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Demo Day Tips Volume 2.1: Essential Timing

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Two more thoughts on Demo Days:

1. Given the plethora of accelerators out there, the scheduling of the Demo Day is challenging because you don't want to hold a Demo Day to close to another one. This is because you don't want to overload investors in their time and attention to give the best chance for the startups to raise money - there is enough competition amongst the numbers in the class; you don't want to add to the competition across accelerators!

However, they still do tend to clump together because the classes are generally held corresponding to the seasons or months in the calendar year.

The thing to note is that post-Demo Day, you really need to work as fast as possible to close funding because if you don't, you could end up running up against another Demo Day which could take investors' attention away from you.

For example, looking at the winter 2013 classes from earlier this year:

500startups Demo Day Winter 2013: February 6, 2013
Ycombinator Demo Day Winter 2013: March 26, 2013

A startup coming out of 500startups has effectively from February 6 to March 25, only about 2 months, before attention shifts to Ycombinator.

So work your magic on investors as fast, efficiently, and effectively as possible before the next Demo Day comes around!

2. This thought is related to Demo Days, but it more broadly has to do with optimizing Demo Day through which class you apply for.

In my previous post, Investment Pacing and The Timing of Fund Raising for Startups, I talked about the fact that the first half of the year is better for fund raising than the second. If this is true, then there are batches of accelerator classes that place you in the marketplace at the most optimal time for fund raising.

This means that the winter classes whose Demo Days end up in the early part of the calendar year have a longer period of time uninterrupted by investor seasonality than those who occur in the second half of the year. It means that the probability of you raising money is also greater if you have no interruptions due to other factors. So it may be worthwhile to work to get into winter classes than for a class in another part of the year.

Timing is everything - competition between accelerator classes and startups for limited investor time, attention, and money is fierce so optimize it wisely through timing.

A while back I was part of the short lived mentor program at YCombinator and wrote this post in response, Tips on Demo Day and Afterwards for YCombinator Startups. It was in reaction to easy to fix mistakes that all their crop make come the days before, during and after Demo Day.

Over the years after I wrote that post, I have mentored many startups, most recently at 500startups and ImagineK12. It seems that each startup, even at the beginning of the accelerator class, worries about their performance at Demo Day!

The previous post was more about the days closely surrounding Demo Day. However, I think there are more things to consider now that begins through the entire time in an accelerator program. To perform well at Demo Day, you should start thinking about Demo Day from Day One the moment you get there....

Day One to 1-2 Weeks Before Demo Day

In past accelerator classes, I always knew that there was friendly competition between the startups to give the best presentation possible on stage, over that of the others. However, startups sometimes don't realize this at the outset.

It is important to know that intelligence gathering on your fellow startups in the class should begin as soon as possible. What should you look for?

1. Who has the most traction and revenue. These will be ones that investors will keep their eye on the most.

2. Who has the coolest product, regardless of traction. These will be stars of the show from an "ooh-aah" standpoint. They will be memorable simply for their coolness.

3. Who has raised a round already. Somehow they wooed investors and may not need Demo Day to do so, or they may be announcing a bigger round then. But it is impressive when someone can get up on stage and say "we've already raised our round".

These will be your biggest competition on stage come Demo Day. You should watch out for these startups and figure out the best way to top them on stage. Rank them all from 1 to X and see where you stand in that list. The ones ahead of you are the ones you need to top - you only have from the beginning of the program to the end so work fast and smart!

Having said the above, and while I think they are your competition for Demo Day results, I also do believe that you will all more likely succeed if you all support each other and work together. So save your high priced service for those outside the accelerator; give your fellow startups a break so that you can all get the best chance to execute well by Demo Day. Support each other through the highs and lows; give advice freely and don't undermine anyone.

What are the categories to excel at? The basic categories are:

1. Traction, exponentially rising metrics
2. Revenue
3. Product awesomeness
4. Technology - unique? awesome? defensible?
4. Design excellence
5. Customer acquisition strategy, marketing excellence
6. Market size is huge
7. Founders are awesome
8. Previously committed investors, especially well known ones - social proof in action
9. Vision

In general, you should maximize your showing in as many categories as possible, and then better than anyone else in the class. (A good read: Brian Witlin's 10 Topics To Know Cold for Your Perfect VC Investor Pitch).

At one accelerator, a few startups told me that some had given them some basic numbers in traction and revenue they should hit in order to give them the best chance at getting investment. To me, if this is what someone told you, then you should treat this as the average and fight/execute to exceed these metrics! Everyone else may be attempting to hit this average, but you should try to go beyond it to look better!

Up to 1-2 Weeks Before Demo Day

OK so you've spent the last few weeks or months working your butt off to try to be the best of the class. If you're executing strongly, then you're off to the races.

But if you've tried your best and you're still lagging, what do you do? DON'T DESPAIR. Work on things that are under your control, like product awesomeness, design and technology excellence, market size is huge, and vision.

While the more traditional way of getting funded is excelling at those previously mentioned categories, I've seen startups get funding on much less progress so hope is not all lost. The idea is to NEVER GIVE UP (essential quality of any great entrepreneur).

Peacocking

If you've read The Game by Neil Strauss, you'll know that "peacocking" is what you do if you walk into a bar and try to pick up women. You need to look bigger/better/different/more flamboyant/more whatever than everyone else in there. In doing so, pickup artists have learned that they can pick up anyone!

I believe Demo Day has become about peacocking not for women, but for investors. Demo Day itself has become the pickup bar for startups. It's full of investors and you want to get their attention. Otherwise, someone else is going to get the attention and you'll be left at the bar alone with your drink. That sucks! Don't be that guy and see someone else walk off with the hottest investors in the place!

How might you peacock?

It may be as simple as all of you wearing brightly colored T-shirts, or some gimmick like a sweepstakes, or give away some cool gift (like T-shirts; one startup made Dr. Dre clone headphones to give away to investors who talked to them!).

It may be something amazing in your pitch. This something could be one of the typical previously mentioned categories, or something else entirely different. One startup I know put up a demo so amazing on stage that he generated a murmur of "ooohs" and "aaahs" through the audience, which resulted in a whole bunch of people coming up to him later asking him how he did that!

The Beauty Pageant

Another way to look at Demo Day, since it's on stage, is that it's a beauty pageant. All of you are clamoring to be Miss Universe so you better have a great showing across all categories. You're all competing, trying to look the best against the other contestants. Actual awesome performance in the previously mentioned categories helps a great deal and may be enough; peacocking adds icing on the cake (especially if there is, unfortunately, little cake, if you get my meaning).

The big prize is your two goals - the first is to get investors to come up and talk to you. The close second is to get them to invest in you. But you can't get the second without the first happening!

Keep that in mind as you're prepping for your stage debut. Whether it's through actual excellence in execution, or peacocking, or some awesome demo, or other thing, your overwhelming goal is to get investors to walk to you. You don't want to be standing around waiting for people to come up to you; find a way to make them all want to talk to you - be Miss Universe with the biggest/brightest feathers!

1-2 Weeks Before Demo Day

Prep as in my post Tips on Demo Day and Afterwards for YCombinator Startups. Make business cards and T-shirts, etc. Get the list of investor attendees and research potential investors who are your number one targets.

Practice your pitch OVER and OVER again until you are reciting it in your sleep and can do it without slides or help. Deliver it live multiple times to friends, mentors, and others until it is fine tuned to nth degree.

At 500startups, there are big blocks of hours dedicated each day and evening to let startups pitch practice. We mentors and others sit in on this pitch prep and give feedback. You should go to each one, get feedback, edit the pitch and then go back to the next session to pitch again and again and again until it is perfect.

Note that it can be a frustrating experience getting pitch feedback from different individuals because each person may tell you completely different things to change. Just gather it all, make changes that work for you, and make it flow the way you want to deliver it - remember that you're the one pitching and you'll have a particular style or personality, so you should make it your own. Try our suggestions; see if some fit and if they don't, toss them. It just needs to be cohesive and flow coherently and there are a thousand ways that can happen. We're here to help you with our feedback (and maybe confuse you), but YOU own this pitch, not us.

Also, remember that sometimes there is more than one Demo Day depending on the accelerator. If you have more than one pitch to give, think of it as a performance where you have to perform the exact same show every night. That means you'll need to have perfected the emphasis, the jokes, the words, the dramatic pauses and deliver it exactly the same way each time.

Demo Day

The day of the beauty pageant is here. Enjoy the day, relax, and deliver the pitch in the best way possible. Then get out in the crowd and network (peacock) like crazy! Read my previous post for tips on the day of Demo Day.

After Demo Day

It ain't over! Now comes the follow ups and communications to get investors on board. Get organized and track your progress. Set up meetings with investors. Read my previous post for tips on post-Demo Day.

Being in an accelerator class is one of the best things you can do to help you make progress and get funding. Make the most of your time, optimize it from day one to Demo Day.

These last few weeks I've been part of the Ycombinator Mentors program where we get a few of the YC startups to hang with and help them, as Paul Graham puts it, "convince us to invest in them." It's been a great experience going through product and business issues, and helping them shape something meaningful and hopefully world dominating with their initial ideas.

I just completed this email to send out to my mentees (is that a word?) as I realized that, after attending several YC Demo Days, that I have seen a remarkable number of the teams not take advantage of the opportunity to really engage with the audience of investors, reporters, and corporations. As both a reminder and a call to action (mostly to make introverted engineers break out of their shell!), I listed some items that might help. I think it also helps to know how we feel on our end, as we sit through 20+ fast paced presentations and then enter a whirlwind of conversations after.

Here's the email:

I thought I would send some thoughts on handling Demo Day and its aftermath (if anything to be a good YC mentor..!) as I've seen some YC teams really handle it poorly. This is not about the presentation as I'm sure that PG and others are hammering you guys on getting that good. Rather, this about what happens during Demo Day after the presentations and how to manage the crowd, and even afterwards.


BEFOREHAND:

1. If you don't have business cards, get some made now! Go to FedEx/Kinko's and give them an illustrator file. They can make business cards overnight.

2. PG undoubtedly has an attendee list; can you get that from him? Review it beforehand and try to prioritize those people to meet. Keep it in your pocket and check off people that you meet and make quick notes on interest, experience, follow ups, next steps, etc.

If you can, prepare beforehand a little about what you may talk to certain people about. This can be as simple as knowing a few of the recent investments an investor has made, or how you can help Google build one of their products better. Or perhaps you'd like to get in touch with someone's portfolio company. This can be as simple as a conversation starter to break the ice, or as big as trying to do a deal with Google to integrate your technology.

3. Think about your own status. Are you raising money now? Soon? Or not? Have you raised money already? Looking for business partnerships? Want to sell out or get acquired right now?

Make sure you decide as much of this beforehand as it will undoubtedly affect your conversations. You will inevitably be asked, "are you raising money now?" and you should have some sense for yes or no, and if yes, for how much. You want to be confident in your progress and in your answers, not wishy washy. The worst thing you could say is, "well, I don't know...maybe...we're not really sure yet...hem haw..." But also, don't lie or make things up. This is more about anticipating what questions will be asked of you post-presentations and just taking a bit of time to prepare your response.

4. Try to get a good night's sleep the night before. Try to arrive at the top of your game, not sleep deprived and/or over-caffeinated.


AT DEMO DAY, AFTER THE PRESENTATIONS:

1. The crowd as you can imagine is filled with reporters, corporate representatives (typically from venture arms), angel investors, and venture capitalists. It is really like speed dating; you should get out there and meet as many people as possible, getting their contact info and gauging their interest in you.

It will be, and expect it to be, overwhelming. It is definitely overwhelming to us. We'll have been overloaded by the quick machine gun set of presentations and trying to absorb it all, and then we're thrown into fast smoozing with those startups that somehow have grabbed our attention. We'll be scribbling fast notes on our Demo Day sheets and then we're going to try to go back and figure out who we want to meet first before we have to leave.

2. Don't be a wallflower! I've seen some teams hang on the sidelines and not mingle. This is bad! This is a chance for you to meet and try to woo some investors to be interested in you! If you don't meet them now, you may never get a chance to interact face to face with them again. If you have more than one founder, split up and meet more people! There are 20+ teams this time; everyone is going to be competing for attention of the audience. Get in there and meet!

3. As you get business cards, make notes on the back of their cards as well. Stick them in a safe place and don't lose them! I've met many people who simply lost my business card and somehow found me later. Bad!

4. Regarding reporters: you probably have never gone through media training but it's not hard. You should just prepare some great sound bites for reporters to hang onto and include in their writeups. These are simple sentences that sound great, and of course promote your product/company/service.

5. Be lively, upbeat, friendly, excited about what you're working on, and excited about future prospects. I think that engineering types tend to be very introverted. Unfortunately, this doesn't serve you well here! So go out and be an extrovert. Force yourself to go out and meet everyone and to be Mr. Fun and Cool with the best product in the world to talk about. People react to and engage with people they like; boring, uninteresting people get left behind. It sucks but it's true.

So psyche yourself up for some power smoozing and have a positive attitude about it. This won't be the last time you'll be power smoozing for your business!

6. Gauge whether a conversation is going nowhere or somewhere. Lack of interest, conversation seems to slow down or feel strained, etc. all are signs that you should disengage gracefully and move on to the next person. Shake their hand, make eye contact and say nice meeting you and move on!

Definitely stay with someone a bit longer at least if they are interested in you and what you're doing. But don't extend the conversation too long as you only have about 2-3 hours after the presentations end to talk to all the people you want to talk to. People start trickling away after an hour of smoozing; remember many people have other meetings and places to go. It's very rare that people stay all the way to the end! Again, disengage with set action items to follow up, and with contact info exchanged.


AFTERMATH:

1. Write a follow up email to everyone you met! Say hi, it was nice meeting up and you'd love to get together to talk further. Remind them with what you and he discussed.

Keep in the mindset of the folks you meet - remember that we're going to be totally talked out and our brains won't be able to remember all the conversations and people we've met. We'll have gone through so many people in so little time; it's overwhelming and you will want to rise above the noise by following up.

2. Keep an email list of everyone you met for updates. This is to keep reminding everyone of the progress you're making. Don't spam this list; just put out an update once a month or every two months. This is also to keep in everyone's mindshare. Even if someone doesn't invest in you today, they may invest in you tomorrow when you're bigger. Or they may contact you for a deal, or to acquire you. They won't do any of that if they forget about you.

3. Pursue those follow up meetings! Get feedback on why someone isn't investing and improve yourself, your product, and your pitch. It's amazing how I've had to contact people afterwards and chase them down. But that also signals poorly; aggressive fund raisers who don't give up are those who succeed in raising the money they need. Passive entrepreneurs only increase the risk that they will fail, because they aren't aggressive.

A lot of this is basic smoozing, or "How to Work a Room" 101. I just wanted to bring it up because while some of this is basic, it's been obvious to me from attending past Demo Days that many YCers either haven't learned it, or maybe forgot about it in the heat of prepping for Demo Day.


Looking forward to Demo Day next week!

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