Matthew Jenkin pitches to investors from a frozen lake. Photograph: Henri Luoma Photography
I stood at the side of the frozen lake, shivering in nothing but my trunks, socks and a beanie. In front of me was a hole cut into the ice and a makeshift stairway led down into a black, frigid abyss. At the bottom was the podium which I had agreed to stand on and deliver an elevator pitch. I was terrified. A panel of warmly wrapped judges sat opposite, waiting eagerly to hear my business proposition, but as I plunged into the bitterly cold water, the only words I wanted to scream at them were four letters long.
I had travelled to the city of Oulu in northern Finland to take part in the Polar Bear Pitching festival - an annual event organisers claim is the world's only sub-zero version of Dragons' Den. My mission was to win funding for startup The DoNation - picked out of a hat by the Small Business Network. My lack of training prior to the event, however, was painfully obvious. The waist-high water sliced my body in two: the top half fighting for breath and the bottom numb, bar the pins and needles that gnawed at my feet and legs. I opened my mouth to speak, but instead of the first line of the pitch, I squealed in agony.
After howls of laughter and whoops of encouragement from the audience, I gulped and took a moment to compose myself. Seconds later, my voice had returned, the pitch was successfully delivered in just over a minute and the scores were in. Despite a respectable three out of five from the lion's share of judges - and one generous four - sadly no amount of schadenfreude could pique the interest of investors at the event.
Michal Hubschmann's almost superhuman three-minute pitch, on the other hand, left even the event's cuddly polar bear mascot looking blue around the paws. The Israeli entrepreneur's training regime of ice baths and cold showers had clearly paid off, winning her a place in the top three and the chance to further sell her recognition technology business, Relevancy Data, at the official afterparty, and a stand at a startup event in Helsinki.
The former professional long jumper is used to pushing her body to extremes, but admits it was the first time she had ever been in an ice-hole. Hubschmann puts her incredible endurance at the event down to mind tricks learned as a competitive athlete. By focusing solely on the pitch she was able to block out the cold. She uses that same mental muscle to run her company.
Matthew utters some choice words as he takes the plunge. Photograph: Henri Luoma Photography
"There is definitely a similarity between being an athlete and running a business," she explains. "There is so much adrenalin, you are always striving to achieve and there is that drive to win."
But, as I thawed out in the post-pitch sauna and hot tub, I couldn't help but wonder why any sane, serious small business owner would want to put themselves through this ordeal. From a music startup wanting to stage a rock concert on Everest to a business which has developed a smartphone app to aid the deaf and hard of hearing, the pitches during the three-hour event ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Was there anything more to this event than novelty interest? Surely there are easier, less potentially humiliating ways to grab the attention of investors?
Hubschmann admits she did fear taking part in the event would damage her reputation and credibility: "The thought did cross my mind," she says. "For many years I was a really tough businesswoman, but in the last year I realised you just need to be yourself."
She adds: "The event is a very nice symbolic way to show other entrepreneurs that there are hard times. I had a difficult time in my previous company and not everything is going be successful in life."
She explains that taking a dip in the ice-hole - a Finnish tradition which has, unsurprisingly, yet to take off in her native Israel - was as much a personal challenge as it was the chance to reach out to new investors and make connections with future business partners.
The winner of the Polar Bear Pitch, Michal Hubschmann. Photograph: Henri Luoma Photography
For other startups, however, the event was more of a publicity stunt. Our TV screens seem to be overwhelmed by solicitors pleading with us to claim for each and every mishap, it seems that there is no such thing as an accident in this day and age. Somebody is to blame and they need to pay!. With this in mind, it would surely be a very brave (or perhaps foolish) owner of any business, be it big or small who decided that they didn't need public liability insurance. Click the link to get an answer to any questions on Is Public Liability Insurance Essential?.Jani Siekkinen, co-founder of Oulu tech startup Volundeer, admits he and business partner Mikko Estola braved the icy waters purely to get the name of the online network for voluntary organisations in the paper. The investors, Siekkinen says, weren't really of interest to them.
Polar Bear Pitching may have more than a whiff of a gimmick about it, but the value of media coverage should not be underestimated. Asmo Saloranta, founder of self-titled business Asmo, may have only survived a few seconds in the ice-hole at last year's inaugural event, but the exposure it provided for his revolutionary new product gave his enterprise the boost it needed to thrive in a competitive market.
The Finnish entrepreneur and engineer explains he invented a mobile phone charger that switches off when not in use after a conventional charger left active in a plug socket burned his wife's childhood home to the ground. Excited that he had found a solution to the problem, he decided to jump in the ice-hole to tell the world about it, just one day after securing the patent for his invention.
While he admits he had initial reservations about pitching in a frozen lake - "I'm not going to go and lick some investor's arse while standing in an ice-hole" - it wasn't long after the event had wrapped before journalists began knocking on his door.
Saloranta says: "I tried to be in the ice-hole for around one minute, but it was more like 10 or 20 seconds. I said three sentences and jumped out. But it was enough. The media started to write about me and I was featured on a Finnish news channel. The report was aired at 7pm and by 10pm I had mobile phone manufacturers calling me. The next week, I had meetings with Samsung, Microsoft and Vodafone."
One the the entrepreneurs has a novel way of dealing with the cold. Photograph: Henri Luoma Photography
It's clear, however, that the media attention that the organisers seemed so hungry to attract, has a wider focus. Oulu is a city where the collapse of Nokia has cast a long, dark shadow over its economy and residents, with two thirds of the mobile phone giant's workforce made redundant. The 300 startups, many tech-based and founded by former Nokia employees, offer hope that the city will rise from the ashes and be transformed into a centre for innovation in business and technology.
Jarmo Lauronen, head of business services at BusinessOulu, hopes the pitching event will attract new investment in the city that will help companies grow internationally. Can a pitching event which, for many of its participants, isn't seen as a serious opportunity for investment really help the city reach a new, global audience?
The off the record gripes and grumbles of some of the entrepreneurs at the after party suggest the event needs refining to make the judging criteria and opportunity for investment more transparent. In many ways, however, the event is the perfect forum to show the ability of its talented citizens to turn lemons into lucrative lemonade. Nokia's blaze of glory may have sadly been extinguished, but from its ashes, a new generation of skilled and ambitious entrepreneurs are rising.
Matthew Jenkin's flights and accommodation were paid for by BusinessOulu
Sign up to become a member of the Guardian Small Business Network here for more advice, insight and best practice direct to your inbox.