EntreFEST Day 2: How to pitch a startup from the edge of a rock wall

Steve Shriver, co-owner at SOKO Outfitters of Cedar Rapids (right), climbs during a startup pitch session with founders during the 2019 EntreFEST. Photo contributed/Andrew Ravera, NewBoCo

One of the most original pitching opportunities open to participants at EntreFEST 2019 was born over pre-event beers. 

Steve Shriver, co-owner at SOKO Outfitters of Cedar Rapids, and David Tominsky, chief relationship officer at the New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative (NewBoCo), had been discussing planning for this year’s conference/festival when the climbing pitch was born. 

Shriver has moderated “hundreds” of business pitches in the past, but on Thursday he geared up with six entrepreneurs preparing to pitch their business to investors from a 23-feet-high indoor rock wall at SOKO. One by one, Shriver and the participants made introductions and worked their way to the top of the wall, discussing everything loud enough for investors on the floor to hear, and back down for a final Q-&-A session so the audience could clarify anything they might have misheard as the pair climbed. Next year they’ll try to mic participants, Shriver said. 

“I’m pretty sure it was a first in the nation to do a business pitch while you’re climbing a pitch,” said Shriver, who is also founder/president of Eco Lips and was the entrepreneur-in-residence moderating the rock wall pitches. “The people that were there really wanted to be a part of it. This is out of all of our comfort zones – it was out of my comfort zone, even though I’ve climbed that wall thousands of times.”

Rock climbers are problem solvers: they have to identify the physical path forward before lifting themselves through the route. That might sound familiar to an entrepreneur or two. 

“Where the beauty of it is that if you’re comfortable pitching your idea on the side of a rock face, you should be able to do it in front of an investor group, or a bank or a crowd,” he added. 

The startups ranged on a lifetime spectrum from post-revenue business to a true-blue-new concept. Two out of the six had previously tried rock climbing before. Tominsky himself stepped in, pitching the same event concept to the crowd as a traveling pitch competition at other communities and festivals. 

“I told him that it’s either the most brilliant or the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” Shriver joked. “Business is all about getting out of your comfort zone. You’re taking risks, you’re problem solving and there’s so many analogies with rock climbing and business and startups. So I think it’s brilliant.” 

“What’s really fascinating for me is that I remember almost every word that was spoken,” he added. “I think the level of focus and connection between the moderator and the startup is off the charts … Normally, you sit through a few pitches, and it gets all, you know, jumbled together. This was just a really intense focus on each other and the concept. It was remarkable.” 

Will the rock wall return for EntreFEST 2020? 

“If [they] don’t do it, I’m doing it. Yes, yes,” Shriver laughed. “I do believe it’s scalable … What I really appreciated about this is that these people were so committed to their concepts that they got so far out of their comfort zone to share it. I think it just became a much more meaningful experience for everybody involved.”


(Read EntreFEST Day 1 here).

EntreFEST 2019: By the Numbers

528 attendees

50 staff working across the festival

At least 500 mini-cups of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream free to Jerry Greenfield’s keynote address

6 startup representatives at SOKO Outfitter’s Rock Climbing Pitch Session

4 Cedar Rapids spaces featured during the Coworking Crawl (The Space, Dostal House, Vault and Office Evolution)

2 free books given to participants (“The Build Trap” by Melissa Perri and “Obviously Awesome” by April Dunford)

1 improv class for innovators

More than $20,000 awarded to eight startups during the Venture School Launch Day

Positioning for Success

April Dunford, CEO of Ambient Strategy and author, says she has heard every misinterpretation of business “positioning” under the sun.

“If there’s one concept that is comically, tragically, heartbreakingly misunderstood in marketing, it is positioning,” Dunford told attendees at the close of EntreFEST 2019 last week. “It’s so bad that whenever I talk about positioning, I usually have to start by telling people what positioning is not.”

In short, it is not: messaging, taglines, vision or branding.

It does: “[Define] how our product is the best in the world at something that a well-defined set of customers care a lot about,” Dunford said. “Great positioning just feels like everything’s easy. Bad positioning feels like you’re dragging a ball and chain around behind you.”

Dunford often consults with startups in the U.S. and Canada that are receiving a lot of money from investors, and not a lot of attention from potential customers. One of her biggest warnings to businesses is to identify competitors carefully: “You’ll mess it up if you pick the wrong competitors,” Dunford said.

Thus, an automated industrial robot that kept getting mistaken by clients as a Roomba was identified by its creators as an industrial, artificial intelligence-driven autonomous vehicle. An “email-for-lawyers” product, which didn’t include a calendar, was identified as a team collaboration tool with secure file-sharing capabilities for sensitive documents.

“Folks have an idea about something in their head when they went to develop it … fast forward a couple of years, and you got a thing that looks completely different,” Dunford said. “Deliberate positioning is all about taking a step back and saying, ‘is that really what we are? Is this the best way to position this thing?’”

Marketing of the Future?

There is one singular marketing chart that made brief appearances in at least two EntreFEST sessions: the Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic of 2019, published by chiefmartec.com, which categorizes 7,040 marketing technology platforms under one color-coded and sectioned system for marketers to reference. To those who have never seen the chart before, it is a bomb’s worth of logos.

“If you have amazing eyesight, you’ll see almost all of those [logos] in there – tons of services, platforms, software applications, solutions that pitch something they can help you with,” said Josh McNary in his technology and marketing session. “For my money, this is the best overall quick look at business sales and marketing-related software and technology you can get on one slide.”

For comparison, here’s the 2012 chart April Dunford pulled up with all 350 companies.

“I worked at a martech company, and we had long conversations about this thing,” Dunford recalled from that time. “We thought it was so terrible five years ago – how can anyone figure this out? It’s impossible here now.”