GROWConf 2012 Was Insightful and Interesting

I spent today at GROWConf 2012 in Vancouver, and it was but insightful and interesting. Some of the presentations were a bit vacuous, but there were a couple that had some useful ideas (the ones by Adam Chapnick from Indiegogo, Jeremy Toemen from Dijit Media, and Dan Levin from Box were probably the most useful). What was equally educational was chatting with other people, and listening in to how people introduced their startups. I have spent many, many years trying to keep up with the traditional seed/Angel/VC scene, but my past couple of startups were in financial markets. That’s a different space, and raising money and pitching ideas is very different there.

Short Attention Spans

The biggest difference I noticed was attention span. When we pitched ideas and concepts for financial markets, there was a great deal of patience on the part of the listener. They would sit through the backstory, and you could build to your idea. It resulted in reasonably long, deep and detailed discussions in the first meeting.

What I noticed at GROW, either with the Startup Smackdown, or listening in to people describing their business, was that you had to describe your product, service or concept in the first one or two sentences. The listeners simply weren’t interested in the path to your Big Idea. They wanted the idea first, and then you had to judge if they wanted to hear the rest. Almost everyone was polite and listened anyways. But when people took too long to get to “this is what we do” (and my partner and I were very much guilty of that for the first couple of conversations), you could see their attention wavering.

Startup Smackdown and the 1-minute Pitch

As the day progressed, my partner in crime and I were getting better at “pitching” to people: describe in the first sentence or two what you are doing, then dig into the meat once you’ve got their attention. This was probably the most important insight I gained from the day’s events. Driving it home was the Startup Smackdown. I only watched the first round and the finals, but I still learned things. The Startup Smackdown was a competition: startups with either a beta or recently released product had 1 minute to pitch their company. A panel of 6 judges (3 from the blogging community, 3 from the VC community) would score the pitch and the idea on a scale of 1-10 (1 is bad, 10 is good). The judges highest and lowest scores would then explain why they liked or disliked the pitch.

Except for the one pitch (by Kawkfighter), the pitches themselves weren’t all the great. The presenters were generally uncomfortable with public speaking, and the pressure was clearly impacting them. And before anyone says “let’s see you do better”: I had to stand up in front of senior government officials of various countries and explain why our software did or didn’t do what it was supposed to. I’ve presented to CEOs and senior executives of multi-billion dollar corporations. When you have people in the room that include members of a country’s royal family, that would normally add to the pressure of the situation. The “pressure” during the Smackdown was nothing. I’ve endured far, far worse.

What was apparent was that the quality of the presentation had an impact on the perceived value of the business. The first round included the pitch by Kawkfighter, which was absolutely hilarious, with innuendo and double-entendres based on the name of the game. But the same presenter, pitching the same business, didn’t do nearly as well in the final round. He dropped virtually all of the humour, and focused ons stats and data. It was a dud, and the scores reflected that. The judges in the opening round scored the pitch very high (averaging between 7 and 8 out of 10, far higher than the other pitches he was up against). When the pitch was almost completely about the stats and the “business”, the scores were substantially lower.

I also had a chance to speak with a colleague about preparing for the Smackdown. He was originally going to be in it, but there was a change, and he didn’t end up on the list of presenters for the Smackdown. But he let me look at his script, and we spoke about the value of forcing yourself to take your business concept and distill it to its absolute essence. He told me that taking the time to get his business pitch, and describing the value and future of the company, and put it into a 1-minute speech was a real eye-opener.

This Is A Different World

By the end of the day, my partner and I had accomplished much of what we wanted. We got a better understanding of the traditional startup space. We learned that, unlike financial markets, you are sometimes speaking with people who only want to focus on things that catch their attention, and you have to do that with your opening sentence. That was possibly the biggest lesson.

We did also meet some people who might be able to help us move forward with one of our ideas. We learned other things about building startups, and got a sense of what will and won’t work when dealing with product, marketing and raising funds. But the biggest part was it got us thinking differently about “startups”, because we really haven’t done startups in this more traditional fashion. That was certainly my biggest objective today, and I believe I was able to achieve that.