Fatal Flaws: A Perro Flaco, Todo Son Pulgas!

For those of you competing in student, employee and or startup idea competitions, here’s what you can learn from your best friend…the Dog.

The Spanish proverb in the subtitle above directly translates to “To a skinny dog, everything is a flea”, roughly meaning:  “To the weak, everything is a problem” or “When it rains, it pours”, etc.

Speaking of dogs and fleas, have you ever heard of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show?  Started in 1877, it’s the oldest sporting competition in the US, after the Kentucky Derby.   Thousands of dogs compete for prizes in various categories including groups of breeds like “Sporting dogs”, “Working dogs”, “Terriers”, “Toy dogs”, “Non-sporting dogs”, “Miscellaneous”, etc.   (They’ve recently added an “Agility” competition –humm? – maybe they’ve been following Lean Startups as well!). The most coveted prize is, of course, the “Best in show”.

The WKCDS is extremely popular, selling out Madison Square Garden for two days and drawing millions of internet viewers – the winner of the 2008 competition, the first beagle to ever win called “Uno”, was invited to the white house and to ring the opening bell at Nasdaq, and not surprisingly since he was a beagle, was also invited to ride in the Peanuts float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade.   The oldest dog to ever win “Best in show’ at the WKCDS was 2009’s winner, 10 year old “Stump” (that’s 70 in people years).   This prompted the oldest ever appointed CIA director Leon Panetta (70) to say “…I come here as the best in show”, only too happy to be compared with “Stump” the Sussex Spaniel. BTW, this year’s winner was the wire fox terrier, “Sky”, beating out more than 2,800 contestants (the 14th time the breed has won).  In case you’re wondering, the prize does not include money, only a trophy, ribbon and steak lunch.

At the WKCDS, dogs get judged on their physical characteristics like weight, ears, teeth, color, etc., but they also get judged on their way of walking and their attitude that’s specifically expected for their type of breed (e.g. proud for a poodle, or cheerful for a beagle).   So a Beagle won’t win if he tries to look like a Fox Terrier and tries to act like a German Shepard, etc.

So, how do you do well in an idea competition?   It’s simple:  Take a cue from the dogs and look good (have a solid plan) and act like you know you look good (present with confidence).   And one more thing that ties in the title of this essay – avoid having any fleas!  Professors, judges and or investors will surely see you itching and scratching, and that will lose you points.  To a skinny or weak dog, everything is a flea – so don’t be weak by avoiding the following common ‘fatal flaws’ in new venture pitches:

  • Trying to solve a problem not worth solving (No customer value proposition, aka solution looking for a problem)
  • Not presenting a feasible solution at reasonable cost (Fine, there is a problem, but your solution is likely ‘not for real’ (including any unreasonable technical, operational, and or regulatory risks and barriers)
  • Not talking about anything that really matters (Fine, there is a problem, and your solution is feasible, but it isn’t a game that an investor cares to win – aka, there isn’t enough upside potential)
  • All theory and no practice (Obviously if you already have traction, this shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re just starting out, talk extensively about your research process – that you’ve been out there talking to customer’s etc.   One can judge you by results and/or belief that YOU get the venture design process and its dependence on feedback loops)
  • Too much logic and not enough magic (Fine, there is a problem, your solution is feasible and some investor should at least care to play the game – sounds too good to be true!  – aka, if it’s so logical, it’s either been tried, but somehow failed or it’s already being done in some fashion or another – there has to be ‘something’ innovative in your pitch)
  • Trying to be something you’re not (An idea with the wrong team behind it (aka, a non-genuine pitch with delusions of grandeur; ‘all bark and not bite’, etc.)) – If you’re a Pekingese, be the best Pekingese and that’s the way to win “Best in show” – not trying to impersonate a St Bernard” – btw, 3 Pekingese have won the WKCDS, no St Bernard has ever won

So either these ‘fatal flaws’ outlined above are inherently there in your pitches and you need to fix them or you’re just not presenting well (or answering questions) with enough confidence.   Make sure you address the issues above as a team so there’s nothing ‘easy’ for professors/judges/investors to pick on.   The only reason someone should pass or stall in approving your venture pitches should be due to  ‘opportunity costs’ – they see an even better dog, not that you’re full of fleas. 

Bow, wow.

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