Just in time for Halloween, this month's "Tooling Up" begins with a horror story told to me by my friend Mark Logomasini. But this story has no ghouls and goblins. It is a chronicle of the anxiety at the heart of one of the most ferocious competitions in the world. It's also a story with a happy ending.

Mark is a biotech entrepreneur, the CFO and VP of Business Development for San Diego's Molecular Medicine Bioservices. Recently, I had the chance to ask him about his career, and about one key moment when he learned some of his life lessons.

"No matter where you are in your career, you'll find at regular intervals that if you don't do something dramatic to shake things up, you could easily retire doing exactly what you are doing today. As much as I enjoyed it, I didn't want to end my career selling filters," said Logomasini, a chemical engineer who had previously worked as a distributor for filtration supplier Sartorius.

Mark's idea of doing something dramatic was to identify a business that could be acquired on a modest investment and then move the business into success via external funding. So he co-led the acquisition of an early stage viral-manufacturing joint venture that had been formed by the University of California and Hoffman La Roche. They intended to transform this virus manufacturing facility into a new private venture. Together with his partner, a senior manager in the company, they succeeded, and when they did, Mark soon found out how difficult it is to raise money, even with an MBA and a fair amount of audacity.

"Even with a lot of great contacts from UC Irvine's business school, the going was very slow," Mark said. "Things started to click when I met the Tech Coast Angels a few months before the annual Harvard Business School Entrepreneurs Conference at the Hyatt Irvine. The Tech Coast Angels are the major investors behind startups in this part of California, and they work with the University of California Irvine to host what is called a "Fast Pitch Competition" at the close of the Harvard meeting every year."

Mark's voice changed when I started asking him about the Fast Pitch Competition. Despite the fact that he participated way back in 2002, the topic still brought a lot of emotion to the surface. And that is certainly understandable. The Tech Coast Angels are a tough crowd; these savvy investors whittle hundreds of business plans down to fifty credible applications, then keep whittling. Only a dozen make the "Fast Pitch" cut. Logomasini's proposal made the cut.

What does this honor mean? For people like Mark Logomasini, it means facing up to the toughest competition of their lives, where 50 seconds stand between failure and success. It's like having dozens, maybe hundreds, of job interviews simultaneously so that you win them over--all of them--or lose them--all of them--at the same time. And you've got all of 50 seconds to make your pitch.

Talk about stress! Each and every person in the ballroom of the Hyatt Irvine is a potential investor, and to Mark and the other contestants, that person standing in the back was just as important, potentially, as the judges.

The Competition
The timer projected on the side of the hotel ballroom stood at least a story tall. Yet it wasn't the most intimidating aspect of the meeting room. As Mark entered, he let it all sink in . . . the professional video-cameras, the raised stage with its bench for the judges, and, most concerning, four hundred seats that would soon be filled with prospective investors. A lone microphone stand stood at the front of the room, in full view of the judges and the audience.

Most of the movers-and-shakers who would make up that audience were still at dinner in the next room, networking and renewing acquaintances. Logomasini and his competitors for the Fast Pitch Competition hadn't felt much like eating or drinking. No wonder; they'd been working for months fine-tuning the presentation they would make at this special event.

"It was the most pressure-filled environment I had ever seen, and I considered myself to be quite expert at delivering a prepared talk to an audience. My heart was beating in my throat." Mark had already had twenty years of sales experience, yet the pressure here was nothing like he had ever felt before.

As the hall started to fill, all eyes were on the twelve bodies lined up against the wall on the left side of the room. The judges, all experts in their respective fields, began to file into their seats. Among them were attorneys, major investors, and representatives of large accounting firms. All of them were powerful dealmakers in the Southern California region.

Next, the Angels brought in their coaches to stand near the contestants whom they had assisted in fine-tuning the presentations. After a few remarks, the arena was hushed as the first speaker worked his way up to the microphone stand. He passed his coach, gave a slight, nervous nod, and moved up to the stage. Mark was speaker number six.

"I actually thought about leaving," Mark reflected as he thought about that day. "I gave serious consideration to just disappearing, to walking out a side door. I remember wondering what the effect on my career would be, and weighing the positives and negatives of getting out of there as fast as I could. It felt like a meat market."

We spoke about the gut-level fear that many people have of public speaking, and how this event pushed every bit of that fear to the forefront. "It's quite clear to me now that this is done for a reason. These investors want to see that every ounce of passion and perseverance is used; it's the person who can make it through this event who is going to hang in there."

At the end of the first presentation, Mark watched as the judges each held up two numbered signs, Olympics style, with numbers 1 through 10 signifying two different ratings. The first number graded the speaker on whether they got their point across in the allotted fifty seconds. The second set of numbers indicated how "fundable" the judges believed the idea. Consecutive speakers went through pure agony or some degree of success and applause. Mark felt his stomach muscles tighten into a knot as speaker number five finished and the judges' cards came up.

As he made eye contact with his mentor from the Tech Coast Angels, he hoped he wouldn't embarrass the fellow too much. Without so much as a scrap of paper for notes, Mark stood in front of that bare microphone stand, looked into the video camera, and waited for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the huge timer on the wall advanced and the microphone went live.

Here's the text of Mark Logomasini's winning pitch, which he delivered in 50 seconds to over 400 attending VIP's at the 2002 Tech Coast Angels Fast Pitch Competition:

 

"Molecular Medicine BioServices makes viruses for companies working on vaccines, gene, and cell therapies. Our clients account for more than one-third of all drugs, approved or in clinical trials. Molecular Medicine is one of the leading providers of contract manufacturing and development services for these life saving therapies.

My name is Mark Logomasini. I built and sold one of the largest biosupply companies in the Western U.S. Last fall, I helped take this company private from Hoffman La Roche and the University of California. We completed a Series A round for working capital. We're now trying to raise $7.5MM for a facility expansion.

We have contracts in place from NIH, the Department of Defense, biopharm companies, and universities. We've booked $4MM so far this year, and we will be profitable by the end of this quarter."

By Mark Logomasini, CFO & VP Business Development, Co-Owner
Molecular Medicine BioServices, Inc.

The only negative comment that came back about the above pitch was Mark's use of the word "trying" in the second-to-last paragraph. The judges felt that he could have been stronger in that sentence, to show that there is no question at all about the ability to raise that $7.5 million.

The Lessons Learned
I promised you a happy ending. Mark noticed, when his fifty seconds were up, that the front row had broken into wild applause. When he turned to look at the judges, all he saw were 9's and 10's. Sure enough, he had won the 2002 Fast Pitch Competition.

But Mark's success didn't lead immediately to millions in investment capital. That took a while. Good things finally happened for Molecular Medicine Bioservices when the videotape of the twelve contestants made its way to a venture capital firm which, although not present in the audience that day, agreed with the judges that Mark's business was fundable.

Today, Mark's firm asks all its job applicants to deliver a short, succinct presentation to company management on a topic of their interest, a distinct holdover from the lessons that Mark learned that day about how much brief, powerful communication can tell you about a person.

As a Tooling Up reader, you may already know that short presentations about yourself can be valuable. I wrote about that fact in "Tell me about yourself" back in 1998. Back then I suggested that you practice a 2-minute answer to this request. But now, after talking to my friend Mark, I'd cut that way back. Fifty seconds is the right number. "Go past that, and you'll lose them. Anything less, and you haven't given yourself enough credit," says Mark. "The purpose of a brief pitch is to hook the other party into wanting to hear your second, third, and fourth minutes."

Personally, I've learned that it takes immense amounts of practice to be able to present that 50-second statement under pressure. "Count on those close to you for help," Mark advises. "My wife and even my 6-year old son Sean listened to me for weeks, helping with the nuances of how I was vocalizing those few paragraphs of text. The most difficult thing, of course, is to make a rehearsed pitch sound natural, and spontaneous. After you've memorized your lines, that's what separates the winners."

Mark's final piece of advice is not to sit back and wait for a Fast Pitch Competition to utilize your well-rehearsed presentation. "Integrate that piece of practiced verbiage into other conversations. Don't hesitate to approach people where you may have the opportunity to use these lines. Whether you are selling a company to investors or selling yourself for an open job, if you wait for people to dig it out of you, you'll never get any use out of your own Fast Pitch."

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.