As a 2018 YLAI Fellow, Johanan Dujon, the founder of Algas Organics — the Caribbean’s first indigenous agriculture biotech company — stepped into the spotlight as the winner of the YLAI Fellows Pitch Competition.
Months after the competition, we caught up with the 25-year-old St. Lucian entrepreneur. We talk about what it takes to create a business pitch, presenting the pitch and advice to young entrepreneurs who find themselves in the same shoes as Dujon did four years ago, when he founded Algas Organics.
What makes the perfect pitch?
First, conviction. It’s about how convicted you are about what you are speaking. That comes across very clearly to listeners, investors and judges. You have to believe what you are saying. You could have the best well-laid-out pitch presentation, but if you don’t believe 100 percent in what you are saying, it’s noticeable.
Second, address the questions that somebody may have before they are even asked.
Pitch to friends and family and mentors. Pitch to different people with different backgrounds. Get a different feel for people’s input. Take a look at the questions they have; most likely, those are the questions investors or judges will ask. Pitch to people within your circle of influence and within your network whom you trust and whose opinions you respect. Get feedback from them, and from this feedback you can identify recurring questions and address those questions early on in your presentation. In this way, right from the get-go, you leave no room for initial questions and people are more likely to listen.
What would you recommend to a young entrepreneur who is pitching for the first time?
Practice. Get comfortable with your presentation so that you are not reading off of the screen; you want to know it like the back of your hand.
This builds your confidence and goes hand in hand with conviction. If you are really in a neck-to-neck situation with somebody else pitching their business, if you come across as confident and you know what you are talking about, it can put you ahead.
As important is to be ready to answer unexpected questions in a very composed manner. If investors or judges ask you something you had not considered and it totally catches you off guard, that’s a punch in the face so to speak, so be prepared for likely questions and know your presentation.
When you presented in the United States, how much had you practiced by that point?
Coming from the Caribbean where there is limited access to capital and finance, you are pitching every day, literally. To be frank, for the competition itself, I practiced for days on end, nonstop. From practicing, I learned what to tweak and I prayed a lot.
What kind of mistakes do you see entrepreneurs make when presenting their pitch?
I would say spending too much time on the major and not the minor things. There are things that an investor gets right off the cuff and you may just go at it, hammering it nonstop. That can turn off an investor a bit.
At the same time, another mistake is not giving the major stuff enough attention. When the major points aren’t addressed, then your judges and investors have questions. In this case, attention is limited and conveying a major point in the form of a response that isn’t well thought out and [is] shallow often leaves judges or investors unsatisfied. All of this goes back to being comfortable in your presentation and having confidence in your responses.
Additionally, have slides that properly illustrate what you are saying. People are very visual, so having too much writing is a recipe for disaster. It’s a two-edged sword. First, you are tempted to read because all the information is there and it’s also a pain because people want to see something other than words.
What role do you see intercultural communication play when pitching your idea to someone who is from another country?
Judges and investors tend to have a preference for clear communication and people who answer their questions before they ask them. Regardless of where you are from and your culture, you want to pronounce your words properly and be clear when you are speaking.
I know the language barrier is a major apprehension in some countries, but if you address questions from the beginning and you are confident, people will forgive you for mispronouncing one or two words.
How do you start your visual presentation?
This is a bit of a secret, but what I can disclose is that you really want to assume that whom you are speaking to has no clue what you are talking about. The starting point really is something that catches the attention of your audience and focuses them on the problem and your solution simultaneously, and that is difficult.
You tailor to your audience. I take a different approach if I am pitching to a farmer than I would if I was pitching to an investor. It’s really the angle you take. How you start depends on your audience, for one; and two, it would really be how can you capture their attention and point their attention to the problem and your solution in a few seconds. You want to visually communicate what the problem is; people are then aware of it and then they are more in turn to listen to you and your solution.
How long should you present?
Seven to eight minutes — it depends, again, on your audience. If it’s an investor, minimum 15 minutes to maximum 20 minutes, not including Q&A.
If you are pitching to judges or through a competition like YLAI, what you really want to be comfortable with is being able to get through your presentation in a concise manner and really give yourself enough time to tell a story while addressing your main points.
Whatever time you are given you work with; it really has less to do with how much time you should be given and more to do with how capable you are of bringing your point across on whatever timeline you are given, and that will depend on the audience.
What kinds of details do you need to include?
Your story! People form an emotional attachment to startups. Your story is important; you want to capture their attention with the problem and what you are doing about it. The next logical question is: How do you get started? Take the time to address this because people need to see where you are coming from, and as you progress along your pitch, they will see how far you have come from that initial idea and that builds a special kind of relationship and respect.
What are some examples of successful campaigns/companies/business models that you respect?
I would say Amazon and Jeff Bezos. It’s not because he is the richest man in the world, but because he is customer-centric, and that’s just what you have to be in this business climate in which brand loyalty is being eroded daily. Jeff Bezos has understood how to create value for people. He understands what people need, he understands how people want what they need (which is very fast), and he robustly incentivizes people to stay with him. Apple is also a model that certainly exemplifies brand loyalty, as it has built a value proposition and a unique connection between its products and people.
What advice would you offer an entrepreneur who isn’t totally comfortable with public speaking?
Teach. I was an infant school teacher and it helped tremendously. You get used to speaking to your students and having them understand what you are saying and, as minute as that may sound, it’s really important you do the same when presenting your pitch.
If you are interested in teaching or doing a workshop utilizing YLAI Network tools and online courses in your community, check out how a YLAI Network member coordinated a professional development workshop for her co-workers.
You have to get comfortable telling your story, you have to be proud of it, and you have to see the end goal in mind. I don’t love public speaking, but I understand that by doing so I can build connections and get to places I ordinarily wouldn’t get to had I not done it.
Being in love with what you are doing and communicating that effectively is key. You might not like public speaking, but you need to understand why you do it as an entrepreneur.
How do you make a good impression?
You have to be confident in yourself and your presentation, both the content and how it looks — that means the presentation and yourself. It’s about coming across as being an expert on your business and in your field.
I study my field, so when I speak, I am speaking on the cutting edge of what is happening, and this instills confidence in myself and a level of respect from the people I speak to. Know your stuff!
Why do you think it is so difficult to pitch well?
It takes a lot to really believe in yourself, and practicing your pitch is really for getting your confidence up. If you are not used to public speaking, practice helps with getting comfortable so you are not reading off the screen. That’s all the practice is for, to get you into the groove so that when you step onto the stage you are ready to go.
What foundation should your business model have before making a pitch to an audience?
That’s, of course, creating value. You have a target audience, and you want to create something of value for them that’s different from what already exists. You can have a great product, but if it doesn’t add value to any customer then what’s the point?
Before you pitch, you should also have a proof of concept of some sort, have a minimum viable product or service. You want to have content to actually show people. If you have no channels for what you are doing on the ground, then you are really pitching an idea. Pitching an idea is not a crime, but in competition, it’s guaranteed that you will compete against entrepreneurs with something physical to show, and that’s a different ballgame altogether.
What does success look like to you?
That’s a billion-dollar question, no pun intended. I would say success to me is spreading the solution that is Algas Organics globally. I want farmers from Africa and the Americas and Europe and Asia to experience what Algas Organics has created. That’s what drives me. That’s what success looks like: that at the end of the next five years or so, we have a positive global footprint. It’s not just about being a big business, but about sharing the experience, the benefits, and the empowerment our model gives small, local farmers and commercial farmers. It would make us happy knowing that a farmer anywhere in the world can have access to our product.
What current projects are you working on? How are they going?
In St. Lucia we are scaling up; it’s going well, and the rest of it is a secret! I believe you will hear more about Algas Organics soon, as it’s pretty big stuff we have in the works. We are not satisfied with the impact we are having in St. Lucia alone, so we want to expand to the Caribbean region, in which 18 islands are affected by the sargassum seaweed problem. We want to reach a point in which at least 60–70% of the sargassum is getting processed and that translates to more jobs and other impacts. That’s what I’m working on every day, and we will get there!
And for more information about improving your marketing and pitching skills, check out YLAI Pitch Perfect.