Tom Charman, Co-founder and CEO of KOMPAS

Sir Richard Branson surprises Exeter alumnus

Exeter alumnus Tom Charman (Economics and Politics, 2016) got a high profile surprise recently while attending a Virgin Media pitching masterclass.

Tom, co-founder and CEO of city exploration app KOMPAS, was halfway through his run-through on camera when Sir Richard Branson entered the room to critique Tom’s performance.

Writing on his blog, Sir Richard said: “I was ordered to remain very stern and serious, to see how he would deal with the added pressure. I had a hard time keeping a straight face while I stared at him – I love to smile and put people at ease, not make them feel nervous.

“Could he pitch his idea to me, under pressure, with no preparation? As you can see in the video, there were a few ummms and aaaahs and looks to the skies for inspiration, but actually Tom dealt admirably with the situation and pitched his app brilliantly.”

Tom founded KOMPAS with fellow graduate Olivia Higgs (Combined Honours, 2016) while studying at Exeter and was supported by the Think, Try, Do programme.

We asked him if it was nerve-racking having Sir Richard Branson unexpectedly appear and how he found pitching.

“I'm not sure if nerve-wracking is the right word for it, but I was certainly taken aback when he walked in. I think the best way to describe the situation, is that I was so focused on delivering the pitch, that it actually took me a couple of seconds to realise what was going on, by which point, I think everyone in the room was about as confused as me. What you didn't see though, is that I had a good opportunity to deliver my pitch to Richard and get some great feedback on what we're doing!

“Pitching to him was great. He's a really personable guy, and I'm sure he's seen millions of pitches over his journey, as well as delivered a million more, so he knew what to do to keep my mind at ease, even though I was delivering to one of my business inspirations. I had a chance to grab a beer with him afterward, and everything gets easier after a drink, as it helps remove some of the tension.”

As an entrepreneur, Tom is accustomed to delivering pitches under pressure, so does he have any tips for keeping calm?

“Imagine the room naked? No seriously, don't do that, it doesn't really work, trust me, I've tried. The best thing you can do is making sure that you're in the shoes of the person you're pitching to. Remove the buzzwords, and focus on what makes what you're doing unique, and why the person you're pitching to should want to use/buy the product you're pitching.”

And what’s the number one piece of advice he’d give to people giving their first pitch?

“Take a deep breath. Pitching is never easy, no matter how many times you do it. Focus on what you're talking about, and don't let anyone throw you off. Easier said than done, I know, but the more you do it the easier it gets.”

The University’s ‘Think, Try, Do’ programme supports students like Tom and Olivia to set-up their own businesses and develop entrepreneurial skills. Over the previous two academic years, more £45,000 of grants have been awarded to 18 student-led startup projects and circa £1 million of private investment has been raised.

The video was to celebrate the launch of VOOM 2018, Virgin Media Business’ pitching competition in the UK, open to entrepreneurs and small businesses. You can also read more on Richard Branson’s blog.

Date: 29 March 2018

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