Pitch Perfect: Pure Harmony Amidst The Noise


A Guest Blog From 2015 Camelback Fellow, Jonathan Johnson

“Tell more about Ricky.”

“Tell less of your Ricky story.”

“You say too much about how Rooted School works.”

“You don’t say enough about specifics and logistics.”

… Or so went the flurry of feedback following my practice pitches for Rooted School with mentors, advisors, friends and colleagues. 

Over the past three months, I’ve pitched Rooted School to major funders and influencers like Camelback VenturesTeach for America’s Social Innovation Awards and Echoing Green. Fluttered in between those gut-wrenching competitions have been a deluge of potential industry partners, media outlets, and potential students I could potentially work with during our pilot year.

If you’ve had the privilege to have your own pitch coach, you know how vital their feedback can be; hearing from savants who do this for a living can change the game for early stage social ventures.

But if you’ve ever experienced what it’s like to have multiple private pitch coaches … then you probably feel my pain. The experience can quickly shift from the “Manna from heaven” feeling to trying to hear a penny drop in Times Square—impossible to hear your voice amidst the noise.

I was getting great feedback, but I was also getting further behind. After every practice run with a new pitch coach, I felt more and more conflicted about the approach and content of my pitch. One person’s good advice began to conflict with another’s advice. Every time I revised it, something got lost.

If you’ve ever experienced this, you feel like you’re trying to be all things to all people—in the forever abyss of noise. Where do you go from here?

Of all the advice I received, one adage was compelling enough to stick and lead to my eventual success in telling Rooted’s story: People don’t care about what you do so much as why you do it.

Funders and other stakeholders knew they could easily get into the details of why my school design might be disruptive in the charter world. And the same was true of others’ brilliant ed-tech products. What they cared more about was why I chose to leave a successful teaching career at a prominent charter organization two weeks into the school year. They cared about why I chose to pursue my venture full-time, with no certainty of funding in sight. They cared about the events that led me up to that moment in time, or as Joseph Campbell once put it, my “Call to Adventure.”

What drove me into the most wildly exciting adventure of my life was a former student of mine, Ricky Summers. By 8th grade, Ricky had closed a four-year achievement gap in reading and math to put himself on track to receive full-tuition to any state university in Louisiana.

At the same time, Ricky also sold drugs to support his family. In the spring of my second year of teaching, Ricky was murdered during a drug deal gone bad.

Ricky was taught by some of the best teachers in the country, in one of the best school models in the country. He worked as hard as any student I had to get to college. Yet, none of these were enough to protect him from the real, material conditions of the poverty he faced everyday as a poor, young, black kid in New Orleans.

I didn’t know it at the time, but his untimely death would lead me to build a school that could beat the streets in the fight for our students’ lives.

To my surprise, sharing my why got me further than any direct explanation of my traction or value-add—even though both of those are very important. Sharing my why would eventually land me a pilot within an existing high school and funding that doubled by operating budget—all within three short months.

Sharing my why is what worked.

So, I ask you: Who is your Ricky? 

I’m not asking you to identify a story as dramatic as the untimely death of my student. I’m asking about the event that pushed you toward the precipice of this adventure; that was compelling enough to make you quit (or think about quitting) your job.

That is the story worth telling. That is what people want to hear, more than anything. Because in that story is your purest harmony amidst all the noise.