Living in Silicon Valley for 20+ years and in San Francisco for the past four, I have been around technology for quite a spell. Now is one of the most exciting times to be in the thick of tech. Sure there is the annoying “brogrammer” culture, hipster entrepreneurs swigging from $200 wine bottles at SF restaurants, and rents and real estate rising faster than you can say “WhatsApp.” But it’s still thrilling to be here, both as participant and observer from the sidelines. With that, it’s on everyone’s tech bucket list to attend at least one pitch fest. I got lucky and scored a home run: a VC/Investor panel discussion AND company pitches. Here’s what I learned:
#1 Startup events are (intentionally) a bit messy and disorganized
Before I went, I asked a friend who has attended many what I should wear. Jeans seemed too casual but dressing up seemed dorky. His sage words: “Dress better than most so people will think you’re important.” Done. The event was held in a steamy, industrial-ish downstairs of a co-working space. The frazzled hostess kept things amusing throughout: announcing there was a break between presentations, and then not, and then there is. Asking to borrow someone’s Mac for a PowerPoint, fixing the feedback-ing mic numerous times, interrupting speakers to interject her thoughts. You get the idea. Somehow these incidents made the event seem more startup-y and authentic, though it was closer to a crash-and-burn for a corporate event-planning pro like myself.
#2 It’s awkward to present when your country is squashing democracy
It was unfortunate timing for a Hong Kong incubator presenting a detailed, lavish pitch on the benefits of setting up shop and making your first million there. Problem was, it was the same day the political chaos in Hong Kong was topping headlines. I waited for the presenter to reference it, but the elephant in the room stayed quiet, or in this case, the police, protesters and tear gas. It would have been appropriate to say something vague and innocuous like: “We are thinking about everyone in our country during this difficult time.” It shows an awareness and sensitivity to issues other than the almighty dollar bill.
#3 Corporate portmanteaus are still a thing
One of the investor companies from England played an upbeat, chock full o’Brit perky video promoting the milieu of ways that startups should work with their firm. It was smooth sailing until the horribly matched words like “glocal” and “talentricity” reared their oversized font heads onto the screen. It reminded me of a scene from a “Silicon Valley” script, except that it was real life. Either way, this gibberish needs to fade to black. Forever. They are counter-culture to everything that is startup.
#4 Pitches and public speaking skills can only go up
The variety of pitches was astounding: an online organic produce delivery service to an “omni-channel retail kiosk” (which no one understood), to a movie service catering to Southeast Asians. The content and presentations were of varying talent, but the majority were poorly constructed. This is no surprise since entrepreneurs tend to be heads-down creating products, not working on their communication skills (though that excuse can’t be used for companies with VC Big Shots on their advisory boards). The importance of a good pitch cannot be understated—it is the holy grail to getting funded. My take is that a pitch should possess three “C” qualities: be clear, concise, and compelling (in a three-minute package). Weaving a great and logically flowing story into your presentation is absolutely critical.
#5 Testosterone-All; Estrogen-0
This comes as no surprise but every single pitch and panel member was male. The women’s roles at the event? The “helpers”—the hostess, those setting up computers, coordinating food and drinks and the like. I was encouraged to see that females of all ages made up about 25% of the audience. Of course, male dominance is a systemic issue in tech (and many other industries) that will not be resolved in this space. The good news is that there is much more awareness of this issue, now something just has to be done about it…
#6 There are good takeaways
Feedback from the investors was clearly valuable to the entrepreneurs and I got some good advice too: 1) The best way to get to the core greatness and uniqueness of your product or service is to ask your customers—they will give you the read-back of your true value; 2) Leverage the social capital that you have, aka tech influencers, who are usually happy to help, but ask directly for what you want and make it something interesting and easy to do; 3) Know what success means upfront in your business, and if you “pivot,” do so before you are on the spiral to going down in flames; 4) The story of why you started your company is the core of your greatness and at the root of the problems you solve. It’s what drives and motivates you, and what makes you unique. It’s the DNA of your future success.
Will I go to another pitchfest? Maybe, maybe not. But it will be awfully cool if one of those companies I saw is the Next Big Thing.
Image: Marketoonist, Tom Fishburne