Don’t Mess This Up.

A primer for presenters at Phocuswright’s Innovation Summit: What the judges are actually thinking during your pitch.

The annual trek to Phocuswright’s Innovation Summit has proven to be worthwhile for online travel startups. Besides guaranteed exposure to the industry’s assembled glitterati, the Summit can boast that since its debut in 2008 some 274 companies have presented and 47 have been acquired, with both SilverRail and Tripit exiting for over $100m. Not a bad record so far.

After a long stint as a critic and judge at the Summit, Phocuswright’s powers that be have decided to put me on the bench this year. I guess they need some new faces to harass, interrogate and generally put the fear of God into contestants.

I was saying something nice.

It’s never a great feeling when you’re dropped from the team, but it’s actually a pretty stressful job, so I’m happy to hand the reins to someone else. Being consigned to the scrapheap also gives me the chance to share some crucial insights with this year’s contestants, who I can only hope will avoid repeating mistakes that previous year’s competitors have made, in some cases over and over and over again.

Without further ado, here it is: what the judges are actually thinking when you say…

“Online travel is broken.”

A great thing to say if you’re not on stage to make any friends. The audience at Phocuswright is made up of the best and brightest in the industry, so telling them that their products suck is probably not a good idea.

Look, the travel industry isn’t broken, and you don’t need to fix it. Talk about innovation that builds on a solid existing base. You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Our product blends social media with data science, chatbots and AI tools to deliver best-in-class travel planning, saving users hours of time and eliminating the need to visit dozens of websites.”

That hits all the buttons. All the wrong buttons.

Right about now, judge #1 leans over to judge #2 and says “Oh, no. It’s deja vu all over again.” Take a look at last year’s contestants and make sure you aren’t going over familiar ground. Tickets to Phocuswright aren’t cheap; don’t waste the audience’s time with a presentation they’ve all seen before.

Be especially careful about AI this year. There’s a fundamental difference between real AI, which Google and IBM are good at, and great software, which is probably what you have. If it’s not real AI, don’t call it that; the judges know you don’t need AI to make a great company.

You say it, they tweet it. Be careful what you say.

“We don’t have any competitors.”

The judges always want to know who your competitors are, but answering this way is dangerous. Your startup might be presenting a really innovative approach to a tough problem, but this answer will make the judges worry that maybe your idea isn’t really so great, or so original, and that’s why nobody else is fishing in these waters. If you really don’t have any competitors, just answer “Google”. See below.

“We’re not worried about Google.”

Really? Everyone else is, and you should be too! They’re bigger than you, smarter than you, have more people and money than you, know the travel industry better than you, and they earn over $10bn every year from travel advertisers. For good measure they own and control both the organic and paid search platforms that people will use to find you. You should worry.

[Thinks: “I’m not wearing socks.”]

OK, the judges will see your line of thought, which starts with Steve Hafner and ends with a $1.8 billion acquisition by Priceline, but did Steve’s fashion choices really play an important role in Kayak’s success? Besides, appearing sans chaussettes might lead the judges to assume you simply forgot to put them on this morning. Absent mindedness is never a good trait in a startup CEO…

Wear socks.

Some people can pull this off. You probably can’t.

“We just raised $10m in Series A funding from [insert names of your Tier-1 VC investors here]”

If you are going to boast about fund-raising the judges might just make you sit quietly while they list some of the spectacularly bad investments VCs have made in online travel, to help you understand there’s no definitive relationship between fund raising and success. Mention your investors in passing; don’t boast about them.

“We’re doing drone-based food & beverage deliveries for resort hotel guests.”


Cocktails, anyone?

“This is Jim. This is Debbie, Jim’s wife. Debbie is planning the family’s annual vacation, and she’s already spent twelve hours and used 30 websites to help her decision-making process. Debbie can tell you: planning and booking travel is hard.”

Nobody believes in these tired, overused and annoyingly generic personas, so don’t use them. If you have to rely on this hackneyed device, maybe your product is too hard to understand, and you need to simplify it. Either way, you really ought to drop Debbie.

No socks, but that’s OK.

“I was inspired to start my company while on a long trip around Europe last year.”

The judges hear this three or four times every year; it’s the epidemic that never ends. And yes, from time to time great companies do start this way.

But generally speaking, industry veterans can be forgiven for thinking that a lengthy vacation doesn’t qualify you as an instant expert on either travel or technology. Keep your vacation experiences to yourself; it’s probably better to say you thought up your business in the shower. Or in a dream. A least that’d be original.

“We’re the Uber of…”

Will the judges appreciate this handy clue to your unique innovation? Probably not. They might think instead that your lack of originality is cover for the fact that maybe you’re a two-person startup with a sketchy board of advisors (see below) and your money is about to run out. Avoid that misconception by being original. Claim your own position without borrowing from others who have done the hard yards already.

No. You’re not…

“We have a stellar advisory board.”

Nobody cares, least of all the judges. Advisors have no skin in the game, and generally say yes to everyone and everything. Promoting the fact that you’ve got some industry notables on your advisory board demonstrates that you’re pretty good at networking, but that’s about all.

“We’ll make our money on hotel commissions.”

Don’t we all? The judges are sort of hoping you might have a new source of revenue that the rest of us could copy. Don’t disappoint them.

And don’t gloss over your unit economics. Explaining how you propose to make money may seem like an obvious a topic to expand on, but many presenters choose not to mention it at all. Don’t be like them.

So, 2017 TIS contestants, do you recognise any of these gems in your presentation? Don’t feel bad if you do; I’ve made most of these mistakes at some stage over the last 20 years, which puts you in good company. Well, it puts you in company, anyway.

In any event, you’ve still got time to edit that text, delete those slides, and generally rejig that presentation. You’re on stage for ten minutes, and the industry is watching. Don’t mess this up!

Thanks to Maggie Rauch and Timothy O’Neil-Dunne, and to fellow Innovation Summit judges Miriam Moscovici and Chris Hemmeter, for advice and contributions.

First-time Phocuswright attendees should also read this, from 2013.