Pitching competitions — same as dunking competitions — fun, but far from the real thing

Yrjö Ojasaar
3 min readDec 18, 2023
JaVale McGee double dunk in 2011

NBA Slam Dunk Contests have been held annually since 1984 when Larry Nance of the Phoenix Suns won. This year Mac McClung from the Philadelphia 76ers won the contest with an awesome slam. Dunk contests are super fun to watch and can certainly feature individual excellence in athleticism and showmanship. However vigorous tricks, and acrobatic flair do not necessarily translate into high performance of that player in an NBA season, much less the whole team. This is probably why the average Harlem Globe Trotters player (each a master of the spectacular dunk) earns about $90K per year, while the average NBA player salary exceeds $10M per year even if they rarely dunk.

check out these dunks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6LjBpR_jao

Similarly pitching competitions are a useful and fun tool, but as an accurate representation of a startup business success they are far from a crystal ball.

Pitching is a universally useful and fundamental founder skill. Founders absolutely must be able to quickly and effectively present their startup concept to investors, customers, partners and potential team members. Pitching is also something that can be standardized, memorized and taught to vast majority of founders, even self-proclaimed introverts. Thankfully it can be faster and easier to teach than sales, marketing or hiring. So it makes sense why accelerators and incubators spend a lot of time on preparing startups for pitching, pitch competitions and demo days.

With focused effort most founders can get to a good pitch in a couple weeks to a month, while sales, marketing and/or hiring excellence will evade most founders for many years or forever as these skills are much more complex and more dependent on various outside factors.

In an ocean of uncertainty affecting startups, pitching is a safe harbour completely under the founder’s control. You can craft every phrase and word of your message and design every aspect of your delivery. With hundreds of repetitions you really internalize the message and can deliver your message any time, under pressure and with pizazz.

A good pitch will definitely attract the investors attention and get you first meetings. However, quality conversations with investors are rarely pitching sessions. You know your meeting is going well when it is a back-forth conversation where the founder demonstrates: an in-depth understanding of the customer persona and the significant problem they are solving, a realistic assessment of the market opportunity, and a convincing explanation of the startups’ unique value proposition versus the competitive offerings.

As such, standard 9-slide pitching taught in incubators/accelerators/ etc is but a small part of the skill set that founders must excel in to succeed. Convincing pitching by a founder is an indication of their clarity of thought, confidence, charisma and communications skill but offers no guarantee of any startup success. Moreover, startupping is a team sport where its not enough to just have one talented player.

Pitching competitions are good for:

  1. founders to effectively get VC exposure/contacts;
  2. forcing founders to focus their message/UVP
  3. founders to receive instant feedback in live field tests;
  4. founders to get first meetings with investors;
  5. conferences to provide an entertaining show for the audience;
  6. young VCs to build credibility and recognition through jury membership;
  7. VC firms to build their brand through regular jury presence.

Bonus (#8) : identifying potential cult leaders, politicians and sociopaths (or all-in-one).