Should we put an end to the culture of the pitch?
The pitch, ie it is the public presentation of his project in a few minutes, has become the high point of the entrepreneurial adventure; the moment the project passes or breaks. We prepare and re-prepare generations of entrepreneurs to make the perfect pitch. This is surprising, because the success of a project depends on other criteria than the ability to present it in this way.
The pitch consists of reducing the entrepreneurial project to the very essence of its object. It must be formulated well to attract the attention of investors. It is a sophisticated communication exercise that takes a lot of preparation and a lot of practice. It is in a way the style exercise of the entrepreneurial profession. The filter through which any aspiring entrepreneur must pass.
The pitch is the triumph of form over substance. The pitch is entirely based on a philosophy stated by the philosopher Jean-Claude Dusse: on a misunderstanding, it can pass. The pitch is the organization of this great misunderstanding in which we hide what is weak, and we highlight what will sell. And to be a seller, you have to hang on; we must aim high; you have to want to change the world.
Initially conceived as an exercise in seducing potential investors, the pitch has now become widespread: we pitch in front of people from whom we expect nothing. Thus, there is no longer a corporate convention that does not include its pitch session during which poor entrepreneurs come to belly dance in front of tired and mocking executives awaiting the end of the day cocktail. What are these entrepreneurs looking for? Mystery. No doubt they have been told that being an entrepreneur is pitching, so they pitch wherever they can. In doing so, they provide a free show, enlivening parties that would otherwise be monotonous. Weddings, communions, Bar-Mitzvahs and corporate conventions, wholesale, semi-wholesale and retail shows. Are our entrepreneurs, basically, in the entertainment business?
“Yes, but”, I was recently objected, “a pitch allows us to judge the entrepreneur’s vision”. And since when do you have to have a vision to be an entrepreneur? Zuckerberg had no vision when he started Facebook. Very few entrepreneurs have a vision, and entrepreneurship research has long shown that having a vision is not at all necessary to get started. If so, what’s the point of training generations of entrepreneurs to formulate one to pitch it in public?
But above all the importance given to the pitch means that only supposedly visionary projects will emerge. As entrepreneurs know, they are outbid. And before the rupture, the change of the world, the big ambitions, all this with only a set of slides. However, the biggest projects started modestly, and often took a long time to bring out their vision. Pitch culture therefore eliminates them. It rewards a single form of entrepreneurship, visionary entrepreneurship … or the mirror with larks?
Also, in front of the wrong audience, exercise can be largely counterproductive. Being recently present (in spite of myself) at one of these events, I observed young entrepreneurs full of hope and liveliness being roughly welcomed by managers of large companies going to mess them up and asking them questions. stupid questions. Entrepreneurs were showing how they wanted to change the world, and they were asked to specify their model of cash flow. Basically, the pitch is asking people who don’t know anything about it and who don’t care what they think of a project that has no more consistency than a set of slides.
Don’t pitch; sell
“Okay, but the pitch at least allows them to sell their project, knowing how to sell your project is good training.” Perhaps, but the culture of pitching lets our entrepreneurs think that success is above all a matter of communication. It is however false. As a saddened observer of this phenomenon recently told me, “the only criterion of truth is the encounter with the market”. In other words, there are two kinds of entrepreneurs, those who have a client, and the others.
So how much time do we spend training our entrepreneurs to sell? To get an appointment? Asking for help from someone they don’t know? Research has also shown that the essential criterion for the success of a project is the entrepreneur’s ability to convince a stakeholder to help him with his project. It is a social skill that is difficult to develop in many cultures, especially in France, and it is this that should be the subject of our attention. Only here, to do that you have to work, and it’s quite ungrateful. We are far from the pitch with glitter and swirling Prezi. We understand that it is more pleasant to work on the ultimate presentation than to go out into the field to meet real people and confront them. And yet this is what will determine the success of the project, as Paul Graham, the founder of YCombinator, showed. In a memorable article, he explained that the success of AirBnB, whose initial idea is ridiculously simple (inflating a mattress in his living room), was above all the result of a thankless job in the field for weeks which had allowed to understand why the site was not taking off.
The lesson is that an entrepreneurial project is not an idea that must be sold, but a network that must be created by co-building its offer with the stakeholders that are associated in this creation. Seen like this, the pitch is a waste of time, a distraction and a mirror to the larks that allows you to take yourself for an entrepreneur when you are in fact a multimedia host. Let’s stop pitching; let’s start selling.
To learn more about the entrepreneurial process as it really is, read my article Effectuation: How entrepreneurs really think and act.
Philippe Silberzahn is professor of entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation at EMLYON Business School and associate researcher at thePolytechnic School (CRG), where he received his doctorate. His work focuses on how organizations manage situations of radical uncertainty and complexity, from an entrepreneurial perspective with the study of the creation of new markets and new products, and from a managerial perspective with the study management of disruptions, strategic surprises (black swans) and complex problems (“wicked problems”) by large organizations.