Short pitching is all the rage with one, two and three minute pitches the norm at startup events. You rarely see companies given more than 10 minutes to present their company. Inevitably you are there with 10-50 other participants trying to make an impact. I have been giving this advice out to companies for a while now so it seemed a appropriate to whack it into a short blog post.
Entertain me: I’m bored. The panel has been companies trot out fomulaic pitches all day long. Tell a story, demonstrate enthusiasm, joy, laughter. Make sure you don’t sound or look bored, or disenchanted. You’d be surprised how many founders leak those emotions in pitches.
Three Messages: Think of three things you want me to remember and hit me with those. Nothing else.
Your deck: You deck is just there as an adjunct to your presence. Single words, pictures or clearly articulated, defensible killer stats that no one else has.
Finish With A Flourish: Make sure they remember you as well at the end as at the start.
What not to do:
No Financials: If you are profitable say it, if you are experiencing 200% month on month viral growth say it. Don’t drown people in spreadsheets.
No Reading: Regurgitation of blocks of on screen text is a waste of everyone’s time.
Running out of Time: Practice your timing, not hitting your mark makes you look like an idiot.
Rushing: Don’t try and do your standard 15 minute VC deck in three minutes.
Double headers: One speaker. This “and now my CTO will tell you about…” looks like insecurity and ego mania.
Demos: It will break, you will look lame.
Videos: If I wanted to watch a video, I’d be back in my hotel room.
Okay, the bad news is there is no way to stop shitting yourself on-stage.
Public speaking is one of the great fears and everyone shits a brick for about their first 50 or so public speaking engagements. I was lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view), I did my first public speaking engagement about a year out of college. While working at Generics Software I wrote a paper for an Ada Conference and was invited to present it in front of the great and good of the Ada community.
I was so dumb I wasn’t even nervous until exactly 2 seconds after I stood up in front of the audience. I actually couldn’t speak, I tried, but nothing came out but a small squeaking noise. Eventually somebody got me a glass of water and I managed to open the top button of my shirt, once I got started I delivered a complete 20 minute presentation on “Why Ada is not an Object Oriented Programming Language” in exactly 5 minutes, start to finish.
Thank fuck for Q&A. I managed to salvage the disaster a little bit with a reasonable Q&A session. I sat down afterwards and as the droplets of icy sweat rolled down my back I made an immediate decision to never, ever, ever submit another paper to a conference.
Fast forward a year (Generics was an Irish Startup so therefore was honour bound to implode like all Irish startups in the 80’s) and I was punching the clock at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in Reading UK, then the number two computer company in the world after IBM. I had been in the company about a month when my boss Mark Ryland came to me and said ‘Joe, prepare a one day course for the new Decstation 3100, you’ll be presenting it to a group fo 30 pre-sales guys in one month’. I remember the feeling to this day, It’s how I imagine your guts might feel if someone slowly slid bayonet into them, immediately cold, nauseous, sweaty and painful. With the added certainty that its only going to get worse.
So I prepared the course and presented it. A complete disaster. It was an official DEC training course so I had to hand out official course review paperwork. My class were generous in their feedback and I was feeling ok until a helpful colleague “interpreted” my scores. I was shit.
I was now officially “the guy who shits himself” before a public speaking engagement. But worse was to come. I then had to prepare two day course for the pre-sales teams from all over Europe and deliver it in the Munich centre. I remember lying in bed the night before I was due to fly making a serious plan to go the airport, get on a plane to Dublin and just never return to the UK. Instead, I flew to Munich, delivered the first day of the the course and ran out of material by about 3pm. I sent everyone home but not before some furious german pre-sales woman publically upbraided me for dragging her halfway across Europe to deliver such a shitty course.
For the second day, I had actually done more preparation but I worked through the night to add a bunch of class exercises to pad out the day. The second day was better as a result and I think I only lost about half a stone to flop sweat. I finished the course, jumped on a plane and about then decided to get the fuck out of the training business. I did two things when I got back, registered for a 2 day presentation training course and applied for a transfer to the Ultrix Engineering Team where all I needed to do was code.
A couple of themes emerge that often don’t get mentioned on presentation training courses:
The fear melted my brain: I was so scared I couldn’t think straight enough to even register for a training course. Even though I knew in an abstract way about DEC training facilities I didn’t make the mental leap that they were for people like me. When you are new at presenting everything you think you will remember gets frozen out once you stand up. You are left wondering if you can even remember your own name. So all your adlibs disappear and you end up reading your slides at break neck speed. Not a good look.
Preparation: The only preparation that works for public speaking is … public speaking. Even though I shit myself mentally all through the last day I was infinitely better on day two than day one.
Passion: Passion covers up a lot of cracks. The second day was a training course on using the optimising compiler. I had done a bunch of work on this and I really knew the subject and I loved the stuff I was teaching. So even though I was all over the map the passion helped enthuse my audience.
Since then I have probably done at least one public speaking engagement a month as part of my job. Audiences have ranged from a handful of people to full auditoriums. So 20 years x 12 months makes for about 240 public presentations. If you roll up internal stuff that might easily double that number. For important stuff I still do a mountain of preparation, but I now have the luxury of being able to speak off the cuff for many events.
So if you want to become a good public speaker do these things repeatedly :
Embrace your fear, name it (“I am shitting myself about this speaking engagement”) and then turn that fear into passion by immersing yourself in your topic
Speak about things that you love and let the love of your subject carry you over the horror while you are getting over the 50 talk hump
Try and work with small audiences initially (team talks, internal groups)
Prepare by actually giving your whole talk out loud in an empty room at least once before you do it in public
Don’t try and memorise word for word, memorise the sense and structure and some key phrases/sound bites
Remember the ending so you don’t trail off with a lame “thats it”
Do every piece of presentation training that you can
Accept that its horrific, do it anyway and eventually one day you wil realise that your greatest fear is now actually spiders/flying/rejection again.
Good ideas are great, but there comes a time when you have to be an execution fanatic. So put a jar in the middle of the office and every time someone has a good idea they have to pay $10 (or €10 in EuroLand) to tell someone about it.
Why do this? Because at a certain point in the life of a startup you need to focus on the problems in front of you. Good ideas, even great ideas become a confusing distraction. Its an old saw that 70-80% of your product development effort should be focussed on honing the features that are already in customers hands. Everyone loves the new new thing but most of your customers would quite like the current functionality to work just dandy.
Dropbox is an excellent example of a company who have stuck to the knitting and been 100% focussed on delivering their core vision, stupidly simple desktop to desktop file sharing. Do as they do.
So before you shout out “I have a great idea”, utilise some of these questions to triage you idea before it distracts everyone else in the company.
Is it better or is it just different?
What’s the effort to implement?
Does the user need to be educated?
What is the cost to remove it?
Can we test its utility without building it?
What’s the competition for this feature?
Has a customer asked for it?
Does it suit the design context of our service?
How will you price it?
Is it in the market place already?
If you can answer these questions should be more than happy to pony up the $10 to share it with other people 🙂
I had a long conversation with Niall Larkin today in the Digital Depot. We ranged over a bunch of topics and as part of it I found myself talking a little about the PutPlace journey. Some of this may be useful to people starting their own companies so I repeat it here (at the risk of boring Niall ;-)). I’m pretty sure I’ve said most of this before I one place or another still it bears repeating:
Incorporate: Create a limited Liability company at the earliest possible opportunity. It gives you the opportunity to write of a bunch of costs against future tax payments, allows you to claim back VAT easily and gives your a track record. People much prefer a 2 year old company to a 3 month old company for all kinds of good reasons. There are plenty of companies who can do grunt work of CRO filings so shop around.
Get on an Incubator Program : Anybody who tries to start a new company these days without joining one of the many excellent incubator programs has rocks in his head the size of Gibraltar. In Dublin I know of two, the M50 program at Tallaght and the HotHouse program at DIT. Both are excellent. (Please add a comment if you know of others, I came across this list via Google). What does an incubator give you? A space to think in the company of like minded individuals, training, sometimes money and a fast track to HPSU status with Enterprise Ireland.
Get a CORD Grant: Most incubator programs have access to CORD (Commercialisation Of Research and Development) grants via Enterprise Ireland. If you can tick the “I plan to generate exports and employment” boxes for EI CORD funding should be straightforward. Its important to get CORD early as it is essentially a refund of tax paid in the previous tax year. If you wait you may end up trying to claim for a year you spent navel gazing without any tax payments to claim against.
Get Seed Capital Relief: If you are investing your own money and you fit the EI profile for a HPSU then you can claim back 40% of what you invest from the Revenue Comissioners, tax free under the Seed Capital Scheme. The other key stipulation is this is a refund of tax, so you have to have paid the equivalent amount of tax in the previous 5 years and have the evidence, i.e. your P60 to prove it.
Get Your Own EI Development Advisor: I can’t begin to tell you how important it is to engage with EI early and often. Within 8 months of kicking of PutPlace I was asking for my own DA as opposed to the group DA assigned to my incubator program. It took another 12 months before we recieved EI grant approval. EI learns by omosis so you need to meet and pitch them several times before your idea will stick. Top tip: Go and meet EI rather than listening to the Blogosphere, everybodys experience is different and people are ten times more likely to complain than praise on the web.
Find a Co-Founder: Yeah, its cool to be the man, I own my own company, I’m the CEO and CTO… Well actually it isn’t. All you one man bands out there need to find another person to complete your skill set. If you are an uber-techie, find a business development person, if you are in sales, find a geek to build your system (and make sure you don’t blindside him/her) etc. etc. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have every trip you make to the toilet be on the critical path.
Ship Something Small: Build the smallest thing you can. No smaller than that, no even smaller. Have a big vision, write it down, put it in a box, put the box in a cupboard and think what can we build in 6 months, then aim to build it in three.