-conference.
·         Rallying Points Spur Support – having one or more rallying points made recruiting resources and financial support much easier. Once support begins to materialize, others are more willing to assist. For example,
a.       A good-cause  - Since our innovations reverse poverty and increase resilience of food supply we were able to garner support from empathetic people and businesses
b.      A competition with perceived prize - ie, fast-pitch challenge with potential for investment (particularly key to obtaining spousal support in my case ;-)
c.       A real & urgent need with a clear deadline – communicating that my fast pitch would not happen if support did not materialize by the 7/31 commitment deadline helped spur action
d.      A cool/edgy activity - trip to Hawaii which eventually paved the way for a Treehouse Masters TV spot contingent on funding
·         Dare to Be Different – Look for opportunities to stand out and be different. For example, Treehouse Masters TV celebrity, Pete Nelson, never would have offered to build us an R&D treehouse field lab out of bamboo in Hawaii if I didn’t approach him with the concept at the Austin Fall Home & Garden Show while wearing a farmers hat with butterflies on it and red, white & blue suspenders – OMG how embarrassing but effective!
·         Bootstrapping Takes A Village – Within a one month time window the following support contributed to our eventual success
a.       over 50 people (spanning family, friends, existing business network and new acquaintances),
b.      over 10 organizations and
c.       over 7 key networking events
d.      but, zero Craig’s List responses and zero inquiries/support via our website (albeit in its infancy)..
·         Pitch One Simple Concept – Effective articulation of a single innovative concept in 7 minutes is a challenge. I was attempting the impossible, namely, to communicate two relate concepts which caused significant pitch churn and diluted some of its impact in the end. That said, I may not have been selected as a finalist by focusing too narrowly in the proposal stage.
·         It’s About YOU, Not the Slides – My fast-pitch went through 11 significant adjustments that included several complete slide deck rewrites, a zero-slide pitch two days before pitch-time to the final 12-slide pitch that was eventually delivered (the last full day was spent in front of a mirror to ensure accurate, effective and well-timed delivery). That said, what I realized through all of this (thanks to excellent coaching by Barry Thornton) is that the fewer slides the better (eg, zero to one slide is best.) Bottom line is, you want the audience to buy into and remember YOU. If you end up using a slide make it a “sticky image or message” they can easily associate with you.
·         Does Practice Make Perfect? – The jury is still out on this one for me. Yes, I spent considerable time in front of the mirror perfecting my pitch which according to feedback I nailed and was well received. That said, it almost felt too rehearsed  (ie, not engaging). It wasn’t until the unrehearsed Q&A portion did I feel true audience mind-share.
·         No Free Rides – Via the aforementioned networking effort I was able to defray ~70% of the cost to participate (ie, ~$3500 of a total estimated $5000 cost). That said, spending $1500 was well worth the benefits not to mention name, product and cause recognition that flows from such networking.
·         Silver Lining in the False Lure of Investors - OK, so it would have been nice if my fast pitch actually contained an audience of investors as was billed by the Summit organizers. That said, I never would have engaged in this activity if not for that lure. It motivated me to submit a fast-pitch challenge proposal in the first place and when selected as a finalist, with hand on heart, helped sway my wife and others to support my efforts. Even though no grant funding materialized, the following did:
·         Message refinement and reusable fast-pitch materials
·         Reusable showcase booth set ups
·         Two solid business partners
·         Many new business collaborators
·         A Reality TV spot contingent on funding
·         A network of over 25 new connections & supporters (some of whom live in Hawaii)
·         New valuable mentorship resources
·         A provisional patent
·         Follow-on funding discussions with the Dean of Agriculture at the University of Hawaii,  Manoa, with the Oahu Island Director of Innovation & Entrepreneurship and with other Hawaiian businesses
·         New business leverage based on the above

NOW, who wants to partner with us in an Hawaiian paradise, living and/or working in a bamboo treehouse field lab and get a little TV exposure to finalize products with the potential for extraordinary impact on people and the planet?! Only bootstrappers, entrepreneurs and investors need apply…:-)

Stay tuned for a follow-on post on our plans to secure the elusive licensing agreements and/or funding we need..

Tom Baum
Founder, TRACEe

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