SAN FRANCISCO — Myles Weissleder has witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to startup demos.
The former VP of public affairs at Meetup.com presides over SF New Tech, a showcase for disruptive hopefuls that he’s run for more than eight years. Over 750 companies including SkyBox, Twilio, Prezi, Flipboard and Twitter have come to his networking mixer to demo before a live audience in a trendy SOMA club.
In San Francisco’s competitive startup environment, you can demo your game-changing idea (or Pet Rock app) every night of the week, but SF New Tech is one of the longest-running and largest showcases. Wannapreneurs face a few hundred audience members — many of them from influential companies like Apple or venture capital firms like CMEA capital — where the mingling is fueled by drinks and tacos.
During a recent demo night, Cult of Mac sat down with the indefatigable Weissleder, who is as at home on the stage with a mic as he is hobnobbing at the bar, to get his top tips on how not to bomb when you take the stage with your great idea, hoping to find cash and connect with influencers.
Know the dress code
People in oh-so-casual tech mecca California rarely admit to caring about clothes. But doffing a hoodie or mockneck influences how your message is received. The au courant middle ground — note Craig Federighi’s look at the Apple keynotes — is a dress shirt and jeans, or some combo of a jacket plus dress shirt/tee and jeans. Make sure whatever you decide to wear fits. Droopy shoulder seams and denim pooling around your ankles is hella awkward, people. A few bucks spent in alterations at a dry cleaner will go a long way.
“The ones that have bombed have been the older-generation, more-conservative software guys who might come over from Europe, dressed to the max,” Weissleder says. “And they get up and talk about the bullet points and people are just unenthused.”
Ditch the PowerPoint
Steve Jobs famously banned Microsoft’s presentation software from Apple meetings and held sway during live keynotes that seemed off-the-cuff. While that’s a nosebleed standard to aim for, ditch the slides and start thinking different. “We have a strict no-PowerPoint rule here,” Weissleder says. “It’s pretty simple: People don’t want to be pitched bullet points. If people don’t have a product demo, I’m like, ‘Well, come up with something.’”
Creativity wins hearts
What have been some of the best pitches to hit the SF New Tech stage at SOMA nightclub Mighty?
“Twilio was here and Jeff Lawson, the CEO, actually coded live onstage and made something happen,” Weissleder recalls. “That’s what people love — seeing you do something, watching it take place, whether it’s just through the website or actually cracking the code open, making some amendments or adding the special sauce, and here, bang, here it is. That gets a round of applause — it’s always exciting.”
Prepare for the hard questions
While the crowd at Mighty is generally mellow — or on the way to it, thanks to the libations and food — after a five-minute demo, tech hopefuls stand under the glaring spotlight to face five endless minutes of probing questions from the floor. The queries often come from competitors as well as people who could potentially gather enough cash to make your dreams come true.
“When they’re not prepared, they start to sweat it,” Weissleder says. “And the No. 1 question, believe it or not, and they’re told to cover this in their presentation, and a lot of them don’t, is: ‘What’s your f****ing business model?’”
What to say when you don’t know how to answer that one? Your best bet about the money question is to address it in your presentation — don’t count on people being so mesmerized by your theatrics that they forget about the bottom line. But once the question is out and that bead of sweat pops, you can still say, “We’re pre-revenue, we’re figuring it out,” Weissleder says. “It’s not ideal, but you’ve got to say something.”
There are so many venues offering a stage for the disruptive and just plain foolish, you could demo every night of the week in San Francisco. Just remember: You never know who might turn up.
At a recent SF New Tech night showcasing startups from Belgium, former Apple engineer Andy Grignon was sitting in the front row, nursing a beer and asking incisive questions. “I’m always curious to see what people from other parts of the world are coming up with, you always see some new ideas,” says Grignon, founder of Quake Labs and stealth startup Eight.ly. The possibility of players in the audience is another reason to prepare your spiel carefully.
Plan for your demo to live forever
Apple and Google have set the standard for broadcasting their keynotes and making them viewable sans editing after the fact. Weissleder gets this: For now, you can catch the action as it happens at SF New Tech live or check out the YouTube Channel where the demo videos are archived. He is currently hatching plans to move the event in a direction beyond the IRL events that happen a couple of times per month, creating a new platform to archive the demos and index them to create a better way to match up founders with funding.
“Thousands of people wanna be a part of SF New Tech, but I can’t be P.T. Barnum with a microphone all my life because it doesn’t pay the bills,” Weissleder says. “So, our big pivot is launching a more scalable way for startups to show off their latest and greatest stuff to a global audience.”