The green room at 500 Startups Demo Day is more like a pre-game locker room.
Startup founders with intense expressions pace back and forth while others sit alone, their heads slightly bowed as they focus like a laser on the next two minutes.
Clothing is adjusted, hair is combed. This is the culmination of 3+ months of startup pitch prep.
A boisterous group of founders crowds around a monitor blaring a live feed of the proceedings in the auditorium next door. There’s a tournament vibe in the air, but each participant will tell you that they aren’t competing with each other.
They’re competing against themselves.
Among the general public, people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death.
Startup founders, however, are a different breed of cat; out of twenty-two I spoke with, only two admitted to being nervous immediately before giving their pitch. Then again, “act as if” is the entrepreneur’s credo.
Demo Day has a weird vibe: sort of like a mash-up of a science fair and the NFL draft. #500STRONG
— Walter Thompson (@YourProtagonist) May 13, 2016
One man delivers a sincere pitch about his startup to a window overlooking a parking lot, complete with hand gestures and pauses. Another founder walks in small circles, occasionally stopping to bounce to the music streaming through his earbuds. A woman with a thousand-yard stare stands in a disused kitchen area and breathes deeply. High fives, daps and hugs are exchanged.
On the other side of the wall, in a room packed to capacity with investors, Silicon Valley notables, media, friends and family, each founder will have 120 seconds on stage to pitch their idea — to show why theirs is a worthy investment. Two minutes to persuade a room full of strangers that they’ve created something unique and valuable. Two minutes to explain what they’ve been doing with their lives.
Founders from around the world, but “Silicon Valley style” pitch
Batch 16 is 500’s largest Accelerator group ever, but its participants aren’t representative of Silicon Valley; they’re much more diverse. Of 51 companies, 25% are founded by women, 14% by African-Americans, and 8% by Latinos. International startups comprise 37% of the total.
Before taking the stage, each founder stands still long enough for Batch 16 staffers to attach wireless mics and transmitters. Next, the door to the auditorium swings open, classic rock power chords rush into the green room, and they’re off. Moments later, they rematerialize on the monitor in a corner, and everyone who’s not rehearsing their pitch gathers around to watch.
When they return, they’ll be greeted with deafening cheers and applause from their team members and other Batch 16 participants. (Due to the noise, I abandon plans to record a podcast and pivot to writing a blog post featuring interviews with several Demo Day participants.)
— Black Founders (@blackfounders) May 13, 2016
What It’s Like To Pitch At 500 Startups Demo Day
Ethic: Jay Lipman, Founder
Ethic is a sustainable asset manager, so we’re bringing sustainable investments to the mainstream. We were one of the first companies to start working on our pitch. We sat down with [500 Startups Entrepreneur-in-Residence and pitch coach] Andrea Barrica as soon as we could. She’s a godsend, and everyone who can work with her should. We spent about two months working on it, about once every two weeks for the first month, and then once a week for the last month.
Andrea got us very ready. She made sure that we had 10 practice pitches, 3 preview days. We were ready because Andrea got us ready.
Practice, read Talk Like TED, which is an amazing book, watch Obama talk, work with Andrea as much as you can, and just relax. It’s got to be natural and enthusiastic.
I just stared off into the abyss and hoped for the best. — Jay Lipman, Ethic.
Arka: Phillip Akhzar, Founder
We’re a pain-free way for companies to source packaging online. We started prepping our pitch probably too late, much later than most.
500 does a really great job on making sure that you’re prepared months in advance, having at least a day a week dedicated with mentors being there to support you. I held it off probably until three weeks before the day, and then from there just made it my Number One priority.
You need to know what you’re talking about in the sense that you go and study what it is that you want your company to do for as long as possible, but there’s a difference between executing and strategizing. When it comes down to it, the most important thing about your company are its users. My advice: start yesterday, and talk to your users as quickly as possible that doesn’t just mean, grow, grow, and make money. You need as much feedback as possible, so don’t think you know what your users need; they’ll tell you.
How’d I sleep last night? Not well. (laughs) — James Norman, Pilotly
Pilotly: James Norman, Founder
We enable people to make better decisions around their video through viewer data. We spent probably the past month on the pitch — it takes time to hone a message into two minutes and make sure that you not only explain how great your product is, but how big the opportunity is.
Normally, I black out while I’m pitching, because I’m in the zone, I’m feeling the crowd, and that’s where I’m at. Today, I somehow was able to impact the crowd and still be conscious, so I could be a little bit more impulsive but still direct with my movements, which pleased me.
On stage, I look at everybody. I try to catch people’s eye in the crowd, find people who are in between looking their phone and looking up at me, and speaking loudly so I can grab their attention.
I think that the best outcome is people come and join our seed round and help us achieve the change that we’re looking to make in entertainment.
I’ve interviewed 11 founders so far, but none of them would cop to being nervous before giving their pitch. #500STRONG
— Walter Thompson (@YourProtagonist) May 13, 2016
Ticktate: Brian Canti, CEO, co-founder
We worked on it for the 16 weeks that we were in the 500 Startups program, but we really started to ramp up in the last three weeks; really getting down the pitch, cleaning up the jokes and making sure all the deliveries and punch lines were on point.
It came down to the fact that my co-founder and I felt that as CEO, I should be presenting. At first, I wasn’t that excited about it, but I got over my fear of speaking in public and really enjoyed myself. If I’m in a room with 20 people, I can hold the room and tell jokes. But there’s something about being the center of attention on stage. If I’m not prepared, I don’t like it, but in this case, I was so well prepared by the 500 folks that I really enjoyed it.
People spend a year plus working on these companies before joining these batches, so don’t be nervous about giving a two-minute speech about something you’ve spent years of your life on.
Rize: Justin Howell, CEO, cofounder
We are an automated savings platform built around behavioral design aimed for millenials, people in their 20s.
We started working on the demo probably about halfway through the batch and spent probably 20 – 30 hours over the last month and a half. I have a love/hate relationship with public speaking; sometimes I really enjoy it and being up on stage, but every time, there’s always those butterflies. It’s actually easier up there on stage with the lights in your eyes, because you can’t see people all that well.
We’ve all seen each others’ pitches so often that we know them by heart, and we’re all rooting for each other. We started out with a pitch that was pretty rough and I think we’ve come out with one that we’re really proud of through the combination of help from the 500 team and putting in the practice.
I’d like to come out with making some connections with potential investors.
BottlesTonight: John Rushworth, CEO
We’ve been in business for two years. We’re based in San Francisco, although we operate in 12 cities with 200 nightclubs using BottlesTonight to fill their unsold table inventory.
Two months in, we began startup pitching on a weekly basis. The last six weeks, it’s gone from once a week to twice a week, and in the last few weeks, every single day. The 500 program has really helped me get the pitch where it needed to be for today.
I was more nervous for Preview Day and our prior pitch sessions just amongst our batch. Today was just all excitement, and I think part of that is the trade show floor outside with all the companies, investors coming up to us being genuinely enthusiastic about what we’re doing. Everyone here has great camaraderie, everyone’s rooting for one another. It feels like playing sports with your friends.
FoxType: Scott Lee, CEO
If I’m ever not nervous, that’s when I’m going to do poorly. The nervous energy gets you to an optimum state of stress where you can think quickly and react to the audience.
Float: Max Klein, CEO, co-founder
I’m the CEO, so I’m usually unlucky enough to be called on stage. As you go up you essentially black out for 2 to 3 minutes, then you walk off stage and ask yourself what the hell happened.
I think I did OK. I’m hoping to impress some people, generate some buzz and have a good time with my team. I started working on today’s demo about two to three weeks ago. The ability to distill a message into two minutes is an extremely difficult thing, but it definitely helps with solidifying the core value proposition.
Worthix: Gui Cerqueira, CEO
Worthix is a software that combines econometric algorithms and cognitive systems to uncover what’s behind customer decisions. Basically, we explain why people buy.
I’m the guy that usually talks. The geeks, they don’t like to talk that much. — Gui Cerqueira, CEO Worthix
We always have that feeling of butterflies in your stomach before a presentation as important as Demo Day because it’s something that happens once in a lifetime as an entrepreneur. Basically, I try to concentrate, with very strong breathing before, but the problem is, they called me sooner than was expected. There were three more companies before me, but somehow it was good because I wasn’t expecting it to be my time to go on the stage.
Bond with your batch mates as soon as possible. A lot of entrepreneurs when they consider joining 500, they think about the opportunity to meet investors, but once you’re in the program, you realize that your batch mates are the strongest resource you have.
Next time, see the action for yourself. Sign up in advance for Batch 17 Demo Day here.