How to Win the SXSW Accelerator

Are you headed down to SXSW this week? If you are, there is one must-attend event: the SXSW Interactive Accelerator Competition.

The Accelerator is SXSW’s annual pitch contest that draws thousands of applicants from some of the world’s hottest up-and-coming technology companies. Past winners include companies such as NutShellMail (acquired by Constant Contact), Foodstopping (Opentable) and Siri (duhh…). The benefits of winning range from incredible press to getting the attention of clients and investors. Past participants of the accelerator have raised more than $587M in funding to date, and, more important, 9 percent of participating companies have been acquired.

I’ve had the fortune of participating in the accelerator with two different technology startups in 2012 and 2013, and I’ve identified eight rules to maximize your chances for success. In 2013, Phone2Action, the social advocacy platform startup I cofounded, won the News Technologies Category.

1. Know the format – Day 1 versus Day 2

If you want to have any chance of advancing past GO, you need to nail your two-minute pitch, then dominate ten minutes of Q&A. The companies that advance out of the first round have traction, users, and revenue. And they can figure out how to clearly convey that to the judges. Day 2 – the finals – pits you against two other companies. You have 5 minutes to present your company followed by 10 minutes of Q&A. You have to connect with the judges and knock Q&A out of the park to win.

2. Revenue trumps…everything

Practice is important, but revenue wins. Revenue means that people actually care about what you are doing. If a client is willing to pay for your service – then hire you again, and recommend your services to a friend – you have a business that can be built for scale. No revenues? Then people don’t really care about what you are doing.

3. Practice, practice, practice

Know your material cold. You need to be able to give your elevator pitch on command in the middle of a crowded bar on 6th Street. Know your transitions, and what you want to convey on each slide. I practiced the presentation without using slides – once I could get through without slides, I knew I was ready. You may think that you know your company well – that you can “wing it” – but remember your time is limited, and only practice will ensure a great performance.

4. Engage your team

The teams that win are just that – teams. If you don’t involve your cofounders, you will lose. Judges can smell strong teams – and they favor strong teams over great presenters all the time. Great teams are focused, supportive, roll deep with supporters, and tend to exhibit humility.

5. Lean in to the questions

I am convinced that we won in 2013 because of how we handled the questions. The judges will pick and prod at your business, looking to see if you really understand your industry, if you have a replicable business model, if you can sell. Embrace and anticipate the questions. Answer what was asked, and address the judge, not the crowd. One of my favorite tricks in QA is to set-up a question and then slam it home. Be assertive and provide specific information to address the question asked.

6. Be yourself and let your passion shine through

It’s ok to be nervous – if you don’t let anyone know. Most people are when giving a major pitch. But channel the nerves into excitement. Show enthusiasm for your company. Be infectious. Because you are presenting yourself just as much as you are representing the company. If you aren’t amped-up about what you are doing, then how can you expect a judge to get excited about your business?

7. Thank everyone

It’s subtle, but thanking your spouse/ partner, your team, your family, your investors (thanks Think Big and Dundee VC!) and the accelerator for having (and putting up with) you is a NICE THING to do, and it’s also the right thing to do. It’s humanizing. And if you do it at the beginning, it can help you warm-up and move into the presentation. While there might not be enough time to thank people at the beginning of the two-minute pitch, you can fit it in the longer, five-minute one. Plus, if you bomb and things start to go south during your pitch, you likely won’t be thinking about saying thank you…

8. SXSW is more than your pitch

Winning the SXSW Accelerator in News Technologies last year greatly helped our company stand out from the rest and ultimately raise our seed round. But there is more to SXSW than the accelerator. Go to SXSW with a plan – beyond practicing for the accelerator. Find panels to speak on, attend sessions, or at least arrange meetings – with concrete meeting locations and times – with prospects and partners. Track down industry visionaries and engage with them. And go out at night, but be sure you can get up early and actually attend some talks – you’ll regret it if you don’t.

Remember, it may feel like Spring Break but if you are building a company, SXSW offers great opportunities for learning. While you are throwing a drink back at a party, one of your competitors may be meeting potential investors or customers. So have fun, but stay focused.

Best of luck to the companies participating in 2014 and congratulations – if you are a finalist, in many ways you already won.

Jeb Ory is the CEO and cofounder of Phone2Action, a social advocacy platform that powers the movements that change the world. Jeb is an avid swimmer and is looking forward to swimming from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park for the second year in a row this September. The water is cold! He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife, Lea Crusey. 

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