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Are entrepreneurial pitch competitions a waste of time?

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An appearance on CBC’s wildly popular reality-TV show Dragon’s Den has launched many a Canadian company, creating the kind of crowd appeal that money just can’t buy. And yet, after successfully auditioning for a spot, Dionne Laslo-Baker, founder and CEO of DeeBee’s Organics Ltd. in Victoria, B.C., said, “Thanks, but no thanks” to the opportunity last spring.

“We had to weigh the benefits of the publicity against what was important for the business right then,” says Ms. Laslo-Baker. At the time, she was in the midst of rolling out her line of frozen tea-infused popsicles (TeaPops) to Sobeys and Safeway.

“We would have had to pack up a lot of stuff, fly out to Toronto and take time away from running the business,” she says. “I decided the most important thing was the launch that was happening right then, and not the show which wouldn’t air until fall.”

There are at least 20 entrepreneurial “contests” taking place in Toronto alone and hundreds nationwide. An entrepreneur could spend every minute of the day perfecting pitches. “But when you’re choosing who to pitch to,” says Ms. Laslo-Baker, “you have to remember the value of your own time.”

If you are going to pitch, she adds, “be selective, and make sure you’re pitching where you’re going to get the best return.” Once you’re clear on the costs and rewards, by all means go for it with gusto. Here’s how to choose the right contest, and boost your chance of winning.

You’ll find lists of contests at startupheretoronto.com and venturelab.ca just for starters. As well, “each industry has its own Academy Awards, which a basic Google search will reveal,” says Kathy Cheng, founder of Toronto-based Redwood Classics Apparel and one of 12 North Americans inducted into the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program in 2014. “Networking, attending industry events and watching the media are great ways to find out about non-industry-related competitions,” she adds.

Target contests for which you are uniquely qualified.

If you pitch to every single contest or potential investor, you’ll never have time to build a business. Read the criteria for admittance and make sure a) you’re qualified, and b) you have a shot at winning.

Cheng believed she was a good candidate for EY’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women in part because EY rates winners on both business and corporate purpose. As one of a receding number of clothing manufacturers left in Canada, Ms. Cheng has become a voice for the industry – a fact she believed would resonate with the judges.

Ask yourself if winning is going to really help you.

Take a clear-eyed look at the benefits winning will have for your company, says Pat McNamara, founder of Ignite Capital and the Ignite Capital Pitch-Off, a contest geared to providing growth capital for under-serviced populations of entrepreneurs, including women, youth, immigrants and indigenous people.

For Ms. Cheng, winning the EY contest would offer opportunities for mainstream publicity, as well as exposure to financial and marketing pros, education and mentors that could help her scale her company. For other entrepreneurs the prize might be a much-needed infusion of cash, or simply the boost that publicity can bring.

“Even if you’ve got a really important message, people clue out if you’ve got too much mumbo jumbo in your pitch,” says Ms. Laslo-Baker. “Stick to three key points. Make them clear and don’t ramble. Tell them how you’re different, why you’re doing what you’re doing and what makes this really cool.”

Ms. Cheng’s opening lines for the EY judges are a case in point. “The irony of my business is that we’re a Chinese immigrant family, trying to sustain as much North American apparel production as possible,” she said. “We’re grateful to be here, to be Canadian, and we want to contribute to the country – as well as our community – that has given us so much.”

Tell them about your “a-ha moment.”

Most new businesses seek to solve a problem or fill a void, so talk about how you got there. “I want to know why you did this,” says Ms. McNamara. “That’s compelling.”

Ms. Laslo-Baker’s Dragon’s Den audition described the scene in her kitchen that led to the genesis of her TeaPops. “One of my kids was making tea and the other was making popsicles,” she told the show’s producers. “They started arguing over who was going to do what with mommy and one said, ‘Mommy, let’s make teasicles.’ A lightbulb went off.”

Let your light shine through.

By all means, know your numbers, but don’t forget to be yourself. “I want to get to know you,” says Ms. McNamara. “Do you contribute to the community? Are you passionate? Are you going to be a good entrepreneur? And what are you willing to do to make this work?”

Daniel Lewis, owner of T by Daniel, a Brampton, Ont. purveyor of loose leaf teas, says he won a combined grant and loan from Ignite two years ago, even though his wife (and co-founder) Renata was so nervous she spilled tea on one of the judges.

He thinks the couple’s genuine passion for their product and the personality they were able to convey won the day. “We came out there in the outfits we always wear in the shop, with the suspenders and striped socks and we sold them on ourselves,” he says. “They bought us and they bought the concept.”

Tell them how winning is going to help you get to the next level.

“You have to shave down all your dreams of what you’d love to do and how you’re going to do it to a few attainable, tangible things,” says Mr. Lewis.

In his pitch to Ignite, he included a “strong, confident plan of action” for moving beyond “mom and pop” shop status. Ignite’s investment would allow him to bulk-buy inventory, attend a “tea expo” in California and create branded merchandise, he told the judges. “Customers are starting to ask for gift sets. But we don’t have the money to invest in them.”

Hone your pitch on someone who won’t just be nice to you. And stay away from jargon, advises Ms. McNamara. “The judges may not completely understand your industry or business because they don’t live and breathe it,” she says. “So prepare as if you’re speaking to a stranger who knows nothing about your field.”



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