The Valley of Death and the Art of the Pitch
Imagine waking up each morning to a conundrum. You are a traveler making your way through a stark, unforgiving valley and you don’t know the way out. There is the sky above you, steep mountains that surround you, and the earth beneath your feet.
You start each day trying to gauge your progress. There are clues left on the trails where other travelers have been, but the valley itself has shifted. The mountains lengthen, shorten, disappear, or appear every so often, just to keep it interesting. The path someone else took that let them out of the valley may no longer exist. The things you did last week that brought you closer to exiting may no longer work because that exit may no longer exist. There is precious little food or water and starvation is a real possibility—even a probability.
Every day, thousands of people make their way through this valley. They are entrepreneurs engaged in one of life’s most addictive, frustrating, and rewarding pursuits. Originally coined by Stephen Markham, the entrepreneurial term “Valley of Death” is the time between starting a business and finding a sustainable and scalable business model. During that time, the business is typically not generating enough revenue to cover its costs. As a result, it is unlikely to attract significant investment. It is a deadly cycle—most startups do not survive. Negotiating startup entrepreneurship has been the focus of the burgeoning Lean Startup movement. What is missing from those conversations is an examination of the human side of the journey.
Last year, I conducted a study of Detroit-based early-stage startups. I am an anthropologist and my discipline involves the study of people. My focus is on discovering the sociocultural aspects of startup entrepreneurship. I believe that finding out more about how we create businesses will tell us more about ourselves.
In my research, I found that there is one undeniable truth: All businesses—from Google to newly formed ventures—are powerful, meaningful ideas, but they do not have physical form. Much of what entrepreneurs do when they form their companies involves associating artifacts with their business in order to give them substance. Materiality enables other people to interact with their company. These artifacts might include business cards, an office, a business plan, or articles of incorporation. The most dynamic object associated with their business concept is the entrepreneur themselves.
The central ritual in startup culture is delivering an elevator pitch. The elevator pitch is a short presentation given by the entrepreneur of the problem a business addresses, the solution proposed, and an introduction of the team. Pitches also communicate more abstract qualities such as business savvy, technological wizardry, or likeability.
The style of dress and speech choices used while pitching follow specific cultural patterns. For technology-oriented growth companies, the preferred pattern is American college casual. Jeans, casual blazers, gym shoes and t-shirts are the consistent uniform. Jeans don’t need to be belted, but cannot be worn so that undergarments are showing. There is no flashy jewelry, are few tattoos, and the color palette is muted.
I found that pitches are typically delivered in English spoken at an undergraduate collegiate level. Colloquial speech may be used for effect. “Waiting SUCKS!” declared an entrepreneur pitching his new app. “We make customer service dead %$#&ing simple!” proclaimed a slide in another pitch deck. Such colloquialisms may only go so far. “We make customer service dead mother%$#&ing simple!” would be inappropriate. Speech is actively voiced, so you won’t hear “Customer service is made dead %$#&ing simple by our company!”
Pitching is an embodied experience. It takes mental preparation, but it is the presentation of one’s physical self in front of an audience. For the time of the pitch, you are not just yourself; you are the embodiment of the business that you are pitching. Your personal identity is merged with the concept. If you feel that your body is projecting uncertainty, you feel that you are presenting a business that is uncertain. If your pitch is accepted or rejected, you can feel as if you were personally accepted or rejected.
Pitching is ritual, not just because of its stylized activity, but because of its magical feel. It is typically intended to elevate the business and the self—using financial or social capital—to ultimate success. That higher goal, the connection with the audience, and the specificity of the action gives pitching a sacred feel. Like testifying in a Baptist church or calling down rain on thirsty crops, it is a transcendent experience of the mind, body, and spirit.
As startup entrepreneurs, we wake up every day to new challenges. What we face is as much about faith and magic as it is about finance and marketing. Remember to embrace change and to enjoy the journey.