You have six minutes to summarize the product you’ve been working on for the past three years. There are 500 journalists and venture capitalists in the audience that you need to impress in order for your business to have a fighting chance. The spot lights are glaring, the room is silent and the red LED clock on a television monitor in front of you is slowly ticking away the valuable seconds that you need in order to build your argument.
This is the stage at the DEMO Spring 2010 conference where I launched Zosh, the mobile document execution platform that lets you fill out, sign and return documents from your mobile device. Twice a year, companies from all over the world apply to launch their products at DEMO and 60 companies with the most compelling products and services are selected and allowed to pitch their product to the creme of the crop technology journalists and VC’s. Today starts the Fall 2010 DEMO conference.
You spend countless hours rehearsing and practicing and then when you are finally on the stage, there is a moment of panic and you completely loose track of what you were saying. For me it was as soon as I made eye contact with Walt Mossberg, a journalist from the Wall Street Journal that I’ve admired for many years. I was making the case to the audience about needing to be un-tied from the ball and chain which is the fax machine an argument I had memorized and practiced a hundred times, but in that moment I forgot my next line.
My Zosh presentation at DEMO Spring 2010
At DEMO, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. A good presentation can only happen if you are well prepared and have the luck of the DEMO gods. In fact, they named their award for most promising company who delivers the best presentation at a given DEMO conference the DEMOgod award. When a company falters and delivers a bad presentation which happens way too much, they say that it must have been the work of the DEMO gods. Failures can include technical malfunctions, nervous breakdowns, and pretty much anything that interrupts or prevents you from doing a good demonstration of your product.
When a DEMO goes bad, it is an uncomfortable experience for the audience who squirms in their seats knowing that the presentation, hard work and possibly the company is going down in flames. For the presenter, it is a complete nightmare.
I was the first to present at DEMO this year, a lucky spot that I received by having a product in a hot space and by adding some very appropriate imagery to my presentation. Being first means you set the tone for the entire event. If you put on a good presentation, you will be remembered for it. It allows you to watch all of the other presentations without worrying about preparing for your own. Selecting the order of presentations is entirely up to the producers of DEMO, so you really have to get lucky. Or do you?
I met Matt Marshall the CEO of DEMO at a cocktail party in Austin, TX a few months before the conference. He came to town to meet some of the companies that were interested in applying for a spot at the conference. This was the first year that Matt was head of the conference and I wanted to get to know him a bit so that I could find the best way to pitch my company and get into the conference. Matt was young, well dressed and had a ton of charisma. He charmed everyone that he spoke to and had a natural sort of showmanship. Watching him work the room set a clear strategy for me. I should to appeal to his desire to put on a good show.
My product is an easy sell. People understand that it replaces the whole print -> sign -> fax routine and allows you to sign documents from anywhere all on your phone. I knew that I could get into DEMO, but I wanted a higher placement and more publicity, so I needed something else. Given that I believed that Matt wanted to put on a good show, I decided to come up with a great hook to not only sell Matt on a great presentation, but to maximize the mark I leave behind by making people feel good about my product. I was going to appeal to their feelings.
The one key feeling that people had about my product is that it removed their need for the fax machine which they hated. Hated. That reminded me of the scene from the movie “Office Space” where they smash the fax machine in the middle of a field with baseball bats. That’s it! I’ll smash a fax machine on the stage with a baseball bat. Its perfect. It will shock the audience and provide for a great show.
When it came time to apply for DEMO, I sent in my application and soon after received a call from Matt to discuss more about my company. In that discussion I told him about wanting to smash a fax machine on the stage. As I described swinging the baseball bat and seeing little pieces of plastic fly all over the stage, I knew I was winning him over. He told me he loved the idea and spent some time discussing how it could work so that it would maximize its effect on the audience. The next day I received my acceptance letter for DEMO and a few weeks later I was notified that I’d be presenting first.
So there I was, standing on stage and after delivering 2 minutes of my presentation, I forgot my next line. I knew this was going to happen and taking the advice of my partner Alexander, I simply thought back to the story. If you make your entire presentation fit a story line, it is easy to find your way back when you become rattled. I’ve seen enough share of DEMO presentations where the presenter forgot his or her line and stopped. Unable to remember what to say, there was a very uncomfortable silence as they started to melt down on stage.
My story was simple. I’m a real estate agent who was missing his kid’s little league baseball game because I forgot to initial page 14 in a long contract so I had to come back to the office to sign it. I simply glanced over at the fax machine and thought about the story. A few seconds later and I was back on track remembering every line.
I had never hit a fax machine with a baseball bat, so I wasn’t sure if it would actually break. I know that they did it in a movie, but that was Hollywood and maybe they removed all the screws or used some kind of trick photography to make it look like it was breaking. The entire first part of my speech up until I took the first swing, I nervously wondered if it would break. If I was smart, I would’ve bought two fax machines and practiced on one. But I had too many other more important things to worry about, so as I picked up the bat to take a swing, I prayed that it would break. My first swing and the fax did not break. It just bounced and rebounded with no apparent damage. They really design these things to take a hit from a baseball bat. I guess I’m not the first to hit one so I probably shouldn’t have chosen the junior sized wooden baseball bat from Amazon. I put a little more power behind the bad and the fax gives way and starts to fall apart. I take one more swing and then decide to pick it up and throw it on the floor for added effect. I didn’t want to spend too much of my valuable 6 minutes hitting it. The audience loved it and applauded. My confidence was back.
My first hit with the baseball bat is a dud.
There were a few other things that could’ve derailed my presentation. For one, at my rehearsal the day before, the Wifi Internet connection that the conference producers provided for us wasn’t working too well. This was a special dedicated connection used only for the DEMO presenters and it was flaky. So I decided last minute to just use the AT&T 3G connection in my iPhone. The day AT&T is more reliable than a dedicated Wifi circuit, you know you are in trouble. The gamble paid off for me as my connection worked flawlessly and demonstrated one of the great features in my product, the ability to work with large documents from a 3G connection.
I was using a beta version of Zosh for the demonstration portion that was not fully tested. This was another gamble because any crash or bug would be obvious on the two 40 foot projection screens. My heart raced during this portion of my presentation as my nervous fingers were projected on two gigantic screens on either side of the stage. I also needed to be sure that I could speak during moments when the app was loading or rendering. Given the unpredictability of the network, I basically needed filler. I had prepared several pieces that I could use at any point. There is nothing worse than the uncomfortable silence during a presentation.
Practice is the most important aspect of putting on a good presentation. I used the webcam on my laptop to record my sessions and I’d go back and watch while taking notes. Was my timing correct, did I show enough enthusiasm, etc.. Once felt good enough, I’d go pitch in front of friends, colleagues or family. Pitching to a friend or colleague is actually a lot harder than I thought. My first pitch was to Josh Baer another Austin entrepreneur and a friend. I got real nervous as I started my pitch, forgot my lines and had to restart at the beginning. This happened four or five times and was embarrassing. I needed to feel more confident about what I was saying, a big lesson learned. I also needed a story that I could fall back on if I lost my way. I re-wrote the script so that the entire format was in the form of a story.
One of my early practice sessions. Needs work.
My final performance at DEMO.
Another great piece of advice is how you end your presentation. You need to leave a strong message when you leave the stage so that the audience will be interested in learning more about you and your company. This is the real key to success at DEMO because it is the conversations that you have during the convention portion of DEMO that brings significant value. Your 6 minutes presentation is the hook, but the sell happens when you talk to the press and VC members over the course of the next two days.
At the end the conference, there is an award ceremony where the coveted DEMOgod award is given to the company who had the best presentation, most innovative product, best chance of success and pizzaz. I won the award for the mobile category which had the most emphasis at this years conference given the explosion of the iPhone, Android and the massive growth in the industry.
For Zosh, the conference was all about buzz. We generated a significant amount, much more than we had anticipated. We were hoping for 1 or 2 good hits, but ended up receiving 12. We received converage from websites like Gizmodo, Engadget, Lifehacker, USA Today, CNET, and Mashable as well as in the print edition of USA Today. Our users doubled in the first 48 hours and its been nothing but great since then.
Presenting at DEMO is not an easy task. It is expensive in terms of time and money, but if you are well prepared and you have the right product and the DMEO gods are with you, there is no better stage to launch a product.
Summarizing some of the tips you should’ve gleaned from the article:
- Make sure your company goals align with your reasons for wanting to attend a conference. You also want to make sure that you are delivering to the right audience.
- A 6 minute pitch is a ton of work. Think of it like producing a 6 minute film. Everything needs to be planned in advance, scripted, and carefully choreographed.
- When delivering, make sure to get into the problem as soon as possible. You need to give people a reason to watch the rest of your presentation, so pull them in right away.
- It is helpful if your pitch follows a story. If you loose your spot, just remember the story.
- Practice. I can’t stress this enough. I used my notebook webcam for my initial takes. Watching it gave me a lot of helpful tips that I would’ve missed.
- Practice in front of friends and family. This doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but you’ll be surprised at how nervous you get. This will be 1/100th of the anxiety that you’ll get on stage. Might as well get used to it now.
- Have filler material that you can use to eliminate uncomfortable silences during unpredictable delays.
- Pray for help from the DEMOgods.