While the pandemic has proved a challenging time for many businesses and consumers, some entrepreneurs have used this time to launch promising new companies. In the first CO— Roadmap for Rebuilding event, panelists shared insights on defining your audience, finding your niche, pitching your idea to potential investors and much more.

Event host Jeanette Mulvey, Content Director at CO—, led the discussion, which combined expert advice and personal stories from new business owners. The panel included Ramon Ray, founder of Smart Hustle Media; Greg Bryon, co-founder of Pasta Packs; Ashley Haynes, owner of Learning Leaf Child Development; and Charlie O'Donnell, founder and general partner of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures.

Here are some of the top insights from the panelists.

You can start a business today, despite the pandemic

During the panel, both Bryon and Haynes spoke about their experiences starting businesses during the pandemic. The common thread for the two is that they provide products and services their local communities need now.

Bryon’s company Pasta Packs, a Tampa Bay-based meal-kit delivery service, was started in March 2020 after Bryon’s brother Nic lost his job as a sous chef and the two felt they could capitalize on people needing to cook at home.

“During the first week of the shutdown here, we were cooking constantly at our house and decided to jump straight in,” Bryon said. “We saw an opportunity for people to have an elevated cooking experience that was very simple and quick.”

Haynes had initially planned to launch her company Learning Leaf Child Development, a child care center in Washington D.C., in March 2020, but all child care centers were closed locally. The pandemic ultimately delayed the launch to January 2021, but she still has followed her initial vision of providing a welcoming place for the children of “older millennial” parents.

“I thought it was important to create a center that was magical for the children but also an experience for the parents,” Haynes said.

Know your customers

One of the top challenges for businesses early on, Ray said, is determining how to market your product or service and who is the best fit for it. Companies should walk themselves through a series of questions to help figure this out, including:

  • Who is your target customer?
  • How do you narrow your reach to a specific segment of people?
  • What problem am I solving?

Businesses should work to answer these questions by being in close contact with established and potential customers. For example, Bryon said his company performed research locally with friends, family and people in his network that he could generally imagine as clients. The brothers collected extensive feedback and designed the product to their tastes.

“We wanted to position ourselves for someone that has good taste in food, is into the experience of cooking and has a higher net worth,” Bryon said.

The goal of a good pitch is to get them to the next meeting. It’s not to convince them to invest off one sentence.

Charlie O'Donnell, founder and general partner, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures

Don’t overprice (or underprice) your product or service

Ray notes that one of the most important things to consider when starting a business today is deciding on your pricing model to maximize profit.

“Do you want one, to have high volume and low price, which can prove challenging against the bigger brands of the world, or two, do you want to go low volume with a premium price, which will get you a higher profit?” Ray said. “Scissors can be 99 cents, but it’s okay to have scissors that cost $49. It all depends on who you are selling to and what they see as the worth.”

Haynes echoed that thinking somewhat when creating the pricing structure for Learning Leaf and sought a balanced approach.

“In childcare, you are placing your most valuable asset in a place where you don’t know everyone,” Haynes said. “My job with pricing is to make sure I’m not pricing myself out of the market, but I can’t charge too cheap of a price because red flags go up with parents. There’s a delicate balance to [feeling] like they aren’t getting ripped off and getting something high-quality.”

What investors look for in pitches

Part of the process of launching a small business can be seeking investment from banks or venture capitalists. But many pitches fall short and don’t move the needle. O’Donnell shares a few points about what he believes makes for the most compelling pitches:

  • “The first thing is clarity. People put a lot of pressure on themselves to impress and will try to use a lot of fancy words. But if I don’t understand what it is you’re doing, I’m not going to take that meeting. Be upfront and direct.”
  • “Too many people talk about what they’ve done in the past. I’m buying a share in the future. I want 70 to 80% of your pitch to be about where you are taking this thing.”
  • “The goal of a good pitch is to get them to the next meeting. It’s not to convince them to invest off one sentence.”

Data is helpful in the pitch process

Haynes said she sought out funding primarily from family members and banks, and that she was able to eventually obtain a 7(a) loan from the Small Business Administration. She was turned down three times before getting a “yes.” Haynes stressed that data was crucial for her financing pitches.

“Data about the neighborhood, the shortage of child care centers, and the high-income net worth of parents in the neighborhood where I was trying to buy a property — those were all important points,” Haynes said.

Understand that ‘a pitch is not a promise’

One final point O’Donnell makes about pitching to investors is not limiting your thinking about the future of your company. Business owners should be able to talk about potential growth in a real way, even if they fall short later.

“The idea of your business existing five to seven years from now is important, even if you can’t imagine paying the bills for next quarter,” O’Donnell said. “A pitch is not a promise. The expectation is not that you get this right. It’s the exercise of potential. As a VC, I want to know what is possible.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Follow us on Instagram for more expert tips & business owners stories.