How a start-up's winning pitch landed a deal with a mammoth retail chain

Key copying kiosks from start-up KeyMe are available in stores across the US, including 7-Eleven, which was its first big retail partnership.
Source: KeyMe
Key copying kiosks from start-up KeyMe are available in stores across the US, including 7-Eleven, which was its first big retail partnership.

For burgeoning retail product entrepreneurs, the difference between success and failure can lie in just a few key meetings with retail executives. The seal of approval from these trusted brands offers immediate exposure to millions of customers — both online and in-store — while also signaling to customers that they can trust the quality of your product or service. For KeyMe, that retailer was 7-Eleven.

When KeyMe — which allows customers to copy, save and share keys via a retail kiosk and a mobile app — first got started, we went door to door into mom-and-pop grocery stores and corner bodegas in Queens, New York, with a prototype kiosk, hoping to get some customer data. We got a few stores to try us out, and before long we had commercial-ready units under development and had gotten the ear of a large brand-name VC.

In the past, when we had presented the opportunity to disrupt an antiquated but lucrative $7.5 billion offline locksmith industry, we got a lot of interest. They loved our tech, our team and the opportunity. The roadblock, however, was always the same: "Are retailers going to want this?"

In an attempt to address this concern, the VC firm introduced us to the head of 7-Eleven's Innovation Group. If we could convince him to give us a pilot, the VC would help fund our first round.

This was the biggest pitch in our company's history. After all, that seal of approval works both ways. Failure would send a signal to other retailers that we weren't ready for the big-time or, worse, that there was something dangerous lurking in our tech or our financials that made 7-Eleven pass on us. This pitch needed to be perfect.

But before we broke out the projector and practiced our PowerPoint skills, there were a few key lessons we had to learn.

1. Make your pitch fit the bigger company's goals.

Each company has its own mission, values and culture. It's really important to put your service in the context of broader company goals. In the case of 7-Eleven, we studied annual reports and quarterly earnings calls to get a deeper understanding of what was important to them. We examined the way the company talked about innovation and goals for the future. One theme they seemed excited about was offering "neighborhood services" — services that were once offered by small, independent stores but were still necessary to local clientele. We then framed our offering within this context.

We then took it a step further, trying to learn more about the person or people we'd be meeting with. What are their goals? What excites them? What scares them?

2. Play mental chess with your audience before meeting them.

In talking with our contact at the VC fund, as well as industry insiders we had met with elsewhere, we learned that there is a culture of risk-aversion at many major retailers. In the world of the retail executive, the fear of jeopardizing your reputation trumps the upside of looking like a hero. To counteract this potential issue in our 7-Eleven pitch, we had to play a little mental chess — making sure we thought two and three moves ahead to possible responses and pushback.

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We framed our service as a way to meet the goals of the innovation team, tailoring our pitch to be no-risk, high reward, with a turnkey offering that required no financial commitment from 7-Eleven. That way, if we failed to knock their socks off with the value of our service, our primary stakeholder could kill the pilot without any risk.

3. Practice your story many times before it's showtime.

Most people are not great public speakers. Even fewer are great storytellers. In a good pitch, you have to do both. At least 50 percent of every pitch's success has nothing to do with the data or the numbers. The story you tell and the way you communicate is what they will remember. For 7-Eleven, this story had to talk about providing a convenient neighborhood service, driving traffic to the store and providing no risk to the retailer whatsoever.

Because it can be hard to know how you are coming across or what is most memorable about your pitch, make sure you give the presentation to entrepreneurs you respect who have been there before. If you are lucky enough to have investors from an early stage, use them! Get feedback, iterate, do it again. This relentless feedback cycle will make you significantly better at communicating what you do and why it's special. Our early investors, like Ravin Gandhi, were immensely helpful in crafting the perfect pitch for 7-Eleven.

4. Team is everything; get it right early on.

The presentation went well. When it was over, the response we got was "Let us know when your kiosks are ready and we'll find a home for them."

The pilot got them even more excited. They loved the traffic generation and the customer experience KeyMe delivered. They added us to several of their stores and even became an investor in future funding rounds. 7-Eleven's seal of approval gave us credibility with other retailers. That quickly turned into more pitches.

After we managed to get a few retailer partnerships under our belt, I thought I was doing a good job at sales. Once we had an experienced sales executive on board, I quickly realized how far I was from a true expert. New team members helped me get more organized, further tailor my pitches toward scale and expansion, and grow my business to where it is today. Focus on getting amazing people on board early; it's the single most important factor for success.

So many entrepreneurs believe they have to do everything themselves. But once you get that all-important seal of approval from big retailers — our kiosks are also available at Bed Bath & Beyond, Rite Aid, Safeway and Kmart, among others — you will find many things you don't know. And that's when the real fun begins!

— By Greg Marsh, CEO of KeyMe

Marsh founded KeyMe after seeing his wife get locked out of the house several times and thought the locksmith industry was broken. He dropped out of Columbia Business School to found KeyMe. Marsh, a CFA, previously worked in the technology and investment industry.

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