Four founders walked on stage.
Only one took a $10,000 investment and a selfie with Will Smith. Here’s how.
Thousands of people filled the seats. Hundreds more lined the walls.
On the big stage in the Moscone Conference Center in San Francisco, actor Will Smith and movie director Ang Lee discussed their upcoming movie, Gemini Man.
At one moment, Will Smith said he wanted to invest in startups. So the TechCrunch host, Anthony Ha, shifted the conversation and invited four startup founders on stage to pitch.
The founders were each given a 40-second time limit for their pitches with a hard cut off.
It was evident. They were nervous.
“It’s only an opportunity of a lifetime and everything rides on this, so just relax into that,” Will Smith joked.
The first founder was so nervous he had trouble breathing and speaking. But his product was super cool.
The second founder went. She spoke clearly, but her pitch went over the time limit. Her product was too complex for a 40-second pitch.
The third founder stepped up, took a breath, and launched into a polished, rhythmic, and concise story. The moment he finished, the crowd erupted. Cheers roared. Will Smith’s open mouth face said it all. I caught the whole thing on camera and made an IGTV video of the pitch and Will Smith’s reaction.
The fourth founder went but everyone could tell Will Smith’s mind was already made up.
At the end, Will Smith stood, announced his pick, and took a selfie with the Kofi Frimpong, the third founder, and gave him permission to use the photo for promotion.
Then Will Smith took it a step further and announced he was going to invest $10,000.
It might not sound like much, but one venture capitalist put it into perspective:
I circled up with the lucky founder Kofi Frimpong to hear his story and what the whole thing felt like.
Surprisingly, I learned that maybe he didn’t get lucky after all — Kofi’s backstory actually makes the miracle of the moment seem like less of a miracle and more of a masterpiece.
Luck definitely had something to do with it — but this wasn’t Kofi’s first time on the main stage giving a startup pitch. When he took the mic, many thought he was just another nervous first-time founder, but unbeknownst to many, Kofi wasn’t nervous at all. His career is built around being a pitchman and a storyteller. He had previously won hundreds of thousands of dollars winning startup pitch contests. It was his number one skill. One might say if painter’s paint and sculptors sculpt, Kofi pitches.
His big moment with Will Smith may have lasted only 40 seconds, but Kofi’s story illustrates the fact that success happens when opportunity meets preparation.
What nobody knew about Kofi Frimpong
Kofi Frimpong is the 30-year-old founder of a startup called Socionado in Los Angeles.
He went to Princeton as a pre-med major, but after participating in a pitch contest and placing second, his world turned upside down.
“I loved it,” he said. “I like telling and understanding stories. It’s my skillset.”
It felt like a freestyle rap battle — high-pressure exchanges that fascinated Kofi growing up. “You have to get the crowd involved,” he said. “You have to stay focused while your opponent is dissing you — the guy in front of you might make a face that throws you.”
Kofi channeled his passion for storytelling into startup pitches. “A pitch contest comes down to who can tell the best story,” he said.
The founder said he’s won a lot of pitch contests. It’s how he’s raised his funding as an entrepreneur. When he was 22 years old, he won $50,000 from Intel Innovators. Last year, he won $100,000 from TechSquare Labs in Atlanta.
“Pitching was how I supported myself.”
Pitch tips for high-stress moments
He wasn’t supposed to pitch at TechCrunch Disrupt 2019, but two hours before Will Smith arrived, Kofi received an email.
“I got an email around 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday saying hey, Will Smith feels like hearing pitches. No winner or losers, he just wants to hear pitches. We want to bring you on stage with three others. You’ll have 40-seconds.”
Surprised, Kofi immediately took a seat in a corner from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.and worked on the pitch.
Forty seconds is not a long time. Kofi said he structured his pitch in four parts to make sure he touched on the hard-hitting details. “I start off by capturing the audience, beginning with a Did you know fact in the first sentence. Then I unpack the problem, present the solution (his company), and what makes us excited about this opportunity(size of the industry).
Usually, when he gives a pitch, he doesn’t memorize it. “I have blocks of what I want to talk about,” he said. “But you want to freestyle a little because it comes across more organic. Otherwise, it feels forced and robotic.”
Behind the stage at the event, TechCrunch assigned a coach to Kofi to help him with his pitch. “She recommended a number of changes,” he said. “But I didn’t change a thing.” He smiled. He knew better from the night of his worst pitch.
His worst pitch happened in college when he made last-minute changes to his pitch because everybody at the event was taking a “super techie” approach. “I followed what everybody else was doing when I should’ve told a story,” Kofi said. “I did a bad job according to my standards because I didn’t tell a story. You can do both, but for me, I gotta do it with swag, not regiment.”
What it feels like to pitch Will Smith
Kofi stepped on stage with the other founders. Will Smith was sitting there and behind him were tens of thousands of people watching.
“I didn’t see the crowd at all,” Kofi said. “I heard the other pitches; they seemed scared. I felt calm. Will is a human just like I am. Whether he believes in this or not, it won’t stop me. I was ready to seize the moment.”
Kofi’s confidence was evident in his pitch. He spoke rhythmically, the rap battle background shined through. His preparation paid off. When Will Smith said his name, Kofi knew he had won.
Will announced his investment in the company, took the selfie, and said thank you and goodbye and walked off the stage.
To everyone watching, Kofi got lucky. To Kofi, it was just the opportunity he had been preparing for since college. If there was one person to win an impromptu pitch competition with Will Smith as the judge, it was him.
Success happens when an opportunity meets preparation. Always be prepared to pitch. The better prepared you are, the better your pitch will be. Nerves can get to you if you just wing it.
The best pitches are stories, not formulas.
In high-pressure situations, stick to what you believe in — you know what works best for yourself better than anyone else.
Cofounder, Hopin. Startup journalist appearing in Inc., CNBC, Axios, Business Insider. Creator of https://mediumwritingcourse.com and Party Qs app.