Monday, September 14, 2009

Elevator Pitch

My minor is entrepreneurship, so this semester I am taking a business class which is basically Starting a Company 101. I am fantastically excited about this class; the teacher is engaging and knowledgeable and the material is fascinating to me. During the course of the class, the students will be divided into teams which will each develop a business worth 50 million in three years.

Our first assignment was to submit an idea for a business. Makes sense, I thought. I have many, many ideas for companies, but unfortunately I am only allowed to submit three ideas. I did my best to choose the three most promising, and with some trepidation I sent my pitches off into the cloud.

Everyone's ideas were available during last week to the whole class, and we all got to rate the ideas and comment. As I was looking through the ideas to rate them, it was painfully obvious that this was a class of business people. So many of the ideas were "Wouldn't it be great IF....." type of ideas with no way to make it into reality. Like, we should revolutionize air travel. Yeah, we totally should, because that's not capital intensive at all. Or, wouldn't it be great if we could have an online way to do all our healthcare records, so it's easily accessible to doctors. Um, yeah, and possibly accessible to more nefarious eyes as well. Fanciful ideas for mobile apps abounded, but I subscribe to TechCrunch so I recognized lots of those mobile app ideas that are already under development. Even if they weren't, who in this class could possibly make a website, let alone write a piece of software? My personal favorite: "The Rod of Moses" which would be able to turn urine into drinkable water. Yeah, buddy, let's see the engineering basis for THAT trick.

So I was pretty pleased with my three ideas, which I think have a firm basis in reality and which I have the necessary expertise to actually pull off. But my ideas have only been rated 3.2, 2.9, and 2.2 out of 5 by the class. Not great, I thought, but on the other hand after seeing all the ideas I'm not sure that I trust these people's rating skills anyway. :)


Today in class, I arrived and sat down with a few minutes to spare. The professor walked over to our side of the room, and asked "Does anybody over here have an idea?" Not wanting to be the overeager volunteer, I stayed quiet. Absolutely nobody raised their hand or made a sound.

Wait, did I miss something? Was not our last assignment to SUBMIT and IDEA? How do none of you have an idea? Is this a TRICK QUESTION, for crying out loud?

So I raised my hand and said, "Yes sir, I have an idea." "Fantastic!" said he, "Please come on down to the front."

Come down to the front? What now?

The professor gathered two other students and had us sit down in three chairs in the front of the room. "Now everyone here has an idea, right?" the professor said. Myself and the guy in the middle nodded. "Wait, I need an idea?" said the girl on the end. Um, HELLO honey, yes you do. It turns out this girl was "very excited to be working on an idea", all enthused and all of that, but had "nothing IN PARTICULAR in mind." Go sit down, my dear, apparently it WAS a trick question for her...

It turns out the professor wanted us each to pitch our idea to the class in a one-minute segment. Now, I know enough about business to know that this is called an elevator pitch. I also knew that I did not have one prepared. But, I figured I only have a minute so I only have enough time to pretty much blurt out the idea and why I think it's important. Can't possibly be that hard.

So I had to go first.

I was facing a class of 120 students, the vast majority of whom are business students and most of whom are in suits. I spent the day in the machine shop, so I tried to pick the aluminum chips out of my hair and wipe my hands on my jeans before I started. I took a deep breath and stood up.

I introduced myself, and used my most charming and confident personality while I explained one of my ideas to the class. I was short and sweet, although I stuttered once or twice. I was allowed to take one question, and then my turn was up and I sat down.

After the other two guys had given their pitches, the professor announced that he was holding a vote - which one of these students, he said, would you want to work for? Which idea do you think wins?

Ack! You gave an awkward engineer a single, lonely minute to impress 120 business suits with a highly technical startup idea, and now you'd like to submit her immediately to a popularity contest? Do you want to send me into THERAPY? But I suppose in the brutal world of business, this is how it goes - there are winners and losers and you have to deal with painful, honest evaluations of you and your work at every turn.

The professor wrote our three names on the board, turned around and said, "Okay now, the TA is going to help me count hands. Who likes Miss Outlier's idea and wants to work with her?"

This is the moment on American Idol when the last contestants are clutching hands, certain that in a few short moments someone is going to break into tears. Balancing on the wobbly line between success and failure, about to be shoved one way or the other by a merciless group of your peers.

And do you know, I peeked out from the hole I had just dug in the floor to avoid judgement, and I saw that something like 60-70% of the class had their hands raised.

"Umm, you got that?" said the professor to the TA. The TA just laughed, and the teacher put >50% on the board. The other two guys got 10% and 10%, respectively. (Yes, I see the discrepancy - I am aware. I repeat, it's a business class - the numbers don't have to add up...) It was an incredible ego boost to see that people liked me, and thought that I both presented myself and my idea well.

"And you are a PhD student?" the professor asked. Yessir. "In the engineering school?" he asked credulously. Yessir indeed.

"Wow," the prof said, "that's rare."

Yes, what can I say, I am an outlier.


  1. That class probably would have made me spontaneously combust.

  2. The urine into drinking water idea is not really far fetched (or even particularly novel). Nasa has been working on something similar for space flights and recently testing it on the space station.

  3. Well how about that - I shouldn't have been so critical of the Rod of Moses...