The Demo Day is Dead! Long Live the Demo Day!

It’s time we talk about how and why we do what we do

We need to rethink the demo day. Demo days are so accepted that we never question them. We sit through identical, standard-format, cinema-seating events where startups pitch investors without asking why.

If you’re like me, you’re not an enthusiastic demo day attendee. Unless I’m hosting the event, I’m at the back by the coffee or the beer, answering e-mails, and listening with half an ear. It’s time I got off the fence and proved my love for our industry by giving the format a swift kick in the backside. Here goes.

The format is past its sell-by date

What we do isn’t rocket science and as entertainment goes, it ain’t that entertaining. Television has evolved. Live entertainment has evolved. But since it’s introduction in Europe nearly a decade ago, demo day has not. You can’t sell innovation without innovating at least occasionally.

Let’s start by asking questions

Who are we pitching and why? We say investors, but really? How many investor matches resulted from your last event? And if it’s not investors, then who? And why? And is the cinema-seating, one-pitch-after-the-other the best way to achieve our goal? What if there was a way to let those who want to watch passively do so, while helping those who want to be more engaged?

What does your audience want?

Most of these events are more graduation ceremony than an investor matching. Acknowledge this. What is our audience looking for in our event? Have you asked them? I have and it ain’t what we’re giving them. How about we ask who else in the audience can help our startups? What other kinds of help do they need?

A/B testing, anyone?

Let’s test some assumptions. I say let’s design some of our events to enable the network match. Introduce our teams to as many people in our network as possible. Make as many connections as we can and see what happens. Investors are cool, but so are partners and customers. Lots of types of help can make a big difference for our startups – and for the people who support and pay for our programs.

Inspiration from elsewhere

The fashion industry knows a thing or two about presenting things. Theatre stages seldom serve their purpose, so they use runways. A runway does two things. It gets people as close to the clothes as possible and it gets people close to each other. VIPs get front row seats so everyone can see them – and so they can see everyone. Why not steal their good idea?

Let form follow function

Runway stages can do more to create connections. They help the audience connect. It is easier for the hosts to introduce people to each other when it’s easy for those people to see each other. The audience can also see each other’s reactions to each pitch. They can see who else might be interested.

I’ve tried it and it works

The Swedes are good about trying new things. Earlier this year, I hosted a medtech demo day. During the planning, I was shown around the ‘event space’, which looked a lot like their cafeteria… because it was their cafeteria.

I pitched the runway idea and they went for it. We had the audience face each other. We held a long break halfway through. The audience seized the networking opportunity with both hands and the teams made a lot of useful connections. It worked like a charm.

Let’s try something new

The demo day is a worn concept that needs some love. It’s time we try some new takes on solving the problem we’re trying to solve. Form should follow function, not tradition.

Know Your Business

It helps to know how you create value for your customer

Summertime is perfect for catching up with people and one meeting here last summer really stands out. An engineer and an astrophysicist came to see me with a fire safety device. I like fire engines as much as the next guy, but fire safety tech is a narrow niche of geekery and it ain’t my bag. This product, however, turned out to be much more than a fire safety device and potentially worth a lot of money.

Define cool

I’m a big fan of this Copenhagen-based engineer/astrophysicist combo and I knew they desperately needed to review their value proposition. What it is, what it does, and what that means can be very different things for almost any product. Their fire safety device project took an interesting turn when they shared their conversations with property owners. It turned out the device would remove the need for a second or back staircase in the older apartment buildings common in middle of European cities.

Revenue is cool

Removing the need for a back staircase means that space can be added to the apartments or used to install elevators. More square meters and new amenities both mean more revenue for property owners, a lot more revenue. And property owners are excited about that. Add in that the device could also make it possible to create penthouse apartments in the current attic spaces and it sounds even better.

A new value proposition

By the time we finished our coffee, the two entrepreneurs had a new value proposition. They were no longer in the fire safety business, but were firmly in the “increasing revenue for property owners” business. Adding 2-6 square meters to each apartment – usually in either the kitchen or bathroom – quickly turns into a lot of money. Potentially adding penthouses to existing structures adds even more.

Follow the money

Investors get pitched a lot of ideas and investors aren’t always super imaginative. Helping investors make lots of money catches the imagination in ways that helping them with fire safety does not. I look forward to seeing where the new value proposition takes the engineer and the astrophysicist.

Your Corporation Wants to Work with Startups? Buy Their Stuff

Corporates that want to work with startups could do worse than start by buying some of their product – and paying immediately upon receipt of the invoice.

A couple of years ago in the City of London, I walked into a medical technology innovation event hosted by a friend and got an offer I couldn’t refuse.

“Great to see you, Nick”, he said, “I need a favor. Someone just cancelled on a panel we’re hosting tonight and it’d be grand if you could stand in for them.”

“Of course”, I replied, “what’s the panel about and when does it start?”

“Startups and corporates, innovation, that sort of thing. We’re on in five.”

Say anything you want, as long as it’s interesting

It’s important to know your role on a panel. There was a government innovation expert and two senior pharma industry people. I was the only panelist in jeans and a scarf, so I was clearly there to be the startup guy. My role was clear: make things lively.

Sing for your supper

As the mike slowly worked its way towards me, my three colleagues all shared variations on how innovation was vital and they were working jolly hard at it. I was the wild card,  so when I got the mike, I asked the big pharma guys the obvious question. “What do you actually buy from startups?”

Show me the money goes both ways

There were cheers and applause from the startup people in the crowd. It was an after work event and startups love a free bar, so I had a vocal base of support. To their credit, the pharma guys were game. The conversation turned away from the all-too-frequent discussion of what startups need to do in order to be attractive to corporates. It became a more equal talk about what both sides need to bring to a relationship.

Sometimes being rude isn’t rude

There were claps on the back from a couple of folks after the event and talk of speaking truth to power, but the fact of the matter was much more straightforward. You can’t bridge the gap in understanding between corporate innovation and startups without helping both sides see the other’s perspective. The big pharma guys needed to hear my question.

Pro tip: Pay their invoice upon receipt

There’s a varsity-level follow up to the “have you bought anything” question, which is “under which payment terms?” If you’re a corporate and you want startups to love you, pay them upon receipt of the invoice.

But that’s not how we do it normally

Yes, that’s not how your firm pays bills normally, but your usual terms are asking a cash-strapped startup to wait three months or even longer for payment. What seems like a detail to you can cause serious cashflow problems at a startup. Be a hero. Do the right thing. Pay them when you get the bill.

Mind Blown

The power of perspective, an overlooked basic process tool

A couple of months back, I did a workshop for a group of senior engineers in Western Denmark who build big projects in the North Sea. The North Sea is rough, so the things they build are tough, but now their job is mutating in a way seen by countless others. Their customers want digital services to go with the steel and concrete. My engineers needed help.

I showed up from the big city with my scarf and my sneakers and I did my magic. Engineers and I generally get along well and we had a good afternoon. As we wrapped up, we did a round of lessons learned and their main take-away brought a smile to my lips. The big revelation for them was the need to look at their product from their customers’ point of view.

Your obvious is not everyone’s obvious

Startup people tend to shake their heads at stories like this, but the engineers’ lack of awareness is much closer to the norm than the opposite. Customer focus is a hard thing to create across an organization. We hire specialists for specialized tasks, but we rarely give them KPIs that ask them to judge their work by the customer’s standards.

It’s easy to imagine that rust prevention is a major issue in the North Sea. It’s just as easy to imagine an engineer over-engineering 100 years of rust prevention into something only meant to last for ten. Managing the expectations of both the customer and the product development team can be a challenge.

Make that challenge your product differentiator

An ounce of prevention can fix a lot of things. We can all look at our products from the customer’s point of view. From designers to developers to sales to HR, the whole team can contribute to a product’s development by looking from the outside in. This is a tool for everyone – and it ain’t complicated.

Look at your work the way the customer would

Have your whole team to look at your product from your customer’s point of view. Your experts can play the customers’ experts as well, so follow the first question with a second: “If you did what you do for our customer, how would look at our product?” The more complex something becomes, the greater the risk that we lose sight of the details. Your experts can help catch those missed details.

Don’t miss the obvious, just because you can’t see it

In college, a friend of mine edited the school newspaper, which came out twice a week. One night, something about a big photo on the sports page of two football players leaping for a header didn’t look right. Everyone seemed to notice it, but no one could put a finger on it.

It remained a mystery until someone’s girlfriend came by with pizza. She asked why there was a picture on the sports page of a guy with his penis hanging out of his shorts. The photo was edited promptly. She had looked at the newspaper as a reader, not a journalist.

Finding Zlatan

Nordic founders can take underselling to unnecessary extremes

Our region spawns an outsized number of unicorns. What’s even more impressive is that we do it despite, to put it politely, a limited ability to pitch. There are a handful of natural showmen amongst us, but most Nordic founders have to work hard to learn to communicate effectively. When we do, we excel.

We don’t do “Show-and-Tell” at school

For many Nordic founders, pitching is our first taste of public speaking. Schools in the English-speaking world seem to start teaching presentation in kindergarten. Tiny tots bring favorite toys to present at “Show and Tell”. “This is my teddy bear. I like him very much. Etc.” This is unknown in the Nordics.

Nordic Founders can drive you nuts

We seldom brag, even when we have plenty about which to brag. Take the pair of game developers I met two years ago in Malmö. They planned to launch their game on Steam, the dominant platform for indy games. When I asked how they would stand out amongst the dozens of games launched every day on Steam, they were disconcertingly vague.

Who did you say they were?

Imagine my surprise when, moments after our meeting, I was told they had been on the team that built Mindcraft. And that one of them had 400,000+ followers on Twitter. “Hey, you! Come ‘ere!” I yelled, channeling my very un-Nordic inner New Yorker. I was polite, but made myself very clear.

More Zlatan, less…

I’m glad to report that they now introduce themselves as part of the original Mindcraft team. Their pitch has more Zlatan Ibrahimovic “how do you like me now?” swagger and less Swedish modesty. Saying that you built Mindcraft and now you have a new game is also relevant information your audience needs to know.

Sometimes it’s the setting

I met a raw bar startup at a pitch workshop I held in Malmö back when raw bars were strictly for vegans and crossfit enthusiasts. The half dozen other firms in the workshop were all early stage and many were pre-sales. My workshops are hands on, so they were all creating or rewriting their actual pitches. As we went along, the raw bar people struggled to explain their traction.

The challenge of consideration for others

The Nordics are famous for our consensus and it relies in great part on not making other people feel ill at ease. It took me most of the day to figure out that they didn’t want to make the other workshop participants feel bad. They had plenty of traction. They had sold hundreds of thousands of bars and just landed a contract with 7-Eleven. Today they’re huge.

Modesty can almost be dishonesty

You don’t want a Boy Scout trying to save your life, just because the trauma surgeon next to him is too modest to intervene. It may sound harsh, but pitching is serious business. Being modest or overly considerate can be very counterproductive.

Nordic founders can be modest to a fault. Our lack of public speaking experience can confuse or even misinform. Once Nordic founders understand how much pitching matters and we have the tools to learn how to do it well, we tend to do great things.

Fear and Shame Kills Corporate Innovation

How well do your people deal with failure?

Most corporate innovators I meet happily point to the Apples and Ubers of the world when they talk innovation. They don’t mean the Apple that launched the Newton or the Uber that treated female engineering staff scandalously.

To talk of success without discussing failure misses a vital ingredient in creating innovation. It almost guarantees they will fail in their attempt to innovate. How do you treat failure? I’ve met it and I know. Do you? Do your people?

Luck can be fickle

We don’t like to admit how much we owe to luck. It’s uncomfortable to think that we might be where we are because of who our parents knew or that we were at the right spot at the right time. Fortune isn’t always random, but sometimes it is.

We embrace failure for a reason

Some see our embrace of failure in startups as arrogance, but this completely misunderstands the case. We understand failure is unavoidable. No amount of analysis can predict the future perfectly. We believe that experimentation is necessary to prove or disprove a business hypothesis. We think real arrogance is believing that proper attention to detail can separate good prediction from bad.

Look to Fuckup Nights

One of my all time favorite event series is “Fuckup Nights”, where startup people retell some of their biggest failures. I’ve spoken at the Copenhagen event twice. Last time it was within an hour of admitting my latest project wouldn’t make it. We do it in part to share the lessons learned, but just as importantly to take the sting out of failure, so we can use the failure to build what we do next.

Startups learn with childlike fearlesness

I have a theory that little kids are great at learning because they’re rubbish at everything. They consequently don’t stress perfection. My four-year is more interested in playing with his monolingual English-speaking cousins than in correctly conjugating their verbs. His mission is to play with them and at this he succeeds wildly. My eight-year old can be a shy English-speaker, but with her cousins, she’s more eager to play than she is shy, so she chatters away.

Guess who the self-conscious teenagers are?

Startups are fearless little kids and corporates are cautious teenagers. When young kids learn to speak a second language, their grammar is just as imperfect in the new language as it is in their mother tongue. Teenagers are self-conscious in all things and struggle with foreign languages, especially because their peers laugh at their mistakes.

Mistakes get you fired

A teenager’s fear of ridicule is real, because the pain of social exclusion is acute. The cost of a mistake in a corporate is just as real. You don’t get hired to make mistakes. You get fired for making mistakes. Couple this with the fact that most corporates hire very selectively, and the fact is that very few corporate employees have ever made a mistake.

If you want your corporate warriors to think innovation, teach them to manage the shame and embarrassment that comes with making mistakes. Teach them how to fail.

Innovation Theater People

Don’t get sucked into someone else’s ’dog and pony show’

The tinfoil hat segment of the innovation business has always existed. The new crazies that I see in the innovation business work at corporates. They may lack the wild-eyed look, but many hold equally improbable beliefs – and create just as little value. Beware of becoming too entangled with them unless you have a clear value proposition like, for example, they’re paying for the drinks.

Innovation is a big tent and we give away a lot of love, including to some who may not deserve it. I have a hard time figuring out how lots of these people add value. There may be method to their madness though, and I am straight up envious of much of it. They seem have a ball, make good money, and not be judged too hard on results. Respect.

The Hipster

Everyone’s got a Director of Innovation these days. The young-ish, sneaker-clad corporate head of innovation is on stage everywhere, talking about their company’s digital transformation. When pressed, they struggle to name anything specific that’s been implemented or sold, but the sneakers look good and, hey, their employer is embracing disruption. Mind the gap between the slideshow and reality.

The Dealmaker

The dealmaker is looking for startups that have product-market fit, a great team, billion-dollar potential, and a good cultural fit with their company. On a personal level, their preferred mate is a supermodel with a Stanford PhD, who, in the immortal words of  the boy band One Direction, “doesn’t know she’s beautiful”. Beware of the long distance and many cups of coffee between meeting them and cutting a deal.

The Community… Something

This person doesn’t exactly have a seven-word description of how they create value. Despite this, I’ll admit to anyone that cares to ask that this job sounds awesome. The KPIs seem to be ‘keynotes given’, ‘cups of coffee drunk at conferences’, and ‘LinkedIn connections added’. It looks like fun, but beware of anything they’re giving away for free.

The Garage Boss

Apart from workshops and events, I haven’t quite figured out what these people do, but garages are hot. The crowds trekking through Silicon Valley on innovation tours have seen the Hewlett-Packard garage and decided they need one too. “Innovation labs” and ”creator spaces” are also garages and a rose by any other name still smells as sweet.

The architecture is a key identifier. Look for plywood walls, primary colors, cool light bulbs, and bookshelves full of work by the right authors. The garage boss seems to hold a lot of workshops and those books don’t read themselves. Beware of panel invitations to be the ‘fun startup person’ aka the only person not in a suit.

Slide on up to the bar

The Innovation Theater Crowd can steal a lot of your time, if you’re not clear about how they can add value to you. Don’t be an extra in someone else’s show. Once you can see the value, however, make sure they’re paying for the drinks – and enjoy!

Uncertainty is an Innovator Superpower

Uncertainty is kryptonite for corporate managers, however, and that needs to be addressed.

In this, the buzzword apocalypse, we’re all innovating, being disrupted, and boldly marching into a future where everything will be new, different, and better. Except that we’re not. CEOs may be talking the talk, but most organizations aren’t ready to risk walking the walk. This, unfortunately, makes sense.

There are two key barriers: a lack of training and an aversion to risk. Career success in a big organization is usually tied to performing clearly defined tasks well. Successful innovation is often random and messy.

The future is hard to predict and there are a lot of things that can go wrong. Too many folks think working with innovation is either a matter of trying hard enough – or something to be avoided. It is hard to blame them.

The “trying to plan your way out of uncertainty” trap

A big corporate recently announced the launch of a startup accelerator with a difference. Their innovation: they will choose the participating companies carefully. They will devote all of 2018 to selecting the right handful of startups so they can avoid picking the wrong ones.

Any intern at an accelerator could tell the corporate in question that they’re wasting their time, but the trap they’ve fallen into is difficult for many corporates to avoid. The media make it sound like there are great startups everywhere, but startups are really hard to build. My guess is that there are more startup accelerators than great startups.

The gap between the C-Suite and middle management

The brave speeches CEOs give about innovation often mention the need to push decision-making further down into the organization. But their employees aren’t stupid. They know how big companies work. They know that innovation is a risky business with plenty of opportunities to guess wrong. They also know that mistakes get punished.

Did you really say Steve Jobs?

Poor Steve Jobs gets named over and over in these speeches, but no one ever talks about the Newton. (The what? Exactly. Go Google it.) They seldom mention that his own board of directors fired him. They assume that no one in the audience has read how he could be a nightmare as a boss.

Acknowledge the lack of incentives for the people taking the risks

Middle managers aren’t stupid. They know the odds of hitting a homerun like the iPod are absurdly long. They know innovation often requires working in a minefield of conflicting stakeholder interests. They know success takes time – and that any success produced by the risks they take likely will come on their successor’s watch.

Acknowledge their fear that innovation is dangerous for their career prospects. Give them room to make mistakes. Praise them publicly for taking risks.

Train them

Teach your middle managers to make decisions on the basis of imperfect data. Few of the people who will have to do the innovating have any training in innovation beyond the occasional magazine article. Send them to hands-on workshops. Have them work with actual startups.

Network them

Expand their personal networks to include people who effectively manage uncertainty. Most of the people they know work at the same company. Startups and innovators are used to uncertainty, to not having all the answers. Have your middle managers work with them as mentors, startup competition judges, and at corporate-startup matchmaking events to familiarize them with uncertainty – at a safe arm’s distance.

Let them self-select

Let your innovators volunteer. According to the Kauffmann Foundation, the most successful entrepreneurs are over 40. Every firm has a few risk takers hidden amongst the risk-averse majority. They often leave big corporations that can’t or won’t innovate to create the innovation they wanted to see.

If you train them, network them, and give them the opportunity, they may turn uncertainty into a superpower for you, instead watching them walk away to use their superpowers for themselves or someone else.

Penetrating The Corporate Immune System

Startup mentors can be great executive educators

I was on a mentor panel at a big event once with a corporate executive who was really organized. Unlike the rest of us, he’d actually read the startup profiles. He had a tidy list of questions. The questions were mostly common to all and were along the lines of ‘Do you have a patent?’ and ‘What are your profit margins?’

He quickly caught on that many of his questions weren’t relevant in the given context and that he was applying big company, established product KPIs to products and services that were only just being developed. As the day progressed, he discretely put a line through one question after the next. He probably learned more than any of us that day.

What matters and what does not

We didn’t care about patents. (One question crossed out). We talked to customers before we had a finished product. (Another question crossed out). We didn’t worry if all the bugs were fixed before showing a product to customers. (Another question crossed out). We didn’t put much weight on projections that went past two years. (Another…).

Learning effect

The panel was a great example of the power of peer teaching. Our corporate panelist was obviously competent. His insights on how big businesses work were concise and crystal clear. At the same time, his shrinking list of stock questions was clear proof that he was learning plenty about startups and innovation from us.

Having trouble embracing failure?

CEOs who want their managers to use failure productively first need to help them learn when and how to accept failure. A day on a panel of peers who accept that some failures are inevitable, and even laugh as they tell stories about their own failures, can do more to change perceptions than a lifetime subscription to the Harvard Business Review.

Even experienced managers hate mistakes

They usually focus on efficiently doing something they already know how to do. They’re used to incrementally improving performance. Step change improvements require bold experiments whose outcomes cannot be known with certitude beforehand. Mistakes are common in rapidly iterating startups because they focus learning by experimentation.

Like scientists, startups do experiments to create the data they need to find the answers they need. A negative result is just as important as a positive result. Mistakes that teach you something are valuable. Alexander Fleming’s failure to keep a tidy laboratory gave us penicillin. In most firms, he would have been fired.

This makes perfect sense

You can read about the benefits of learning from mistakes, but a career in a climate that punishes mistakes makes it hard to accept them in practice. Companies that want to change their view of failure need to help their leaders’ change their view of failure. We can’t expect people to learn this on their own.

Mentoring can take the edge off learning hard lessons

Entrepreneurs, investors, and startup mentors appeal to corporate types for a number of reasons: the dynamism, the perceived freedom of action, the innovation, and the hoodies. It’s also a world where, for once, they’re not expected to have all of the answers. They can lower their guard and be open to suggestion.

Like a lot of corporate people new to startups, he wasn’t used to being in a stuation where he didn’t have all the answers. Unlike some, however, it didn’t take him long to see what he had to offer startups and how to present it. Our panel’s corporate guy was a quick learner – and it turned out he also had a lot to teach the rest of us mentors.