Pitching Someone Else’s Business

By Matt Bornstein

In our recent business model exercise, I worked with Shereen Khanuja and Stephanie Frias on their business Hypeli.  Hypeli, currently in closed alpha, is a platform that allows event planners to directly book live performers (such as musicians, DJs, or dancers) without going through a talent agent.  For customers, the benefits are better selection, assurance of quality, and lower rates.  For performers, the benefits are a larger pool of potential customers, simpler logistics, and lower agency fees.

As part of the exercise, I pitched the business to a prospective investor.  The primary purpose was to give Shereen and Stephanie a chance to evaluate their business objectively.  I also learned a lot from the experience, though, and want to share what I took away from it:

1.     It’s possible to learn a lot in a short amount of time.  Nothing gets your head in the game like an impending presentation to your peers on a topic you know nothing about.  My knowledge of this business is still tiny compared to the founders, but I think I was able to cover the most important bases.

2.     Business model & customer knowledge are half the battle.  When I fielded questions about Hypeli, I relied heavily on my knowledge of other platform booking services and on my familiarity with certain user segments (brides).  My answers probably weren’t perfect, but I did find I could port a lot of this knowledge from one specific business to another.

3.     It’s a lot easier to poke holes than build a positive argument.  The HBS case method is built on intense scrutiny of the ideas and actions of others.  This may or may not be the right mode for a professional manager.  But we will certainly need more creative, positive energy to start a business.

4.     Identification bias sets in fast.  For 90 minutes before the pitch, I was assigned to be “Doctor Mean,” putting Shereen and Stephanie through their paces.  I asked hard questions and tried to draw out / clarify fundamental assumptions.  I felt like the supervillain at the table.  After 5 minutes of pitching Hypeli, though, I felt like an advocate & had some sense of shared ownership.

Net-net, I thought it was fun & much easier than expected to step into the role of fake founder.  The experience made me think back to an in-class discussion of passion in entrepreneurship.  Investors often look for founders addressing personal pain points and companies with compelling history / mythology.  I understand the logic and agree with the practical need for intense, even irrational determination on the part of entrepreneurs.  Building a big company is, after all, an extremely unlikely event.

I wonder, though, if passion can come from sources other than a personal story  – if the simple act of jumping into a leadership role at a company can generate authentic connection and drive.  CEOs of large companies are not always avid brand advocates or customers, and their jobs are hardly easy.  Is the act of starting a business unique enough to require a totally different kind of passion?  Passion that not only exists but has a personal, verifiable origin?


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