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.

Misunderestimating Women Has a Price

A tale of opportunities missed – and what we did about it.

I prefer to work with people I like, and I really like the team behind Hooves (hoovesapp.com). There’s no guessing where Hooves will end up, but they work hard, have a great idea, and the last year has been a lot of fun. They also happen to be women, so last year I taught Hooves not to smile.

Ninety percent of mentoring women in startups is the same as mentoring men. The last ten percent is not. I don’t have to mentor men on how to deal with investors who don’t take them seriously because they’re men. I don’t have to mentor men on how to present their product or service to investors who don’t understand men.

Misunderestimation is a common mistake

Alina and Suvi, the two founders of Hooves, fit a lot of our stereotypes about horse people. Both are young, female, outgoing, and blonde. Danes would call them ‘hestepiger’ – or ‘horse girls’. A lot of investors they met dismissed them to talk instead to introverted young men with glasses or overconfident fast talking salesmen types.

We changed the pitch

Just before the summer, we changed two things in their pitch – their focus and their delivery. Many pitches spend either too long on the problem or focus too specifically on their initial solution. The first Hooves application matches people who own horses with people who want to ride horses. The big opportunity the company presents, however, is digitizing an industry more than three times bigger than golf. That’s what they pitch now.

They also changed how they pitch

The world expects women to smile, so Alina and Suvi stopped smiling. You don’t have to be Harvey Weinstein to be a jerk to women. Too many investors of both sexes we spoke with referred to Hooves as the “horse girls”. A wardrobe change to black helped, but I think the big shift came when they stopped smiling.

Now people listen

My data is limited, but an investor recently said that half way through his meeting with Hooves he started wondering what he had done wrong. “They’re so serious”, he told me. I let him in on the secret and he nodded. Hooves are getting more meetings and, as of this week, have raised half of their next round.

Investors have been throwing money at golf concepts, because they know it’s a rich sport and it’s one they play. Hooves isn’t about innovating part of a sport, it’s about making lots of money and that’s what they pitch. Plenty of people seem to be able to find the opportunity in imperfect pitches, so why couldn’t they see the play in Hooves?

Stand back, the ladies are coming through

At an investor event where the pitching companies got access to the stage an hour before, I watched them practice their pitch over and over while other presenters just wandered around. They knew exactly where the sightline was between offstage and on stage and when the audience would first see them. They work harder.

Life is short and we spend a lot of time at work. I prefer to work with people I like. These ladies are kicking it.