The tech community has a rite of passage for its newborns hoping to reach adulthood. It is selective, it is harrowing, and it crushes many under the weight of expectation and judgment. It is the startup pitch fest.
The ascendance of this performance art reached something of a zenith recently with the newest entrant in the SXSW family of conference events, SXSW V2V. Unlike other tech-focused conferences in which startups are subsumed into a larger event, at V2V startups and entrepreneurship were the entire focus. Unlike other SXSW events, this one was in Las Vegas. In August. (Memo to all event organizers tempted by off-season hotel rates: Any temperature exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit is no longer interpreted by sweat glands as “a dry heat” but just “heat.”)
A key part of SXSW V2V’s programming was V2Venture, a full day of startup pitches in front of potential investors and partners (plus other entrepreneurs) preceded by a full day of closed-door rehearsals. More than two hundred applicants gave the stringent requirements a shot. Each had to have launched no earlier than August 2012, have raised no more than $5 million, and had to fall into one of a handful of technology categories: education, mobile and tablet, culture and entertainment, health or innovative world.
Four Seattle-area startups made the cut to join the finalist field of five in their chosen category: CampusWall and TheHubEdu in education, Tipbit in mobile and tablet, and Fork in culture and entertainment.
I sat through the day of closed rehearsals and many of the final pitches not just to get the skinny on the hot new bright shiny, but also to get a better answer to a single question: Why? Why put up with all the hassle, expense, time suck and pressure?
When I’ve been a part of startups, the only pitch that mattered was the one before a paying customer or deep-pocketed investor. And those weren’t done on stage in a mere two-minute SXSW V2V time limit, a countdown crucible in which a technical glitch or poorly digested breakfast could turn a hoped-for moment of glory into one of infamy.
Plus, it’s not like Seattle-area entrepreneurs face the same tech company ecosystem issues of less mature startup regions (with all due respect to the newbie from Fort Lauderdale). I mean, hell, Startup Weekend is based here.
“It’s a great test for your ideas. You have to be clear on your vision and your concept to be able to explain it clearly in such a short time,” offered Mark Briggs, Seattle creator of Fork, a mobile app that lets people take and share photos of food they’ve made at home (which, incidentally, turns out to be info that’s of great interest to food companies and retailers).
He estimated he spent possibly five hours building the presentation, developing the script and practicing. “The process to get there is really healthy for anyone trying to develop an idea. Also, you usually get great feedback from smart people on your idea. Or, at least, your ability to pitch that idea. That can be super helpful, too.”
Briggs, though, allowed that his experience doing public speaking and delivering “dozens” of presentations probably minimized his prep time. At the other end of the spectrum was Tina Snyder, whose Redmond-based CampusWall is like a Craigslist for campuses, allowing students and staff to safely buy and sell stuff to their peers.
“Between compiling content, practice sessions, and submission requirements (application, slides, press release, etc.) required by the event staff, I would say 40 hours,” Snyder estimated. Yet, “the benefit is the exposure and the opportunity to extend the reach of your business.”
Snyder’s edtech co-finalist Tiffany Reiss of TheHubEdu, who put her time investment as 10-12 hours, also cited the exposure. (Reiss’ startup in Redmond is an online virtual shelf for sharing higher education course and learning network content.) But the process of getting to the stage was helpful, too: “The mentoring, pitch coaching, exposure and networking are integral to moving a startup forward. If we achieved that, we are all ‘winners.’”
Speaking of which, what about Bellevue’s Tipbit? This startup actually won its mobile and tablet technologies category with a pitch for its mobile app that ties email to calendars, topics, related people and files.
CEO Gordon Mangione echoed Briggs’ benefit of forcing clarity. “This will pay off in spades later in other venues such as VC and press pitches. The feedback from the judges – and the larger audience – is invaluable. Think focus group on steroids. If you have a gap, they will find it and force you to rethink your decisions.”
Yes, there’s the exposure. But it appears, in a well-designed and supported competition, the homework itself is as much – or more – of the benefit. “We took advantage of every coaching and mentoring opportunity offered to us in preparation as each of these interactions improved our story,” Mangione said.
So if a pitch fest seems like a disaster waiting to happen, a startup may be focused on the wrong metaphor. It’s not the Titanic. It’s the iceberg – the part below the visible waterline – that counts.
Previously on GeekWire: These former Microsofties want to change the way you access email on your smartphone
Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is a strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose regular GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech (see the column archive). He was on the SXSW V2Venture Advisory Board, has been both a mentor and judge for Startup Weekend, recently offered seven tips at EdSurge for tech startups’ pitching, and has developed a contact allergy to slides with crowded text.