Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Is Philly's start-up community nearing pitch overload?

It's a pitchapalooza out there for Philadelphia-area start-ups looking for opportunities to raise cash from investors, or at least get some face time with them. Signs of pitch overload are starting to show.

The 2016 Angel Venture Fair at the Union League in Philadelphia had fewer pitch competitions to compete with than exist today.
The 2016 Angel Venture Fair at the Union League in Philadelphia had fewer pitch competitions to compete with than exist today.Read moreFILE PHOTO

Angel Venture Fair. Keiretsu Forum. PACT (Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies). Be Your Own Boss Bowl. The Entrepreneurs Network. Mid-Atlantic Diamond Ventures. Angel Capital Expo.

It's a pitchapalooza out there for Philadelphia-area start-ups looking for opportunities to raise cash from investors, or at least get some face time with them.

Miss the application deadline for one? No matter. There's always another. And another. And another.

Jared Cannon should be tired of pitching.

The founder of Simply Good Jar, a chef-curated, handcrafted meal service based in West Philadelphia, figures he's been to seven or eight business plan/pitch contests in the past six months. He's trying to raise $500,000. So far, he's come up empty. In fact, he's down $200 in registration fees. Yet, he has no complaints. He's not even sick of pitches.

"I can talk about this stuff forever," said the 32-year-old chef/entrepreneur. "The more I talk about it, the more insights I get and the better it becomes. No burnout. Not yet."

Though that certainly is a risk, acknowledged serial entrepreneur Robert Moore, president of Philly Startup Leaders, a support group for technology-focused start-ups.

"There is definitely a risk of some narrative fatigue. We've Shark Tankified every possible way we can talk about where innovation is happening," said Moore, while insisting fewer events would be a bigger problem. "Imagine the alternative — that you've got a bunch of people who are eager to pitch their companies and no one who wants to hear about them or fund them."

Sharing that view is Ellen Weber, executive director of the Fox School of Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute at Temple University, hosts of Mid-Atlantic Diamond Ventures, which holds quarterly forums where entrepreneurs pitch their companies to investors, angel groups, and venture capitalists.

"If you just had one or two events a year, you wouldn't have enough opportunities for companies to get in front of an audience and elevate their pitch," said Weber, who also heads Robin Hood Ventures. The regional angel group, which invested more than $4 million in new companies last year, meets monthly and its members attend about six pitch events a month in search of companies worth supporting, Weber said.

While entrepreneurs consider these forums valuable venues for tapping experts not only for money but advice, investors consider them rich resources, too — especially in recognizing industry trends and the expertise needed to evaluate "what's scalable and what's not," Weber said.

Specialization of pitch competitions is on the rise, making it essential for start-ups to "pay close attention to the way in which these competitions describe what they're looking for," Moore said. "As more and more of these appear, in order for them to be differentiated, they're going to have to have their own little twist."

Meanwhile, Marc Kramer is trying to figure out why applications for this year's Angel Venture Fair, the oldest and largest gathering of angel investors in the Mid-Atlantic region, held at the Union League in Philadelphia, are down nearly 90 applicants from last year's record of 237. Part of the problem, he said, might just be carelessness: 60 applications Kramer thinks might be for this year's daylong pitch-athon — AVF's 20th, on May 4 — came in for last year's event.

The biggest drop is among students: 64 have applied, half of last year's total, said Kramer, who is also an executive-in-residence at St. Joseph's  University. (AVF is open to student and nonstudent applicants; free only to the former.) He said the proliferation of business plan competitions at area colleges and universities, such as Temple's Be Your Own Boss Bowl and Drexel University's Startup Fest, might be a contributing factor.

Responding to criticism over the scarcity of women among the presenters and investors last year, Kramer organized a start-up conference for women in October with the hope of developing a pipeline to more female AVF participants this year.

For applicants of all types, Kramer unleashed a veritable email blitz over the last few weeks as the AVF application deadline approached. It was a necessary effort, he contends, especially in such a competitive environment.

"It's like sales," Kramer said. "You have to hit people seven, eight times."

And make it convenient. That's the theory behind Keiretsu Forum Mid-Atlantic's recent establishment of a satellite chapter at the West Chester University Graduate Center, enabling students, faculty, and potential angel investors to participate remotely in monthly Keiretsu presentation meetings held in Center City.

"This is part of an effort to really promote entrepreneurs in Chester County," said Keiretsu member Monica Zimmerman, a professor of management and director of the Dr. Edwin Cottrell Entrepreneurial Leadership Center at West Chester. The center's annual business idea competition is cohosted by Keiretsu Mid-Atlantic.

The winner has the opportunity to present at yet another pitch event — Keiretsu's Angel Capital Expo, held in October at the Union League.

"If a year from now a bunch of these [events] have disappeared, we've learned something — that we've had a supply-demand imbalance," said Philly Startup Leaders' Moore. For now, "I'm excited about the fact that so many people care about what our start-ups have to say."