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.

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.

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.

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.

What Exactly Do You Do?

Too many people don’t explain their product or service when they pitch – and it makes them look bad.

I may not be on the Nobel Committee’s shortlist, but I hear a lot of pitches and I’m really good at deciphering what people are trying to say. Sometimes, however, a five or even ten-minute pitch leaves me confused – and often utterly ignorant.

This matters because it makes both you and your company look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Far too many people see pitching as an add-on or ancillary task. It is a core task. If you can’t explain what you do clearly so that even I can understand, you’re doing something wrong. The cause is usually structural and the following rules can help.

Statement

Describe what you do in seven words. For example, “our platform connects auto dealers with customers”. Do not use these words to explain how it works, what it’s like, or the benefits it provides. Do not confuse this with your tagline. Say what you do.

Use a use case

Explain how your product or service does what it does for a single user or customer. This is especially useful if you have many different types of users or customers. Pick one. Show me how your product works for that one user. No pitch can explain every facet of your product. It doesn’t have to. A pitch is there to ‘get the next meeting’, where you can go into detail.

Use personas

Let’s say you’re explaining AirBnB. “Jane lives in San Francisco. She travels a lot for work and wants to rent out her apartment while she is on the road.” “Tom and Sarah want an alternative to staying in a hotel.”

In a few short steps, walk us through the process of how it works, from Jane putting her apartment on the platform, to how Tom and Sarah find and rent it, to how Jane gets paid, and how the transaction ends.

Explain the value

Don’t make me guess the value you deliver. Tell me the insurance the platform provides makes Jane worry less about renting out her apartment. Tell me the guarantee of a place to stay makes Tom and Sarah more likely to rent through the platform.

Stick to your statement

Repeat your seven-word statement so I have a chance to remember it. Repetition is a powerful tool. Don’t be tempted to explain what you do in different ways. The more times you rephrase what you do, the more chances I have to misunderstand it.

Conclusion

Many pitches fail to explain the product or service. This failure can reflect catastrophically on you and your product. Explain what your product is. Then show me how it works with a use case. Finally, tell me why that matters. Fixing the rest of your pitch is just hard work and practice.

Show Them The Money

It pays to know more than one language: Speak numbers.

I hosted a case competition called the CBS Finance Competition a while back at Copenhagen Business School and it was an eye-opener. The case was the Danish manufacturer Danfoss and the focus was their acquisition of startups. Two things stuck out: it was a boys club and it was all about the numbers.

It’s a pickle party

Do not confuse the society we want with the society we have. All twelve of the participants in the competition were white men in dark suits. There were only two women in the first two rows of the auditorium. Both worked in HR. All of the men wore dark suits, except for the professor, who wore a blue blazer, and a member of the Danfoss merger team, whose suit was gray.

Plan for today. Change tomorrow.

By all means be depressed by the current gender-gap and work to change it, but plan based on fact, not aspiration. Danfoss is an impressive company and they’re socially engaged, but facts are facts. If you’re looking for a corporate acquirer, know that the odds are overwhelming that you’ll be talking to a white man who studied finance. The ratio will change in the future, but plan for the ratio that exists now.

Your focus isn’t their focus – and this makes sense

Startups often focus on team and product. Most corporate investors focus on the numbers. They are buying for very specific reasons and usually have very specific KPIs. They may be how many customers you have or the size of the markets to which your product will give them access.

Like the jury in the competition, you’ll most likely be talking to finance people. Their degrees, surprise, surprise, are usually in finance. The exceptions work in an environment dominated by finance. To them, your product is not something that does A for B, but something that can generate X revenue over Y time. Know how to talk their language.

It’s all about the Benjamins

I ran into an old friend shortly afterwards who used to run an accelerator. After a year off spent working for a corporate, he had spent a couple of months helping a handful of his companies raise money. It had gone well. Why? He’d spent a year working on the other side of the table from the startups.

“You can talk about team and product,” he said, “but it’s all about the money.”

 

Be Different

Sometimes you need to break with the herd

I’m a big fan of different. I like different types of food. I like different types of music. I like living in different countries. I also like mentors who take different approaches to a problem.

As well as being a mentor, I run mentor panel sessions. Mentors don’t take to managing much, and some sessions go sideways. One of the toughest mentor situations I’ve ever seen involved two people who I really like.

There’s a storm coming

Five years ago, Navid was an entrepreneur. We humans are flock beasts and his company was one that we saw a lot of five years ago. Their platform helped small stores connect with customers by helping them advertise, sell, offer discounts, and more. Their journey was an all uphill battle.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man

The other person was Peder. He’s an ex-corporate finance guy who did well with a startup he founded and now he’s an active mentor. I introduced them to each other at a mentor session where a panel was going to try to help Navid solve his company’s problems.

Game over

The meeting was brutal. Navid was late. His presentation was not good. Worst of all, none of it was really his fault. Most people who try Navid’s concept, and there have been a lot of them, find out that it’s incredibly hard to execute. The two-hour session ended after just an hour with the panel unanimously declaring that the company should close.

Startups are personal

Navid was crushed. A lot of the feedback had been personal, some of it unfairly so. The session had been hard to manage. ‘Tough love’ has its place, but sometimes mentors try harder to impress the other mentors than to help the startups. Peder used the final round of feedback to reset the mentoring session and fix the balance.

This will be hard, let me help

Peder zigged when everyone else zagged. Six mentors in a row said that Navid should close up shop. Peder agreed and then pointed out that Navid now faced the task of telling his team that the game was over. This was going to be tough, Peder said, and then he offered to help Navid with that conversation.

Sometimes people need more than tough love

It was the first helping hand had anyone had offered Navid since he walked in the door. The panel had scented red meat and gone for it. Yes, the concept was flawed and everyone including Navid knew it. The panel did him a huge service by getting him to see it was time to cut his losses. But now he needed a little humanity.

Startups are about people

Peder saw the person who was going to have to tell his co-founders they had to close the company and offered to help. It was a big moment. You could see almost everyone in the room lean back in recognition of the kindness in the gesture and think,

“Damn, I wish I had said that”.

”All Your Bases Are Belonging to Us”

Relationships fail. Breaking up can be ugly. Get a pre-nup.

I recently went through a founder bust-up of my own. As a mentor, I’ve seen hundreds, and I disagree with Tolstoy. He famously said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is different. I think founder bust-ups are banal in their similarity.

Founding a company requires faith and founder alignment. No amount of preparation, however, can predict or replace the experience gained from events. Some relationships survive events. Some relationships grow. Other relationships do neither. Be prepared.

Dating vs. Being Engaged vs. Being Married

Everyone needs to be clear on which status applies. I’m an enthusiast. This can be dangerous, so I have a partner, Peder, who keeps me on the straight and narrow. Peder made sure we all were just dating. We talked a lot about what it would take for us to tie the knot with the other guy and how to quantify the decision. KPIs work the same way that the concept of breaking distance does, so you can stop or change direction in time to avoid a crash.

“Get a pre-nup”

We advise founders to write pre-nups. Like Peder, one of my recurring concerns with the project was probably always that we saw the business differently from the other guy. In this, we were completely normal. It’s utterly common for one person to be more invested in a relationship than the other. The trick is ensuring that there isn’t a major imbalance.

Things didn’t work out

It didn’t go the way we hoped. The concept we had hoped to map from the other guy’s city to ours proved to need a lot of adjustments. The list of compromises both sides had to make got longer and longer. The other guy started handing out ultimatums.

We all want to be respectful and mature, but…

Founder bust-ups are usually emotional, much like romantic bust-ups. We said something along the lines of “it’s not you, it’s me” and “let’s just be friends”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that didn’t go over so well.

Game over

Our friend was furious. He immediately blocked our email and social media accounts. He demanded all the assets. The situation was just like founder bust-ups everywhere. It could have been a big mess. The fallout has been minor, however, because we kept our breaking distance.

Lessons learned

As a mentor, it’s good to have first hand experience and to occasionally renew old lessons learned. It was interesting to be in the middle of something we see startups wrestle with all the time. We never reached the pre-nup stage, because we never became full-fledged co-founders. There was plenty in the break up, however, to remind us why an agreement on how you manage a founder-split is a really good idea. It’s good advice to take and to give.

Give Me Three Good Reasons

Scaling things is hard and ideas matter less than execution

”By the end of dinner, I want you to give me three good reasons why you’re building someone else’s brand instead of your own.”

The challenge came from Mikkel as we walked to a late dinner at Tommi’s Burger Joint. It was one of those questions. The kind you knew had been on the way for a long time and that once asked really needed no answer. We all need friends like Mikkel.

“I can’t think of a single one.”

I launched my last business in a niche that I knew well, tech and startup events, doing a variation of something I’ve done for years. I decided to work with a guy who developed a concept I really liked. I’d open it in my city and together we would see how far we could scale the concept. Over coffee, it looked like a great plan, but everyone knows the proof is in the execution.

Execution is hard

For years, I’ve told startups that execution has value, but concepts are worthless. A patent is only one piece of a business model for turning an idea into money. There are a lot of good reasons why repeatable success is so highly valued and one is it’s really, really hard. What works in one place often doesn’t work in another.

Don’t love your idea, love the results

Things didn’t work out. Mapping the concept to Copenhagen took a lot of adjusting. This took time and effort that we couldn’t spend on things like sales. I loved the idea, but making it happen sucked up huge amounts of time. The more we had to invent solutions that didn’t exist to deal with situations that didn’t exist, the less it looked like the original concept.

Franchising looks simple. So does golf.

Franchising only looks simple to those who’ve never tried it. It’s really hard if the concept is new and the product is new. It’s harder still, if the brand is new to the market as well. It takes a lot of support, great tools, great marketing, and a really clear road map to roll out a new franchise. As a mentor, I now give much more specific feedback on franchising.

The concept is dead. Long live the concept.

Eventually, I realized we were working in parallel instead of together. The synergies we had hoped for didn’t appear. Discussions turned into criticism and the criticism got personal. Cultural note: if a Swede curses at you, things are really, really bad.

Sometimes you need a push

I know I do. Hindsight is a clear, but distorted lens. Some things you know at the time and some things you don’t. I’m not going to beat myself up about the mistakes I made. I’m trying to learn from them. I overlooked things I shouldn’t have. Luckily my friends pushed me.

 

“They Didn’t Do As I Said!”

Action shot of me facilitating an investor panel and explaining what not to do.

A pitch doesn’t have to be perfect to work

Startup mentors spend a lot of time giving pitch advice. The advice given spans everything from format and content to delivery and even personal wardrobe choices. Some of the advice is good and a lot of it is not, but in defense of the well-meaning mentor, it is worth noting that the target – the right message delivered the right way to the right audience – can be hard to hit.

“Thank you for a really good pitch…”

Take for example, a pitch I heard recently while running an investor panel in Gothenburg, Sweden. The pitch was awful, and yet it really caught the panel’s attention. The pitch was vague. It was long on the problem and short on the value created, but Swedes are unfailingly polite. Each investor started their feedback by saying ‘thank you for a really good pitch’, before asking some rather revealing questions.

The first investor said he didn’t understand the product. The second investor agreed with the first and said that she didn’t understand the business model. The third agreed with her predecessors and said that she didn’t understand how the product was sold. The pitch looked like a disaster.

Sometimes ugly works

The fourth agreed with all of his colleagues, but then said that he wanted to meet with the company after the session. Why, you ask? Because they had 10,000 B2B customers, that’s why. He said he wanted to know what the customers understood that the company had been unable to explain to the investors. The other three investors all agreed.

Traction is king.

“Your Value Proposition is Unclear”

0iijeltgvzm-marc-guellerinThere are many ways to be a mentor, but basics are easy. Try to help and don’t be a jerk.

It’s almost Christmas as I write this. A few miles north of where I sit, my namesake is checking his list to see whether each and every one of us has been naughty or nice. Most of us could do with some help on the nice side, so if you’re a mentor, remember the first rule of mentoring: Don’t be a jerk.

We like being right
I meet loads of people who call themselves experts. A surprising number of them are actually quite knowledgeable. Quite a few of these even manage to translate this knowledge into something that provides value to others. Many, however, don’t help at all.

Translating knowledge into words that can be communicated, understood, and applied is hard. The temptation to play the know-it-all is overpowering to some. Far too many of us can’t help ourselves. We feel the need to prove we’re right. Our quick tongues can’t resist the urge to put down or ridicule. Our desire to help loses to a need to be recognized as clever.

Any fool can point out the problems
Too many mentors think our role is to point out all the problems. Entrepreneurs know startups are hard. If they don’t, time will teach them soon enough. They may have missed some nuances or completely missed something vital, but when they come to us, almost all of them come for help.

They’re looking for answers
They need help getting stuff done. They need solutions. There’s nothing wrong with helping them identify the problems, if that’s the phase they’re in – or if they’ve missed something big. Usually startups have a specific pain. It may be assistance in pinpointing where exactly they need help, but then they need the answer – or our advice on where to find it.

Answers that help, delivered so they can be used
Too many of us spend more time tearing down than building up. The American practice of sandwiching bad news in between good may seem superficial, but it can make advice easier to absorb and accept. Entrepreneurs are touchy about their startups.

Sometimes it’s not all about you
Half an hour of being told you’re an idiot makes people defensive and unreceptive to new ideas. Who knew? Sometimes dialing back the criticism makes it easier for us to make our point and provide help that makes a difference. No matter what your approach, follow the first rule of mentoring. Remember that we’re here to help. Don’t be a jerk.