Engineer like a German but Pitch like an American

If there is one thing Katja Lesche, Co-Founder and COO of Frankfurt-based software startup onapply has learned during her time in the U.S., it is the importance of thinking big:

“If you want to make it in the States, you need to have an inspiring vision. Germans are just too honest, too realistic, too modest. When we tell Americans about our big vision, most likely they will tell us that it is not big enough.”

Katja knows what she is talking about: She spent several months in Silicon Valley after her company was selected to participate in the German Accelerator.

The Difference Is in the Pitch

Intercultural differences between German and American founders probably become most evident when it comes to pitching. The quality of a pitch primarily depends on the person who gives it – and they get their message across.

Americans, being great salespeople, tend to deliver pitches in a very different way from Germans. This can be quite a challenge for German startups competing with local companies for venture capital in the U.S. market. Therefore, pitch training is an integral component of the German Accelerator’s three-month workshop and mentoring curriculum.

Usually, Germans are very product-oriented. Their teams have talented engineers that build solid products but don’t exploit their full potential when it comes to selling their idea. They tend to talk in detail about the features of their current product. Even though these might be technically groundbreaking and flawless – this is not what counts in the U.S.

What counts is to have a bigger idea. To sell a vision that goes beyond the existing product and looks at potential future business models and revenue streams.

“Contrary to the German mindset, American founders do not settle for a slow-growing, steady business. They look for groundbreaking ideas that shake up entire markets, ideas that make them a unicorn (i.e. a company valued at $1B or more) within a few years,” Katja Lesche says.

It is one thing to have an inspiring vision. It is quite another thing to bring this vision across in a pitch. Americans regularly describe their product as the best product that can attract the most customers and generate the highest revenues. Anyone who has watched a product presentation by Steve Jobs or Elon Musk knows how often words like revolutionary, disruptive, and amazing are used.

What might be perceived as bragging from a German perspective is exactly the kind of confidence VCs want to see. They want to see a passionate founding team that believes in their product and is confident they are the next billion dollar company – because this is what VCs are looking for.

There is more Germans can learn from Americans when it comes to delivering a good pitch.

Americans don’t take time to beat around the bush. Content is supposed to be straight to the point and follow a well-conceived storyline. Instead of getting lost in product details, pitches need to be short and concise. They should be focused on what value a product brings and who benefits how – and what this benefit looks like in numbers. All claims must be substantiated with hard facts and figures. A big vision always needs to be founded on promising existing KPIs and traction.

There are two main reasons for the differences between the German and the American style of pitching. First, Americans grow up in a culture of selling, networking, and self-promotion. Unlike in Germany where modesty is not considered a virtue, but a lack of confidence. Already in school, students are taught how to give a personal pitch, learning how to best present themselves to a potential employer within a short amount of time. Networking generally is of higher significance in the U.S., which means people have more opportunities to pitch – and learn how to be convincing.

Second, American society is deeply rooted in the belief that anyone can achieve anything if they work hard enough. This explains the optimism and strong belief in big ideas among American founders – even if results may only come far in the future.

There is a lot Germans can learn from Americans when it comes to selling their ideas and products. It is important to know the rules of the game when entering the U.S. market, rehearse your pitch with a market expert and give American investors what they want to hear: an inspiring vision, passion, confidence, proof in numbers – and all this in a nutshell. However, German founders must never forget to stay true to themselves: “Made in Germany” is still approved worldwide as a hallmark of excellence, and there is no need to hide German roots.

This article originally appeared in the QX Quarterly Crossing Magazine – Volume #7.

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