by Charlotte Oxnam, McCormick ’23
I applied for Chicago Startup Week on a bit of a whim. Cue the Curves began a year ago, first as a plus-size clothing directory, and has now morphed into a community platform for plus size women to discuss fashion and discover their style. As I have worked on Cue the Curves more and more, my motto has become “getting turned down and never trying share the same outcome.” In the beginning of Cue the Curves, I felt like everyone I talked to had to think it was a million-dollar idea or else it would fail. But as time has gone by and I have become more confident in my business, the few naysayers get to me less and less. So when I got an email to apply to Chicago Startup Week for the pitch competition, I figured that the worst that could happen was that I lost, but got some constructive feedback and met some cool people. The best was that I would win the competition. The risk assessment was pretty clear, so I pressed submit. It was at the moment I clicked the button that I remembered I have never created a formal pitch deck or really had to sell my concept to anyone besides explaining to a friend over dinner what I was working on.
The structure of the Chicago Startup Week pitch competition was as follows: on Monday, March 15th, there was a keynote from an amazing Venture Capital investor about what he believed made a great pitch, followed by a one on one pitch workshop where startups got to practice their pitch and receive a ton of feedback. The first round of pitches was on Wednesday, and the finals were on Friday. And if this seems like something you couldn’t handle while in school, I had three final exams between Monday and Friday so if I can pull it off, so can you! Because the first round of pitches were not available to the public to watch, I didn’t have a great sense of where I stood compared to other startups and I was a nervous wreck all day. I was ecstatic when I was announced as one of the finalists. As I watched the 10 final pitches, having given mine three minutes after submitting an Economics final and then immediately getting in a car to go to the airport, I distinctly remember thinking to myself “well this has been a cool experience but there’s no way I’ll win this.”
When they announced me as the winner, the reason the judge gave for why they chose me was not anything extraordinary about Cue the Curves itself. It was that I was a founder that they believed could make it happen. A great startup is great because of the team working on it, and learning that was a prize in itself, and has already helped me so much.
Here are my key takeaways from the week that I will apply to any pitch event or competition I participate in from now on:
- You need to think about three things when creating a pitch: the head, the heart, and the gut. You need to convince the person on the other side of the table (or screen) that your idea is solid and makes sense – that’s the head. Then you need to get them emotionally involved and to actually care about the problem you are solving – that’s the heart. The most elusive is the gut. Every judge/investor/person will have a gut feeling about your startup. The best way to turn that in your favor is to make sure you come off as trustworthy and that you know your stuff. Remembering who your audience is and tailoring your pitch to them will help you achieve all of these things.
- Feedback is key. Give your pitch to your little brother, your grandma, a random kid in your economics class. Give it to as many people as possible and make sure they give you their honest opinion. You would rather hear that there is a key part missing from them rather than from the judges. Of the 41 startups competing, about 15 showed up to the pitching workshop and at least 6 of the 10 startups in the final were part of that 15.
- It’s not all about the competition. While it is exciting to win a prize, some of the biggest opportunities I have gotten out of CSW came from the networking and connections with other founders and the judges and mentors participating. Don’t be afraid to reach out to another founder who you thought had an interesting pitch, or a judge, or speaker that you want to talk to more.
Winning Chicago Startup Week launched Cue the Curves into a hyperdrive. My team has grown and I’ve been invited to be on panels and run workshops. We are capitalizing on this momentum and plan to launch our mobile app this year and start to work directly with brands to help them better serve their plus-sized customers. We wouldn’t have all of these opportunities if it wasn’t for putting myself and Cue the Curves out there and signing up for events like Chicago Startup Week.
This article was written by Charlotte Oxnam. Charlotte is an industrial engineering student at Northwestern and the founder of CuetheCurves.com, as well as a student aide at The Garage.