10/24/2016

Austin-based Pitch-a-Kid lets youngsters question real-world entrepreneurs.

“I’m still a little confused on how you make money… do you?”

“Have you even started your company yet?”

“Are you any good?”

All of these straightforward questions were posed by inquisitive young judges to Austin entrepreneurs at a Pitch-a-Kid contest on Sunday.

Pitch-a-Kid features real start-up founders giving five-minute pitches about their companies using standard Power Point presentations. Then, a panel of fourth- through ninth-grade judges are given free rein to ask questions for eight minutes.

It’s like a low-stakes version of the TV show “Shark Tank,” with no prize money, though the judges pick the top three startups and award them medals.

The idea is that both groups of participants will learn lessons.

The children will hone their critical thinking skills and learn more about what it takes to start your own company.

The entrepreneurs learn how to simplify their pitches.

“The kids ask really good questions,” said Pitch-a-Kid founder Mike Millard. “They ask honest and unfiltered questions about what you’re doing, and they cut to the heart of what you’re talking about.”

Pitch-a-Kid is itself a startup. Millard, whose résumé includes working for venture capital firm Austin Ventures and companies like AT&T and Dell Technologies, started the company last year with his daughter Audrey.

Kids become judges by applying online. Sunday’s event featured pre-selected kid judges though any youngsters in the audience were also allowed to ask questions when there was leftover time.

The entrepreneurs who presented on Sunday, many of whom had actually pitched to investors before, said there was something terrifying about pitching their company to kids.

“I’ve been on national stages everywhere, but getting in front of kids, there is no filter,” said Kristie Whites, president and CEO of Serving Social, a marketing company that helps small businesses and non-profits. “It’s a little nerve-wracking to have (them) sitting in front of you.”

Some entrepreneurs had an easier time of it than others.

Isaiah McPeak is co-founder of statUP, a startup that tracks skills for coaches and athletes. He brought along a soccer ball and focused his presentation on how a soccer-playing child might use his company’s software.

The questions he got were not all that different from what a regular investor might ask: Who are his competitors? How does he plan to make money? And questions about how many people he employs.

“They asked very normal questions,” McPeak said. “It helped that I practiced on my 7-year-old.”

Some companies proved easier to pitch than others. Ones that weren’t so simple involved hospital performance metrics and event management software.

When Whites presented, she had the challenge of explaining how Serving Social helps socially driven nonprofits and small businesses with their marketing efforts.

The kids were stumped about a lot of the basics, like what “marketing” means, what a chamber of commerce is and how she even makes money. “You don’t really think about the words you are using, and they have so much meaning, until a kid asks you ‘what’s a nonprofit?’ ” Whites said.

But entrepreneur Joshua McClure proved that even complex subjects can win over kids when presented correctly. McClure is CEO for Health Anonymous, which offers regenerative therapies to treat chronic diseases.

McClure’s presentation focused on telling the story of someone who is a paraplegic. He dazzled the kids by talking about the mind-blowing potential of regenerative medicine to help the paraplegic use his arms again.

He also highlighted the tantalizing anti-aging possibilities of transferring blood plasma from a young person to an older person, citing studies done at Stanford with mice that showed the health benefits.

One kid made the adults in the room smile when he asked McClure why an older person would even want to become young in the first place.

McClure, who ended up winning the competition, said he revamped his entire pitch for Sunday’s event. He hasn’t gotten any institutional investors to bite before, and he said Pitch-a-Kid helped him realize he was focusing too much on the technical scientific details instead of the overall benefits.

“I’m using this exact same pitch tomorrow at the Central Texas Angel Network,” McClure said.

Millard said entrepreneurs can learn valuable lessons about how to communicate by taking part in Pitch-a-Kid. He said the start-up founders that tend to do the best “break it down and simple terms and just tell a story.”

And the kids walk away motivated to start their own companies some day.

“After each event,” he said, “I love it when parents say, ‘Now my kid is excited about being an entrepreneur.'”

The winners of Pitch-a-Kid:

1st place: Health Anonymous

2nd place: Serving Social

3rd place: statUP