Today at our national startup competition, Tech Cocktail Celebrate, the judges had their chance to get up on stage and field questions from the audience. What resulted was a candid, back-and-forth discussion – punctuated by a few laughs – about the questions on everyone’s minds.
It being day two of the conference, the judges took the opportunity to reveal the most common mistakes they see at conferences. The most consistent response? Not putting all your efforts into validating your product. Andy White of the VegasTechFund and Don Dodge of Google said that too many entrepreneurs try to prove they’re right instead of pivoting and learning, and Evan Nisselson of LDV Capital added that fundraising sometimes detracts from the focus on product. Micah Baldwin of Graphicly lamented entrepreneurs who think too small, and Jenny Fielding of BBC Worldwide wanted to see more innovation and fewer incremental improvements. The judges also railed against bad pitches: pitches with too much arrogance (said Liz Gannes of AllThingsD) or without an adequate understanding of the market or competition (said Jay Adelson of Opsmatic and formerly of Digg).
The judges agreed that marketing has to be about storytelling. Adelson warned entrepreneurs to get their story straight before they start telling it and confusing people. In the same vein, Nisselson stressed how important it was that every single team member know the pitch and story. Ondi Timoner of A TOTAL DISRUPTION offered a tip from the filmmaking industry: create a human story that the audience can relate to and see themselves in. And of course, said Jen McCabe of VegasTechFund and Jason Mendenhall of Switch, that requires understanding who your customers are and what their passions are. Then you can create a story that people want to share, said White. The essence of that story – the core of who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing – doesn’t need to change much over time, said Jermaine Dupri.
Although the typical face of an entrepreneur today is a 20-something, that may be just a myth. Baldwin and Raj Kapoor of Snapfish cited research that successful entrepreneurs (at least in enterprise) tend to be older; what’s crucial is being a serial entrepreneur. McCabe and Michael Chasen of SocialRadar and Blackboard stressed that it’s passion and drive that are important, not age. Baldwin added that it might be a good idea for a young and an older person to team up.
A common theme among the audience questions was whether other cities can become the next Silicon Valley. Overall, the judges agreed that that’s the wrong question: what’s important is cultivating a spirit of innovation and openness, and taking advantage of your city’s strengths. “Even in the US where we try to recreate Silicon Valley, it’s a poor imitation,” said Dodge. But “all communities can become Silicon Valley in the sense of putting innovation ahead of other things,” said Baldwin. Plus, added Gannes, there are some things we don’t want to emulate – the unrelatable people and high cost of living, for example.
What other cities should focus on is getting investors there, said Adelson – who revealed that his quiet startup Opsmatic has already raised funding. (“We needed more cash to get there, we needed more time, all of us have to eat, so we raised money,” he said.) Cities should also focus on creating an atmosphere of serendipity and information sharing, said Kapoor.
Dupri weighed in on the debate by explaining how he turned Atlanta – not known for its music scene – into a buzzing hub. The main lesson? Be dedicated and assemble a group of people who believe in your city, and believe that it can become better than the current leaders. Then market the heck out of it.
Thanks to a few quirky questions, the judges opened up about their personal motivations and history:
- Dupri is driven by work and comes to conferences to learn and participate in the scene. At 22, he was already a music producer.
- Dodge is driven by helping people succeed and comes to tech conference to find startups for Google to invest in or acquire. He was an accountant at age 22.
- Adelson is driven by impact, and was a janitor at age 22.
- Chasen is driven by his car – ha ha – and comes to tech conferences to give back to a community that helped him so much in the early days of Blackboard.
- Gannes is driven by learning, and was already a journalist at age 22.
- Mendenhall is driven by success, and was a missionary at age 22. He comes to conferences to give back to the community.
- McCabe is driven by Red Bull and OCD.
- Timoner is driven by learning and sharing, and was already making movies at age 22.
- Fielding is driven by getting smarter, and was hanging out in Mexico at age 22.
- Baldwin is driven by happiness and had a $19,000/year nonprofit job at age 22.
- Nisselson is driven by solving problems, having fun, and making money while he sleeps.
- White is driven by relationships and managed a sporting goods store at age 22.