We were bricking it.
It was the final of Startup Battlefield, the highlight of Techcrunch Disrupt New York, the world’s toughest pitching competition. Four long days of preparation, working on slides, owning our numbers, researching the judges, trying to guess what sort of questions they’d throw our way, technical rehearsal, after technical rehearsal, with little or no time for sleep. The fact that we had even made the competition was national news at home in Ireland so the pressure was intense. The well wishes on Twitter, the emails of support and the crazy amount of support, led by chief cheerleader Karl Aherne, sitting in the front row were massively appreciated but added to the already crazy levels of pressure. But we were ready.
And now here we were, backstage, waiting for our call, when Pat Phelan would take to the stage and compress everything over the last month’s work into three short minutes that could make or break Trustev forever. In the audience were VCs and investors from every major venture fund on the planet, as well as at least 100 tech journalists from all the top publications. Also present were all the potential customers that we had spoken to over the past few days; some of the world’s biggest companies whose interest had been peaked and now wanted to see what we were made of. Waiting to judge us was a panel of heavyweights; including new CEO of Yahoo, Marisa Mayer, no token judges, or sponsor’s representatives, just five industry leaders waiting to shred us to the bone. If it was a sport, it would have been as brutal as the UFC.
But that was then.
The era of the pitch competition is over, I’m calling it.
Times change and things get old. The real value in startup pitch competitions is gone and now they are nothing but a terribly destructive distraction for startups who should be 100% focussed on survival and growth – this means spending very waking moment they can spare talking to customers, not performing in dog and pony shows.
In the golden age of startup pitching, it was in rooms full of valuable investors, not make-believe investors or self-important egotistic investors who happened to have left their cheque books at home, actual people who could change your startup’s fate forever. They were packed to the hilt with media and freelance journalists looking for the next great startup story. The winners would take home not just a substantial prize, usually a $50,000 or $100,000 convertible note investment from a sponsoring VC firm. But actually, the prize was irrelevant because victory usually meant a slew of investment offers from firms in the audience. For the winners, the opportunities were endless and even making the final was a substantial achievement that would help with future fundraising efforts.
But now it’s over. Too many competitions, too little value. Now that startup pitch competitions have gone mainstream, all the value has been removed from the large majority of them. They’ve become nonsensical performance pieces more resembling Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank than the actual pitch format that entrepreneurs experience when put in front of actual investors. They’re a perfect way to fill some empty time on a conference schedule. Organisers, please remember that Startups are businesses, please treat them that way. There is no value for them in making them dance for your entertainment. Promising them ‘exposure’ is the same crap that unpaid interns are fed. And please for the love of god, at the very least try to have a judging panel that is actually qualified to judge the startup’s unique business models, by including people who have actually built successful startups.
For Startups, remember there is no surer way to destroy your reputation that wasting time at events that serve no benefit for your business. Stop entertaining others according to their rules for no value whatsoever. The next time that you’re asked to take part in a startup pitch competition, at the very, very least ask what specific investors will be in the room and what the media opportunities for your business are.
Stop performing, just focus on your business.