Startups, Storytelling, Vigilant & Launch Incubator

Pitching Vigilant at the Incubator.

tl;dr - If your company is thinking about doing Launch Incubator, you probably should because Jason is someone you want on your team, you’ll wind up with a growing network of resources and support (from other Launch companies), and there’s probably nothing more important than being able to communicate clearly about your company.

Vigilant — the public records search company we started in January — just wrapped up Jason Calacanis’s Launch Incubator last month. With another application deadline for Launch coming up next week, I wanted to share our experience to help any founders who might be weighing whether it’s the right choice for their company.

First, some basics: Launch is basically an extension of Jason, and so it’s worth knowing a bit about him (though it’s pretty hard to imagine you’d be applying and don’t already). He’s incredibly prolific, super smart, and he hustles harder than just about anyone I’ve met. He can be abrasive, but he’s also tenacious and loyal. And when you’re buying into Launch, you’re buying into having him on your team more than anything else.

You’re also buying into his network. Jason’s better connected that just about anyone out there, as are most of the folks he’ll bring in that you’ll meet. Take advantage of it, and you’ll wind up with a range of connections to folks that you can lean on for support, introductions, and advice.

But this isn’t about that. It’s actually about storytelling, because I think that it’s the most valuable thing you’ll get out of the program, the focus on it seems distinctive, and it’s also generally underappreciated.

Every week at Launch, you’ll stand in front of a room full of folks — the six other companies in your class, as well as investors and advisors that Jason brings in — and tell your company’s story. Or at least, whatever you can communicate of it in 3 minutes.

Vigilant lets users access and monitor for records from all of the public records databases they need, in one place.

At Vigilant, we’re building a search layer to connect public records databases from across the internet, unlocking valuable, actionable data on people and businesses. Our tool lets our customers find the information they need from across hundreds of different public databases, and monitor for new and relevant results. Our product is awesome, and our growing customer base includes some of the biggest companies and campaigns around. An easy sell, right?

After the incubator was over a few weeks ago, I went back and watched our presentation from the first week, in which we did everything short of trip over our own two feet. Our PowerPoint was a mess (note: use Keynote) and the live demo we did was incredibly unclear. But most importantly, our story did absolutely nothing to explain what we were solving and why. Whatever story we did tell left everyone in the room wondering what it was that we even did (and presumably — given how great all of the other companies were — whether we’d accidentally wandered into the wrong room). We were growing a successful business, but our story did everything it possibly could to obscure that.

Luckily, over the next 10 weeks, we’d get massively better at clearly communicating and explaining around our business.

I think it’s easy to pigeonhole this as something that’s valuable for pitching investors, and don’t get me wrong — it is. But that’s probably only the third or fourth most important application of it. The most important would be that over the last few months our sales pitch has improved dramatically, as Launch has forced us to get much clearer at articulating the value proposition that we offer. And it’s potentially even more valuable in helping attract talent and partners. In growing a company you’re going to need to land customers, surround yourself with great talent (preferably, lots of of folks who are smarter than you are), and build strong partnerships. And the key to lining up all of that is going to be able to communicate clearly what you’re doing and why. For us — and I watched all of the other companies in the class get much sharper as well — the process of Launch was really invaluable in helping hone that.

The other effect of it was that — over the course of the incubator — my cofounders and I reached a deeper, clearer shared understanding of what exactly we’re trying to do, given the massive range of opportunity and possibility that exists in our space. And that has helped us tremendously in clarifying and focusing our product development.

If you’d told me this would be the single most important takeaway before we started, I wouldn’t have expected it and I definitely would have under-rated it. Prior to founding Vigilant, I’d founded and grown a communications consulting firm, helping big companies, startups, and candidates tell their stories effectively. And I’d served as a spokesman for candidates on some of the toughest political races around the country. So I thought of myself as a pretty solid communicator.

But it turned out I had a whole lot to learn, and both the structure of the program and Jason’s insistent coaching were hugely helpful in that respect. I feel like I can barely turn around now without bumping into some example of this helping us move forward more effectively. Launch is obviously a tremendously effectively space for that, but I think as much of the value comes from forcing you to be attentive to that and focus on it, in a way that’s often easy to skip over.

For us, that’s the big takeaway. And I think broadly, between the support you’ll receive, the relationships you’ll build, and clarity you’ll come out of it with, Launch is well worth doing. But if you have any questions about it, you should email me — happy to talk to folks who are interested, or take a quick look at your application and give feedback.