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#Unpitch Lives Up to Its Name in the Best Possible Way

June 26, 2014 · 3  min.

“We are pretty sure that all the investors here are human beings.”

With that, Scott Kirsner kicked off this year’s Unpitch, one of the more informal and human events to pair founders and VCs you’ll experience.

NextView Ventures co-founder and partner David Beisel attended the event as one of the 20+ local investors present.

“As VCs, I think we have a responsibility not just to be participants in the local startup ecosystem but to be active contributors,” he said. “Even though this was just a couple hours, it can still be incredibly meaningful if even one entrepreneur builds new relationships or gets feedback that puts his or her company on the right track. It all keeps the ecosystem healthy and growing.”

Inside Unpitch’s Origins and Format

Last fall, another event came to Boston that requires entrepreneurs to pay somewhere in the ballpark of $1,500 to attend and pitch a selection of investors. But several entrepreneurs and Boston startup supporters felt there needed to be something more founder-friendly in the ecosystem, including Abby Fichtner (Harvard Innovation Lab), Kirsner (Boston Globe), Jeremy Weiskotten (Terrible Labs), Phil Beauregard (Objective Logistics, Rekindle), and others.

The New England Venture Capital Association (NEVCA) led the way in producing, planning, and sponsoring the event along with this team of entrepreneurs. TUGG and MassTLC were also heavily involved and on hand.

The result was an event that’s strikingly different from other pitch-based gatherings, if not the exact opposite.

Here’s how it works:

1. Founder Payment (or Lack Thereof): There is no fee for the entrepreneur. Instead, the VCs who agree to attend foot the bill for lunch, while sponsors provide additional planning and support.

2. Formal Pitching (or Lack Thereof): The event enables informal discussion and feedback but very little formal pitching, if any, which is by design. This removes some of the pressure from both sides, founders and VCs, and it keeps feedback more earnest and open, according to the founders in attendance.

3. Formal Structure (or Lack Thereof … seeing a pattern?): The desired outcome was more akin to thoughtful mentorship than transactional pitches (though of course the idea of securing funding was present). The afternoon thus centered on an informal lunch, with VCs and entrepreneurs assigned to specific tables. After lunch, organizers announced every half hour or so that founders were free to move to other tables without offending anyone — or remain in place if that proved more valuable.

Bookending the table-based discussions were blocks of time to network at the beginning and end.

According to Kitt George from NEVCA, Boston and New York were both heavily represented last year, but attendees came from as far as Texas and parts of Canada. This year, more international founders were expected, and over 225 entrepreneurs applied to attend.

Unpitch 2.0: Relationships Over Transactions

“Yes, I’m looking for funding, but today, I’m looking for relationships with people around town at this point,” said Scott Liang, co-founder of Place Pixel. As a recent alumnus of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Liang admitted to being somewhat green in the ecosystem still and understood that, before you can get to a more direct pitch, you need actual, human relationships.

Daniel Graf, co-founder of Ovatemp, said the first thing that drew him to Unpitch was the name.

“It gets your attention,” he said. “I think the format is great. It’s friendly — you can talk to investors without being so formal. Normally what I’ve been doing is to contact the CEOs that a VC has invested in already to get referrals or advice. That takes a ton of time. Here, they tell you, ‘Just go sit over at that table,’ and you’ve suddenly saved a few months’ time.”

Dave Peth, the founder of Symbolic Studio, says he doesn’t have a product ready to go (outside his current business), but he was there seeking exactly what Daniel Graf praised: informal, low-stakes feedback on ideas and challenges.

“I got more honest feedback both positive and negative than I could hope to get across a number of meetings,” he said. “There’s not a set dollar amount at stake, so there’s an opportunity to be more direct in this environment.”

[Getting meetings] takes a ton of time. Here, they tell you, ‘Just go sit over at that table,’ and you’ve suddenly saved a few months’ time. – Daniel Graf, co-founder, Ovatemp

This only happens if the entrepreneur doesn’t launch into a lengthy pitch after each handshake and the VC is willing to actively and willingly engage and offer feedback. To the credit of the organizers, the Unpitch format allowed for exactly that.

“The expectation [for entrepreneurs] is to come with a question, not a pitch, to help me really understand your business and make the conversation valuable and useful for both sides,” said Karen Rubin, who represented her former employer, Matrix Partners. She’s now a product manager at venture-backed startup Quanttus.

“It definitely lived up to its name,” said NextView’s David Beisel. “The way the format worked, it really fostered genuine conversations. It was the right balance between unstructured — to create the informal environment for honest conversations — and enough structure to facilitate that discussion and make sure both sides contributed.”