The first- and second-prize winners of the Business Venture category at WeWork Creator—the company’s competition for mission-driven entrepreneurs and nonprofits—in Seoul had good business plans, but that wasn’t what separated them from the other three finalists competing for the regional semifinal on February 28.
“There were things that we thought were weaknesses of a company when we first saw their profile and pitch. But after listening to their answers to our questions, we changed our mind,” says Park Hee-eun, principal of venture-capital firm Altos Ventures, one of four judges at the event. “They made us think, ‘Maybe we were wrong about them.’”
Ultimately, the first prize of $360,000 (400 million won) went to Freshcode, a salad-delivery company that lowers its environmental impact by delivering to designated locations where customers can retrieve their orders. The second prize of $180,000 (200 million won) went to Dot, a producer of lightweight Braille smartwatches that aims to become “Apple for the blind.”
The pitch—and crucially, the follow-up—were key in securing their top spots. “The top one, two, and three I had in mind all changed after listening to their pitches and answers,” says judge James Kim, chairman and CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.
Pitches were judged on the potential for growth as a business; marketing potential and visual attractiveness; ideas for creating shared value; and the CEO’s passion, confidence, and persuasion. But it was the Q&A session, where the finalists were asked on-the-spot questions about themselves and their products or services, that made the most impact.
Judges probed at the weaknesses in Freshcode’s philosophy and business model, asking questions: How do you plan to change the perception that salad is not a meal in Korea? How can you make it better for people who have to make a 30-minute roundtrip to get their order? and What do you think is a healthy life, and what can you do to provide that?
But Yoo I-kyeong, co-founder of Freshcode—which is a WeWork Labs member at Seoul’s WeWork Yeouido Station—didn’t flinch. “I was happy to receive these questions because these were parts I couldn’t address due to time during the 60-second pitch,” she says. “They were questions I’d received from many people over the past three years.”
During the Q&A, Yoo displayed her knowledge of the market and how Freshcode has been experimenting with it.
“The judges asked a lot of questions about the market size and potential to all of the finalists,” she says. “What differentiated us, I think, is that we actually had been running the service for three years whereas other companies were just finishing up making the product or just beginning to sell. For us, there was a lot to show.”
Dot received equally piercing questions.
“Every single judge asked about the market being small. But I answered, ‘It’s small but a defined market.’ I made it clear that we were the ones trying to devise a solution in this market,” says Choi Ah-rum, Dot’s marketing director. “It’s small now, but it’s going to change for future generations. I think the judges were convinced by this.”
Moreover, Choi was able to convince judges that the niche market gives Dot an edge. “I told them because the market is small, the big-name companies like Apple and Samsung didn’t enter the market,” she says.
Choi says the judges’ questions were the same ones Dot’s team has considered for years.
“We had asked ourselves [the same questions] many times. This is why we could resolve the judges’ doubts,” says Choi.
After the pitch round, there was “a lot of disagreement among the judges [in selecting the winners],” says Irene Kim, a model and entrepreneur who also judged the event. But in the end, the businesses that resolved the judges’ doubts clinched the prize.
The takeaway: How well you know your market—and how well you can address your business’’ weaknesses—can make or break funding.