Our startup, Deck – won the Qualcomm QPrize India 2013 and this is our QPrize story.
This story doesn’t actually start at the QPrize event itself but two years prior to that when we participated in another startup competition organized by a tech major as part of our earlier startup.
The attraction to enter this particular contest was that it had a top prize of $40,000 – not quite the $100,000 offered as QPrize but not an insignificant sum by any measure.
Even though we had not participated in any startup competition until then, we were confident of doing well as the contest format was right up our alley.
Each startup had to make a presentation for around six minutes where we needed to demo the product, explain how it was useful and compelling and establish how we were unique.
Post this, a panel of judges would ask us questions that we needed to answer.
We were to be judged on parameters like business idea, depth of value proposition, product maturity, uniqueness of business model and finally, alignment with the tech major’s own strategic imperatives.
We put together a killer deck, created a snazzy product demo and practiced our pitch for many hours until everything was just right – we were now a well-oiled machine ready to face the world! Our product was strategically aligned to the tech major’s own product line, which significantly boosted our chances as that was one of the judging criteria.
Finally, it was the day of the big event. There were around eight other finalists competing with us. Our turn came and we made a solid pitch – everyone seemed to love our demo and we ticked all the judging criteria from establishing our product value to how we were unique and had the right team to deliver in this market.
At the Q & A session, we answered all the questions posed by the judges succinctly.
From the reactions of the judges and the audience, we felt that we had a great chance to win.
Until HE came to present…
His name was Girish Mathrubhootam and he had started a helpdesk company called Freshdesk just a few months back. I had seen his website earlier when we were preparing for the finals and to my eyes, there was nothing particularly exciting about his company or his product. Until he started to talk…
Girish started off by saying how he left his well-paying corporate job and plunged into entrepreneurship despite having a family with two small kids to support. He spoke about how a casual comment on HackerNews had sparked off an urge to do something of his own. I was standing on the sidelines and watching his performance – I took a look at the judges table and saw it immediately!
The judges were hooked and were like putty in his hands! While they had observed other pitches rather impassively until that point, their body language indicated that they were really taken in by Girish’s story – hanging on to his every word, empathizing with his situation, almost rooting for him!
Girish concluded by quoting a famous punch line from Superstar Rajnikanth that had both the audience and the judges in splits and nodding in appreciation.
Now this was the most interesting thing about his pitch – he didn’t follow any of the guidelines laid down as judging criteria. He didn’t talk about how his product was different or compelling or about his business model would work. In fact, he never actually showed a single screen of his product even though that was supposedly a key judging criterion. During the Q&A, the judges had nothing to ask him, so one of the judges asked him to show them the product – Girish rather reluctantly brought up a few screenshots of his product – they looked like screens from some open-source RoR ticketing system that a schoolkid had skinned for a class project.
It was soon time for the results.
Even before they were formally announced, I knew who would win. Quite predictably, Girish and his team took home the grand prize. (NB: We were the runners-up and won $15,000. We were not particularly exultant as we subscribe to the school of thought that believes that one doesn’t win silver, one loses gold!)
Even though we have never actually met or spoken to Girish, he taught us a valuable lesson that day – one that we hold dear even today. Girish probably doesn’t even know who we are but we see him as our “guru” - he is “Drona” to our “Ekalavya”!
So what did we learn from Girish? When you are in a contest or indeed even in a real-world situation when you are pitching to a customer or investor, there is only one thing that matters – “MAKE THEM CARE”.
What does this mean?
Every time you are in a “pitching mode”, the biggest challenge that you face is to make your audience care about you and what you are talking about – there is so much of “noise”, cynicism and apathy in today’s ADD-driven world that you have won half the battle simply by making your audience care about you.
How Girish “made them care” (and how we can too!)
1. Use the opportunity to share something of yourself
Girish’s recollection of how he had to sell his car and his discomfort explaining this to his two sons came across as sincere and empathetic. Sharing stories of your struggles or failures is a great way to connect with your audience as everyone has experienced these in life and makes you appear more human.
2. Use humor
Cracking a joke, especially if it is one about yourself, is a great way to break the ice. It shows the audience that you don’t take yourself too seriously and folks love speakers who are able to laugh at themselves as it shows your vulnerable side. By weaving Rajnikanth’s punch line seamlessly into his narrative, Girish tapped into the well of goodwill that a universally-loved figure evokes and made it his own.
3. You never forget a good story
Girish’s story about how a comment in HackerNews sparked off his venture might well be apocryphal but it is a good story! It is pithy, relatable and good in every other sense – this makes the pitch memorable.
4. Make your own rules
The rules of the contest required you to show a demo of your product and explain your solution and business model. Girish didn’t do any of these things! He recognized that there weren’t his best facets and therefore chose to make his own rules by narrating his story evocatively instead of showing a dry demo. It was undoubtedly a risk but he had nothing to lose but everything to gain if it paid off.
A few months after this event, Girish raised his Series A funding from Accel Ventures, one of the world’s most prestigious VCs and has since gone on to raise over ten million dollars in funding and build a multi-million dollar business. Today, Freshdesk is probably one of India’s hottest startups.
From our side, we used these lessons when it was our turn to pitch at the QPrize event and those went a long way towards helping us win.
By a strange quirk of fate, the very VC that backed Girish, Accel Ventures, has now joined hands with Qualcomm for this year’s QPrize event and the prize money has been increased from $100,000 to $250,000. Winning the QPrize event was nothing short of a life-changing event for us and
I strongly encourage you to apply for the event this year to see if it changes your life!
Submit your entry for QPrize here: www.qprize.com
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