What It’s like to Pitch Your Dream VC Inside an Actual Elevator

Aaron Dinin, PhD
6 min readFeb 27, 2020

Early in their careers, entrepreneurs are told to practice the skill of quickly and concisely explaining what they do. The concept is called an “elevator pitch.” It’s a framework for thinking about how to tell a condensed but interesting version of their startup’s story. They have to imagine being able to get an investor excited about their startup in the time it takes to ride an elevator because that’s about how much time investors need to decide whether or not a company is worth learning more about. However, it doesn’t mean entrepreneurs have to actually pitch their companies inside elevators. That would be crazy, right? Except that’s exactly what happened to me, and no amount of practice could have prepared me for the experience.

Ten years ago, I was at a startup networking event on the 10th floor of a mid-rise office building in Philadelphia. The event was filled with the usual collection of mostly super-early founders, some established entrepreneurs from the community, and a few locally-based investors. I was one of the dozens of super-early founders with an unproven startup idea and visions of raising millions to get it off the ground. In other words, I was too inexperienced to understand that the “raising millions” part comes after the “proving the idea” part, not before. So, naturally, the only people I wanted to talk to were the investors.

As usually happens during these kinds of events, I wasn’t the only person searching for funding. The dozens of other hungry, young founders in the room were competing for time with the same few investors in the room, and, self-conscious about not wanting to seem like a jerk, I hesitated to interrupt someone else’s conversation.

After an hour, I felt like a failure for not pitching any of the VCs, so I decided to quit. I left the event early and headed for the elevator with my proverbial tail between my legs.

As I stepped into the elevator, I heard someone call out, “hold the door!” I obliged, pushing the “door open” button. A few seconds later, in steps a senior partner from First Round Capital, seed stage venture fund to a few startups you might have heard of… Uber, Warby Parker, GroupMe, Mint, BirchBox, Blue Apron, etc. Put simply, for a young founder in the startup world, getting an investment…

Aaron Dinin, PhD

I teach entrepreneurship at Duke. Software Engineer. PhD in English. I write about the mistakes entrepreneurs make since I’ve made plenty. More @ aarondinin.com