Fifty entrepreneurs, whittled down to six. One 2 1/2-minute shot at fame and fortune — or at least publicity, money and prizes. A pressure-cooker atmosphere where judges quiz you before a live audience.
Welcome to the Get Started OC Business Pitch competition: Orange County, California's, own version of "Shark Tank." This year's event, sponsored by Cox Business, was held in Irvine on April 20. "It's an amazing venue," said this year's winner Chad Zani, founder and CEO of ENVi, an on-demand service that uses a waterless, biodegradable substance to clean cars.
The winner of Get Started will receive over $10,000 in prizes, including a Cox Business technology package — not to mention terrific exposure for a fledgling business.
Past winners have benefited from publicity, and some have gone on to win venture capital funding, said event emcee Jodi Duva, vice president Cox Business Orange Coast. The contest was held in Cox business markets around the country, and this was the third year for the event in Orange County.
Zani still seems a bit stunned after winning as the wild card entrant, a new category this year. To get the wild card spot, he had to pitch his idea to Cox OC executives, social media influencers and past winners just an hour before the event. After winning that, he had to compete against the five contestants who had already been selected, pitching to five judges and an audience of 300.
One good surprise followed another. Before the grand prize winner was announced, ENVi won the People's Choice award.
Zani was taking a photo of the award, about to post it on social media saying, "Sorry we didn't win, but we did get this," when his company was announced as the grand prize winner as well. "I was really shocked, and super excited," he said.
His company's app was downloaded 50 times that night, and now has over 1,700 users.
Zani opened his business six months ago in Manhattan Beach after moving to L.A. from his native Australia. "There are more cars in California than in all of Australia," he said.
ENVi's waterless car wash proposes to solve several problems caused by conventional car washes. One is it prevents paint damage. Conventional car washes scratch vehicles, and most hand washers swipe dirt from one area to another, he said.
Another problem is water conservation. Zani is a self-professed environmentalist, and says he deplores the amount of water car washes waste. Plus, he believes it makes sense to have an on-demand service for cleaning cars.
"Who wants to leave home or work and drive all the way to a car wash?" he said.
A special aspect of Zani's business is that over 90 percent of the detailers he employs are deaf. He sought to hire them after learning that the group struggles with high unemployment rates, and he said it has been a very positive experience for everyone involved.
Secrets to success
Zani's business is interesting and has potential, but that was true for his competitors, too. Because he was a long shot in the contest, you might wonder how he pulled off a win.
Though there was no single key to his success, his energy and passion certainly helped, Duva said.
Passion also helped Zani overcome tension.
"Any time you're passionate about something, your nervousness fades away," he said. "I don't like talking about myself much, but I don't have any trouble talking about ENVi and our plans."
Zani also attended the coaching sessions that Get Started offers, and he said they helped.
Duva offers some advice for future contestants: Practice your pitch in front of a mirror. You'll be speaking to 300 people, and you'll be more nervous if you haven't rehearsed.
Another tip: Don't let your pitch stray too far into the weeds. "A couple of the pitches this year were too technical and strayed into the 'how' of the technology instead of the 'why.' If you do that, you risk losing the audience and even judges. Try to make your pitch about the great product, what it will do and how it can appeal to a broad audience," Duva said.
The competition doesn't allow contestants to give PowerPoint presentations, but they are allowed to bring notes. Zani said he was glad he did, especially after seeing some contestants struggle to remember their speeches and answer judges' questions.
Duva also recommends that contestants bring a product sample or prop, if appropriate. "It helps to bring something tangible. You want to be memorable and set yourself apart."
Above all, believe in your product and present it with enthusiasm.
"Presenters whose energy and excitement are contagious do well," Duva said.