Perfect pitch: Brands+Startups concludes with epic finale at VSA

The Brands+Startups™ 2014 Mobile Marketing Challenge came to VSA Partners’ Chicago office on September 18 as the centerpiece of the Heartland Mobile Council’s Mobile University Week. Four startups that had received coaching on business growth and marketing strategies made their final pitches to the coaches and an audience of 100. The winner, SimpleRelevance, took home the grand prize of $25,000 after a strong pitch from CEO and Founder Erik Severinghaus.

VSA’s Pat Palmer, Partner and Discipline Lead—Strategy and Analytics, welcomed the audience to VSA. “It was a pleasure to host Brands+Startups and be a part of an inspiring and insightful evening,” he remarked after the Challenge. “VSA has a legacy of connecting big brands with the big ideas that often come from startups; to be able to see the next generation of firms grasp how important their marketing and branding strategies are—and demonstrate them to an audience—was energizing.”

The evening kicked off with a panel session featuring Brands+Startups coaches Corey Bieber of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Steven Surman of Mead Johnson Nutrition and Don Wortley of Best Buy, as well as Momentum founder and managing director Mario Tapia, on the challenges and differences in pitching to venture capital firms and brands. Tapia also introduced four Momentum-accelerated startups—coming from as far away as Turkey—which all pitched their offerings and capabilities.

Finally, the four finalists pitched and laid out their essential positioning one last time to an audience that would decide the winner by text voting. SimpleRelevance “makes it easy for huge companies to leverage data to send far more effective email.” Storymix “is the best platform for generating compelling videos for brands and agencies that need a continuous source of consumer stories.” CareerStarter “offers audio, video and work samples for job applicants at client organizations, making their decisions to hire much easier.” And Paperwoven “provides a mobile, on-demand service to send personalized greeting cards to customers”—they even demoed their app live, arranging a thank you card to be sent to VSA.

Severinghaus’s pitch touched on SimpleRelevance’s many capabilities, all of which analyze the many data points around email—open times, subject lines, product recommendations and dynamic content—that offer uniquely personalized emails for customers. With a nightly refresh, SimpleRelevance gathers demographic, geographic and social data around each customer’s preferences to predict more exact and successful engagement. The company proudly spoke of their 100% success rate in converting companies from their pilot program to clients and the 30 million users of their software.

After the big check had been signed and the SimpleRelevance team returned to work, Severinghaus commented on the finale of the Challenge, which began on June 26 in a crowded field of 30 other startups. “It was really cool watching the companies and the pitches evolve week to week; many of them I’ve known and respected for years. Similarly, it was a very intelligent and professional audience at the finale. There was lots of buzz and energy in the room.” He went on to reflect on what the experience meant to his company. “SimpleRelevance has benefitted tremendously from taking part in the Challenge. Probably the biggest impact for us has been around our positioning and messaging. Over the years, we’ve invested a tremendous amount in building a next-generation machine learning platform, but have only recently gotten good at how we succinctly message that to potential clients, investors and others.”

What about next year’s startups seeking to get the most out of the Challenge experience? Severinghaus had some parting advice, emphasizing the importance of preparation. “You get out of this event what you put into it. We flew out to Minneapolis to spend time with Best Buy and met with Don multiple times to incorporate their feedback into making our pitch better.”

Thanks to all who attended the Brands+Startups finale, especially the startups that demoed their products. Follow the Heartland Mobile Council on Twitter to get news on how to be a part of next year’s Brands+Startups cycle. And visit VSA’s Facebook page for a gallery of Challenge photos.