Thursday, August 29, 2013


                                            Demo Day Don’ts

I think most of the end-of-season Demo Days are officially over now - at least for a while. It’s hard to be sure as the number of accelerators, incubators, and shared office facilities continues to race toward almost 200 different entities - just in the U.S. - and everyone else also wants in.  Seems like someone’s got something going somewhere every time you turn around. Still, having sat through half a dozen “days” in several cities in the last couple of months and watched more than 50 different pitches, I have a few suggestions for the teams and the teachers/mentors/coaches while we’ve got a bit of a breather.

I realize that it’s easy to carp or complain from the cheap seats (and overall each year the players and the pitches are getting better and more mature), but since I’ve been there myself literally hundreds of times, I feel entitled to offer my impressions.  You can take ‘em or leave ‘em, just don’t ignore ‘em until you’ve read ‘em.  

1. One Size STILL Doesn’t Fit All.

Too many of the pitches were just too long. Early enthusiasm and energy turned into fatal fatigue when it felt like the last few minutes were just filler. Not every company or business needs ten minutes to tell a compelling tale. Say your piece - keep the emotional level high - and then sit down. Elaboration after a point is just mental pollution. Here’s an old rule that has served me well over the years - “Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should”.

Sometimes I swear that it felt like even the guy (or girl) on the stage was just going through the motions. A separate, but related, issue is the risk of leaving your “A” game in the rehearsal room - too many rehearsals; too many coaches; and too many sleepless nights. Adrenaline will only take you so far and some of the presenters just seemed pooped to me.

2. Templates are Tiresome.

Your story and your style need to be front and center and everyone’s story is different. The type of pitch (high energy, deep detail, quick quips, pretty pix, etc.) should depend completely on the specific message you’re trying to send and the type of typical investor that you’re targeting. Go with what makes sense for your story, not some set of boilerplate presentation slides where each team just fills in the blanks. Different strokes make sense for different folks.

Maybe your team is terrific and should be a major part of the pitch (after all investors mainly vote on the jockeys and not the horses), but the tenth time the audience sees the infamous smiling team slide, it’s just tiresome and too much. Put the bios in a booklet or just bag the whole thing if your team isn’t demonstrably a compelling competitive differentiator. You’ll have plenty of time to introduce the team down the round.

And maybe it’s just me, but I’m also pretty sick of meeting “Bob”, the prototypical user or target customer, who has all the problems your product or service is going to solve. It’s a painful and tired trope and it needs to be dumped from every demo as soon as possible.

3. Don’t Let Your Dress Be A Distraction.

I think that - as a general rule - wearing your team’s t-shirt may be the safest bet of all. Dressing up or down or too distinctly is risky. The last thing you want to happen as you walk on to the stage is to have anyone looking at you rather than listening to you. Crazy clothes, hiked-up heels, bushy beards, etc. all subtract substance, attention and focus from your story. It’s just the way people are and it’s not gonna change any time soon. Make your statement some other time and place.

I realize that there are plenty of smart and savvy people who choose to dress or wear their hair in a certain style, but in this narrow context, I think that a fashion faux pas can start you off with a crowd that wonders if you’re serious and why would you want to start with that extra monkey on your back? This is a steep enough slope as it is – starting out in a rut of your own making – makes no sense. First impressions REALLY matter when you’ve only got a few minutes to make your points and your best case. And you don’t get a second chance to make that first impression either – there are no “do-overs” on Demo Day.  

I feel the same way about humor. Jokes are really hard to set up and pull off and they’re risky. You just don’t want to take the chance that your gag or stunt will fall flat and the crowd will start feeling sorry for you rather than swayed by you. They might still buy you a beer during the break, but they’ll be a lot less likely to bet their bucks on your business if they think you’re a clown. And a bad one at that.

4. Case Studies Generally Suck

Talking about your own results – user acquisition, revenue growth, major contracts, new strategic partners, etc. moves your story forward and makes a lot of sense. But trying to explain (as the clock keeps ticking) the details of a case study – even one with impressive results – is just a waste of too much precious time and – by and large – always a bad bet. You’ve got to set up the case; introduce the client and their problem; explain the context and the actions; and show the success – and all the while the audience is hearing the client’s name (not yours) and you’re talking about the client’s business (not yours) and it’s just too easy for everyone to get lost in the weeds. And frankly, they’re not that interested in a one-off anything.

The depth of the discussion required to make a sensible explanation simply isn’t worth the distraction. Just claim the results – “We saved these guys millions.” – and move on. Details to follow. You can make the point that the product works without putting the audience to sleep.

5. Funders are Fierce Followers

I was amazed at how many companies said that they had raised X or Y dollars toward their goal, but didn’t take the opportunity to say who their investors were. If your backers are willing, it’s worth the time to tell us who are they. Brand name investors betting on your business sends a very clear and concise message to the rest of the crowd that they should get on board. The bigger and faster the bandwagon, the better the fund-raising results.

You should never forget that investors don’t fear losing their money anywhere near as much as they fear being the only investor who does. Nobody today really wants to go it alone if they don’t have to and, if things go bad, at least they’ll have company in their misery. 

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