Start-up pitching: By his royal appointment

Pitching to a room full of peers is difficult enough, but imagine doing it with the scrutinising eye of HRH Duke of York less than 10 feet away.

In his role as Britain’s special representative for international trade and investment, Prince Andrew criss-crossed the globe looking to bolster the UK economy overseas. Now however, the Duke of York is turning his attention to a decidedly more domestic agenda – the development of start-ups.

Through his event Pitch@Palace, now in its second outing, the Duke of York is hoping to support young people in developing skills so that they become more employable. With businesses inevitably requiring fewer employees due to the rise of technology, he’s hoping that instilling an entrepreneurial attitude in British youngsters will lead to more companies being set up – in turn providing more jobs.

Pitch@Palace will bring together 40 enterprising UK businesses, with a select few then pitching to a room of investors, mentors, CEOs and generally people who are in the position to help.

As a prelude to the event, which is being held on 5 November, the Duke of York brought six perspective start-ups to the WIRED 2014 conference so that each could speak for three minutes to the room about what the business did and where it was going. At the end of the pitches, the audience was asked to vote for their favourite and the top three would then go on to boot camps.

Outlining his plans to the room at WIRED 2014, the Duke of York said, ‘The position I come form is it is not all about money. It’s about whether they can have one phone call or follow-up meeting with a person from the room.’

Having thought about setting up his own fund to invest from, the Duke of York decided that focus would be too narrow and not provide him with a way to support the maximum number of entrepreneurs. He now describes himself as an ‘accelerant’ and is keen to source partners, collaboration and people who know other businesses.

It’s a bold approach from a man who was more likely to be extolling the virtues of Rolls Royce during his trade envoy days than a pre-profit start-up. It is, he explains, about making sure a big crop of those coming out of education are being entrepreneurial.

Speedy speech

First on to the stage for their pitch, set strictly at three minutes and subject to flashing lights if gone over, was Anna Maybank and her business Poetica. Billed as the ‘best way to get feedback on writing’, Maybank said that if people aren’t able to communicate great ideas then they are essentially worthless. With other platform for writing and sharing already in existence, Poetica is helping writers to get better.

Launched in June, Poetica has grown to 7,500 users – with a large swathe of those being start-ups wanting help with emails or funding applications. ‘Our goal is that it becomes a way for everyone to get feedback on writing, whether it is marketing copy or legislation, and we want to be the best,’ Maybank stated.

More on pitching for finance:

From online writing to personal finance was the route linking us to the second pitch and Squirrel. Co-founder Mutaz Qubbaj began by asking whether the room could imagine living on £8 of disposable income a day – a reality for many. With a sizeable portion of those people turning to expensive forms of credit to make ends meet, Squirrel has been developed an offering to help users manage their finance and cut down on the stress that ultimately impacts on the performance of a business.

Squirrel plugs into payroll systems to provide budgeting and bill managing tools associated with everyday life. Applications such as GoalPay, EarlyPay and BillPay allow users to set goals straight from payroll, gain early access to accrued wages and negotiate bills. Qubbaj boldly declared that if Tesco used Squirrel software it would save approximately £120 million a year due to a reduction in workplace stress.

If Squirrel allows businesses to make life easier for their staff, the next pitch was all about greasing the wheels of invoice payment – a bugbear for thousands of SMEs up and down the UK. Chaser co-founder and CEO David Tuck started by revealing some £360 billion was written off globally by EU businesses last year, with the UK making up £55 billion of that.

Based on evidence showing polite persistent is the most effective form of chasing, Chaser is providing a new, more automated, way of doing this. It’s ‘re-imagining how invoices get paid,’ Tuck declared. And the entrepreneur had the figures to prove it, with evidence revealing that 20 days after invoices were due, 20 per cent more had been paid after using Chaser. As a team of four, Tuck wants to get busy hiring and grow annual recurring revenues to £1 million sharpish.

Whilst still a technology business, next pitch Therapy Box was a rather more emotional and personal proposition. As a language and speech therapist, co-founder Rebecca Bright noticed that aids to augment speech were not only expensive, £5,000-£10,000 a pop courtesy of the NHS, but ‘cumbersome and uncool’.

‘We want to deliver aids which make communications easier and more affordable,’ she explained. For people who can’t access normal tablets due to movement problems, Therapy Box apps are responsive to subtle indicators such as eye movement and breath.

Now available in eight languages and downloaded 37,000 times, the company’s commercial success has meant it has been able to invest in innovation. The start-up is also working with the University of Delaware so that those who know they’ll be losing their voice can bank it for the future. While this would have cost £60,000 traditionally to do, Therapy Box claims to do it for the app price of £110.

Crowd pleaser

On stage next was extravagant entrepreneur Pavneet Singh, resplendent in a top hat and passionately talking about the importance of algorithms in today’s market. Without them, he told us, there would be no software. His business, WIDE IO, has been set up to serve as a marketplace for algorithms – linking the creators with the businesses that need them.

With building in-house or outsourcing both hard and expensive, WIDE IO’s Algobox is pairing with leading universities in the UK to serve a as form of technology transfer system. A lot of good algorithms remain trapped in labs and research papers, Singh said, meaning universities miss out on revenue. 

The business is currently in beta stage right now; building up to a stage when downloading will occur in February. Nonplussed by the scrutinising presence of HRH in the front row, Singh finished with a flourish, declared his love for the Queen, and darted off the stage on the stroke of three minutes.

Rounding off the pitching session was BorrowMyDoggy and its co-founder Rikke Rosenlund. It was a business that will emanate with anyone who owns a dog, and knows how much work goes into it, or has taken one for a walk, and longs to have more contact with canines.

Whether it is just for a walk, a weekend or a whole holiday, BorrowMyDoggy pairs owners needing dog care with those with not the time or money to have one full-time. Borrowers pay an annual charge of £10, and owners £50, with a ‘careful’ vetting process making sure there is peace of mind.

All six start-up entrepreneurs made a great case in the limited three minute window afforded, not getting bogged down in financials but making sure as much top line information was taken away as possible. While not as limiting as an elevator pitch, all will have gained valuable experience of getting to the point and getting listeners excited about their companies.

The real-time vote saw Poetica, Squirrel and Therapy Box crowned winners on the day. A boot camp awaits the three where only one will go forward to pitch before the investors lined up by the Duke of York on 5 November.

Having watched his charges address the audience in the seat next to me, the Duke of York swept out of the room with his entourage. Let’s hope his clout holds some sway when it comes to securing finance for the Pitch@Palace start-ups.

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter was the Editor for from 2012 to 2014, before moving on to Caspian Media Ltd to be Editor of Real Business.

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Business Pitching