By Karen Kwan
In the startup ecosystem, you’ve got incubators and accelerators, but what about that space in between the two? Jeffrey Potvin believes the series of meet-ups he started through Open People Network (a group of angel investors he founded that helps accelerate the growth of startups), PitchIt Toronto, bridges that gap.
Launched in October 2016, they’ve held more than 40 PitchIt Toronto shows, during which startups get to refine their pitches and get feedback from industry experts and investors. Each pitch is limited to nine to 11 minutes, with five minutes allocated to Q&As. Each startup gets a video recording of their pitch and feedback post-show as well.
“We’re a bridge between accelerators and incubators,” elaborates Potvin. “They help a lot in terms of getting a company ready to go, but then they get dropped off at the doorstep and have to find their own way to get investment. So we came in and slotted ourselves into that space in terms of helping them get ready,” he says. Potvin says PitchIt Toronto helps to get them more ready for what angel investors are looking for, in terms of the data and targets. “We help them de-risk their business so that angels will invest in them faster.”
Added bonus to start-ups? It’s all free of charge. At a typical show, Potvin says the crowd is composed of about 60 percent entrepreneurs, 20 to 30 percent venture capitalists and angel investors, and 10 percent of people who are just learning about the space.
It only occurred to Potvin more recently why launching and running PitchIt Toronto has come so naturally to him. About 15 years ago, when he was working at Loblaws in e-commerce, he says the front admin staff knew he worked online and assuming he worked with startups, they would regularly send any startup who contacted the company through to him. “I’d sit down with them and go through their pitch decks, and help them figure out how to better associate their pitch to win over an exec at the company,” he says. From booking the meeting with the executives through to helping them close the deal to get their business inside at Loblaws, he says it didn’t matter what sector or division the product was in and the fact that it didn’t even have to do with what his job entailed at the company. “I just felt compelled to do this. Helping startups get their pitch decks ready and find their voice was easy to me.”
Potvin, who has taught entrepreneurship classes, thrives on helping startups get angel ready. “And what we’ve found is it increased the value of companies’ pitches, which actually increased whole market. A lot of people started to help everybody on how to do complete a better pitch,” he says. Going forward, at the bigger shows such as the ones at Toronto City Hall and in Durham, in addition to the entrepreneurs showcasing and the handful of start-ups pitching, the plan is to have pre-vetted startups attend with the goal of getting them internships so they could develop their products inside of the companies of the executives fielding the pitches.
In the near future, too, he is aiming to get the key players in the start-up ecosystem to build one ecosystem. “Rather than fragmented systems—tying in the city of Toronto, York Region, Seneca and Y Space, Durham and Hamilton, too,” he says. He says they are talking to MaRS about partnering, encouraging them to not go and build something that mimics what OPN is already doing. Building an ecosystem together rather than everyone doing their own thing will generate better interaction and a stronger community, says Potvin.
Although he doesn’t have stats on the success rate, he says many startups have gotten investment after attending PitchIt Toronto. “There’s a good mix of companies from across the board and the investment strategy is all over the map, too,” says Potvin. If you recall the theatre production of Grease in Toronto a few years ago, the production company pitched at the first PitchIt Toronto, and they received funding from the event to create a video production of the show.
“It comes down to helping get start-ups where they want to be.”
Photo credit Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real