Just over a week ago we launched as a finalist in TechCrunch50. Have a look at our demo video. TechCrunch50 is a PR machine, designed from start to finish to launch new companies, show off sponsors and further define TechCrunch as a market leader. After a month of work, rehearsals and the event itself we learned some lessons that will help our business immensely and may prove useful for anyone trying to decide if TechCrunch50 is right for them.
To apply or not to apply:
Your product isn’t too young.
The product we had for the application and interview was entirely different than what we launched with. The TechCrunch folks who decide the companies are looking at the potential of your business and the uniqueness of your idea. If they believe you can deliver, it doesn’t matter that you haven’t yet done so.
The application process is chaotic.
Don’t let it get to you. A lot of people felt they were left hanging during the application process. The event is a huge undertaking, and the TechCrunch staff busts their asses for months, interviewing hundreds of companies, reading a thousand applications, all to make sure that it’s a success. You often couldn’t tell which time zone people were in because emails came at all hours of the day and night. The dedication and throughput of the team is incredible, but the shear scale of the event means that mistakes were made and deadlines were missed. Take a deep breath, realize you’re all on the same team, and be flexible.
Is TechCrunch50 a good fit?
It seems to me that SXSW is an equally (maybe better) venue to launch than TechCrunch50 for anything that requires grass roots adoption. Compare the success of Twitter and Foursquare (both launched at SXSW) with the plethora of social-media startups vying for a decreasing amount of attention at TechCrunch50.
The nature of TechCrunch50 is that you’re telling the audience what to think and hoping that they respond to it with a beta signup, venture money, press coverage, or something else. But social networks need evangelists, early adopters and a lively community.
Paul Graham recommended that any startup with “a chicken and egg problem” spend a majority of their demo discussing how they’ll solve that problem. I think that if you have to talk about how you’ll solve this problem you’re already facing a huge challenge. Instead, you should be solving this problem with private beta users, and using TechCrunch50, if at all, to show how you’ve already managed this hurdle.
The audience has high expectations of your company because the event is such an industry leader. This was great for us because we got great feedback and started to build a reputation. But some people were immediately against several startups on stage because they felt a sense of competition with the founders. The point is that this exclusive club can be a double-edged sword.
Update: A couple days after writing this @ev summed up my point in way fewer characters: ”I don’t think Twitter would have done well at TC50 or Demo. (Likely response: WTF?) Wonder if Google would have. (Search? Yawn.)”
Make the deadlines work for you.
One of the reasons we applied for TechCrunch50 was that it demanded from our product exactly what we needed to develop anyway. The deadlines for TechCrunch50 (end of June for the application, beginning of September for the first demo, mid-September for the event itself) were a great way to set goals for our product development. Several companies rearranged their development schedule around TechCrunch50 instead of focussing on what their company needed. When TechCrunch50 finishes you’ll still have a company to build.
Application & demo:
Make a good impression in your application video.
The video that accompanies your initial application is what will get you to the next round of consideration. I was told this more than once by the TechCrunch staff. It’s just that simple. Get help from someone who knows how to integrate video with your product and give them time to execute it well.
Be wary of pandering.
Some people may disagree, but I refused to make our demo super flashy. I’m a strong believer in TechCrunch50 as a launch event, but if you sell one type of company on stage and deliver another one to your customers you’ll be doing damage to your business in the long-term. Also, please don’t pander to Arrington when you’re on stage unless it’s really funny. I can’t tell you the number of jokes that fell flat because someone was talking to one guy in an audience of a few thousand. AnyClip pulled it off with a search for Darth Vader that turned up Arrington. That was hilarious.
The most convincing demos were those that had a solid success story on hand. It was powerful for us to use The Wall Street Journal design team in our demo, but nothing compared to CitySourced, which brought their first customer on stage to answer questions from the judges. It was almost the only time in the two days of demos where the judges sounded definitively less experienced than the demoing company.
Listen talk listen talk:
You’re in. Don’t be nervous.
The conference floor is filled with all the people you read every day, see speak at conferences, and report the news throughout the tech industry. We got a whole bunch of high-profile business cards, but the most interesting conversations came from those who could really talk with us in depth about product direction, expectations and key markets. Most of the real innovation in technology happens because of people who are on the front lines of business needs each day and are still turned on by a new idea. These are the folks with whom I’m most looking forward to building a long-term business.
Talk to more people about what you’re launching, and listen to what they say.
We were saved many times by the advice we got from our advisers, friends and anyone else who’d listen. The negative feedback we got on stage was directed exactly at the area of our business that had received the least feedback.
Jason and his team want you to succeed.
Jason Calacanis is the best pitch coach I’ve ever met. Jason talks a mile a minute, and often he tells you four things before he’s thought about two of them. But listen to him because his intuition has enormous value. His team truly cares about putting on the best event, and the TC50 and Demo Pit companies are central to achieving this. Regardless of your feelings about the chaotic application process, they are on your side.
Talk to the TechCrunch staff at TechCrunch50 and listen to what they say.
TechCrunch employs approximately 40,000 people across 300 countries on 2 planets. Or so it would seem. Everyone is extremely invested in the success of TechCrunch50, and by extension, your success.
Talk to the volunteers and listen to what they say.
They’re all from around SF, they’re all interested in startups, and none of them paid any money to be there. They can be very exciting, and they’re looking to you for inspiration, advice, feedback, or maybe vice versa.
Talk to everyone always at every table over every drink and don’t be afraid to talk to everyone always. And listen to what they say.
It’s an Alec Baldwin reference: Always be talking. If you’re talking with the rest of your team, and it’s not because your demo is FUBAR, you’re wasting your time.
Mistakes we made:
If we had it to over again, I think we’d launch into a private beta instead of publicly launching our first product five minutes after getting off stage. While we got our first customers, we were also tied to support issues from the first day. If we had launched in private beta, we’d have lost some early revenue but we’d still have a huge list of email addresses and Twitter followers with whom we could roll out the product on a more controlled schedule.
I’m totally envious of AnyClip’s demo. They are masters of the stagecraft of the demo as well as the Q & A after. I wish I had stronger, better prepared answers to the judges questions, but, alas, my inexperience on stage was on full display.
The morning after:
The work really starts on Wednesday. Despite meeting the biggest deadline of my life, there’ll be no vacation afterwards. I was up at 7am the next morning writing customers, fixing bugs and responding to email. Be prepared: Regardless of what you achieve on launch day, the real work starts after the headlines and Twitter feed levels off.
The preparation and event itself advanced our business at least six months ahead of where we’d be otherwise. A later post will discuss where we’ll be going next…