Demo Day? Don’t
One of my portfolio company founders recently asked me if he or she should participate in a demo day. My answer was a clear no. Here’s why:
What is a demo day? Definitions might vary, but I’ll define a “demo day” as any situation where a founder is asked to publicly pitch his or her startup to an audience of investors. This could be on-stage or online. It could be organized by an accelerator, an early-stage investor, a corporate, an angel group, a law firm, or anyone else. It can range in format from 2–5 minutes to much longer. And, critically, it can involve a demo(nstration) of the actual product/technology or not. Most importantly, a “demo day” is an event organized for the purpose of pitching a company (1) as an investment opportunity and (2) to investors. When you get up on stage at an industry conference or a “tech” conference (TechCrunch Disrupt, for example) to show your product to potential customers, that’s not a demo day. But getting up on stage to pitch your company as an investment most surely is.
Never participate in a demo day. Ever.
Basically, my advice to anyone who wants it is never participate in a demo day. A few reasons why not (and then two highly specific caveats).
- Demo days declare that you are fundraising to the world. By getting on stage and telling the world you are fundraising — guess what? Everyone now knows you are fundraising. In my experience, that is not a good thing. Your cash position, your valuation, your stage, your traction — these are pieces of information that you want to share only with investors that you trust. And you’ll want to share them gradually over time in a controlled way. By getting on stage at a demo day, few of these things will remain a mystery for long. VCs prefer to see deals that have not been shopped around the entire planet. Like everyone else, they want to deal with people and opportunities that are perceived to be exclusive and special. Getting on stage and telling the world what you are doing flies in the face of that logic.
- Demo days expose you needlessly to the risk of perceived failure. One of the biggest problems with declaring to the world that you are fundraising is the possibility that you may not succeed at first in your fundraising. For any number of a long list of very good reasons, it may take you longer to fundraise than you were expecting. But getting on stage and obviously and publicly trying to fundraise, you automatically create a situation where any (normal, natural) delay in fundraising will get perceived as a failure. (“Wait…didn’t I see that company on stage a year ago? And they are still trying to raise a seed round?”) The same applies to business and product decisions: You get on stage and say you will have 100 paying SMBs in six months and — guess what — you shift to an enterprise strategy. Or perhaps that huge beta customer you talked about on stage decides to pull the project… None of this will stop a good investor from investing — but it creates confusion and just makes your fundraising job harder on the margin.
- Demo days rarely if ever get you in front of any investors you can’t get to otherwise. VCs and other investors are some of the most highly networked people around. It’s very easy to get your company in front of them. And you are always better off getting a warm introduction from a founder, fellow investor, or other connection. Yes, VCs show up at demo days. But they do so, in many cases, mostly to network with other VCs and not really to listen intently to the pitches on stage. Demo days, therefore, are not really a short cut to getting in front of investors. If anything, they make it that much harder for you to control who sees you, with what intro, and when.
- Demo days waste your own time by democratizing your process when you should be doing the opposite. Not all investors are created equal. It’s your job as CEO to find and select the best investors for your specific company. Getting on stage is basically an open invitation for investors of all kinds to reach out to you and start wasting your time. This could lead to a fundraising process driven by your inbox as opposed to your strategic objectives.
- Demo days fail to communicate your uniqueness. Most demo days try to cram 5–25 startups into a few hours of pitching. That typically leaves a founder with 2–10 minutes to explain why their company is viable, unique, and potentially very valuable. Most of the genuinely interesting startups I’ve encountered in my career have taken at least an hour to begin to understand. If you can explain your company’s unique value proposition in 3 minutes, it’s probably not that unique. You should have a killer five-sentence elevator pitch, and you should use that to get a series of long, serious meetings with relevant investors who want to dig into the details.
- Demo days create a false perception of understanding and relationships. As a result of the difficulty of conveying anything of substance in the demo day format, demo days create a false perception among entrepreneurs that “they have pitched” and a false perception among some investors that “they have heard the pitch.” These false perceptions destroy value. Entrepreneur are denying themselves the opportunity for a real pitch and investors are denying themselves the opportunity to hear a real pitch. There is nothing wrong with saying: “I would love to explain to you why our approach to zero-day information leakage prevention is a game-changer, but in order to do that properly, I’ll need an hour of your time.”
- Demo days commoditize you and your company. Another painful side-effect of the demo-day format is the commoditization of companies and founders. Since you can’t really explain what your company does in five minutes, what are you going to do in those five minutes instead? All too often, you are going to use those five minutes to convince the world that you are the next Steve Jobs. Instead of helping founders show the world their uniqueness, demo days encourage founders to try to fit into some vague pre-conceived canned notion of what a “hot” founder looks like. This normally involves dramatic pauses, slick minimalistic slides, graphs going up and to the right with no numbers, vague technical claims, and — sometimes — black turtlenecks and phrases like “for the first time ever.”
- Demo Day Fatigue. As an investor, I get at least one demo day invitation a week. Sometimes more than one. I suspect most investors are, by now, totally fatigued by the plethora of demo days demanding attention. Reach out to the right investors, one by one, with a cold email or (preferably) a warm introduction that speaks to why the match actually makes sense. Demo days were cool five years ago, but not any more.
To this list of why not to demo day, I want to add two caveats:
- Y-Combinator. It’s probably a subject for another post, but Y-Combinator is the clear exception to this rule. Y-Combinator organized one of the original demo days, and has emerged as — by far — one of the most successful accelerator programs in the world. Most of the YC companies that pitch on demo day have already raised money in some form. In many ways, the YC Demo Day is a bit of a fiction (few actual demos, all the good startups have already raised), but it’s a useful fiction. YC’s impact on a startup’s network and brand is so profound that the demo day is a justifiable cost.
- If you are already committed to an accelerator program. Naturally, if you are already committed to an accelerator program, political realities might mean you have to participate in a demo day. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as you do so with your eyes open.
So if you have to “demo day”, how do you do it?
Admittedly, it’s a bit naïve to assume that start-up CEOs will be able to resist the need to participate in demo days from time to time. Here’s how I would approach it.
- Be yourself. It’s fine to benefit from some public speaking coaching. But resist any and all advice to be anything other than yourself. You don’t want rock music, refuse to go on stage to rock music. If you don’t want to speak in crazy superlatives — just don’t do it. You are not Steve Jobs. You are you. Relax and enjoy it.
- Reframe the demo day as a public speaking practice opportunity, NOT as a fundraising exercise. As a CEO, public speaking is part of the job. Consider the demo day as an opportunity to practice that skill: an opportunity to explain what you are working on, why it is interesting, and why people should be excited about learning more. Talk about technology, customers, validation, product, learnings. Just be interesting. Make people want to learn more.
- Recognize the limitations of the format. Under most circumstances, even the best investment opportunity will not be able to convince any serious investor to invest in a 5 minute speaking slot. So don’t even try. Don’t talk about fundraising, cash balance, valuation, milestones, etc. Put enough useful/interesting information on the table so that a smart investor can decide to reach out to you. That’s all you need to do.
- Teach, don’t beseech. Take the opportunity to teach your audience something genuinely interesting about the world that they could not find out for themselves in a five minute Google search. (If you do not have anything to teach, you probably haven’t figured much out…). This is your opportunity to be genuinely interesting and novel. Avoid the impulse to beseech your audience for their love, interest, or investment dollars. Instead, win their interest by establishing yourself as an expert in something.
I hope that was helpful and not too depressing…
As for me, I’ll still get all those demo day emails, and I’ll still go occasionally. But I’ll always believe that the best way to meet a startup is eye-to-eye over a coffee. Reach out. Let’s talk.
My AngelList syndicate to back the best in European & Israeli enterprise companies is now one of the largest syndicates based outside the US. We are now at well over $1.3M in backing per deal.
The syndicate has made six investments so far: all oversubscribed and all with quality co-investors. I’d be honored if you’d consider backing the syndicate — you’ll be in pretty good company and there are quite a few awesome companies in the pipeline…