The Toughest Audience I've Ever Pitched

One of the hardest business pitches I gave was two years ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

My co-Founders and I were part of the Hult Prize Accelerator. Part of the program was a weekly pitch to a 'mysterious' audience. (It really wasn't much of a mystery; the audience was usually a mix of successful entrepreneurs, angel investors, venture capitalists (VC) and business executives.) The secret was simply 'who' and 'how many.' That is, until the fourth Friday mystery pitch where nothing could have prepared us for the audience we saw.

It was a bunch of kids.

Eight of them, to be exact. They just sat there, twirling around in their spinner chairs as they helped themselves to a tray of snacks. Everyone was 11 or 12 years old.

I thought it was a joke. Or a mistake -- maybe the wrong room? But no and no. A name tag hung from every kid's neck, prominently displaying the word "Judge."

I should have felt immediately relaxed - even relieved - that my young, unsophisticated audience would be far easier to impress than a VC whose been 'wowed' to the point of immunity. Yet, I felt even more nervous and totally defenseless.

The thing is, a VC would excuse me using the typical slew of business clichés that are designed to rescue insecure entrepreneurs when they don't know what they are talking about (something that happens surprisingly often, by the way). However, none of this would fly with my young audience.

They expect simple, direct language. They demand clarity and do not care for jargon. They have an unrivaled ability to distinguish between what is "cool" and what is "gimmicky". Most importantly, they have no interest in social convention and don't sugarcoat. If they don't like you, you will know it.

So here I was, backed into a corner where brutal honesty was the only check being cashed.

I decided to keep it real. I said things like, "My company farms bugs so that people can eat them" (at this moment, a chorus of 'ews' and 'yucks' were audible), or "Lobsters used to be the food of poor people," or "The next time you eat shrimp, take a good look at it -- how is it any different from a cricket?"

It was one of the hardest -- and one of the best -- pitch sessions I have ever experienced. My young audience did not ask me about our hockey-stick projections or how we plan to finance our growth. They did not ask about our barriers to entry or exit. They did not even really ask about our rollout plan or go-to-market strategy. All of these were questions for which I was prepared.

Instead, they asked me about whether it is ethical to kill insects for human consumption. They asked if we thought about marketing our mission to a much younger audience. They asked if, by the same logic, we can 'farm' endangered species in order to preserve them, and whether this could be a profitable business. These were questions I wasn't fully prepared for, and that made for a lively discussion. They asked and commented, and commented and asked some more. The energy was contagious, and so were the ideas.

Ever since that Friday two years ago, I now go out of my way to pitch my business to any kid willing to lend me an ear (preferably two). And why wouldn't I? Who would pass up a no-cost, high-yield brainstorm session with a true outside-the-box thinker?

This is why I was thrilled to present Aspire to a capacity crowd of 16,000 brilliant student leaders at We Day Seattle last month. I had no idea what to expect, and nothing prepared me for the excitement, engagement, and excellent questions that came my way.

Who knows? Maybe the next big breakthrough for Aspire won't come from the boardroom, but from the classroom.