How to dominate Demo Day

Part 3 of my mini-series on startup accelerators. (See: Part One, Part Two)

So, you’ve picked the best startup accelerator for you and survived the first months of the program. Now you feel your eyes wandering towards the finish line, and that big Demo Day presentation looming large.

If you’re like me, public speaking is an unnatural experience. Add the fact that you need to summarize your entire startup and vision into 2-5 minutes, and the stress quickly builds up.

How do you calm your nerves, hone that story, and shine in front of a packed audience of investors and press? Here are seven factors that helped our team win over the audience at the Rock Health Demo Day and propel LabDoor to a successful seed round:

Own your call-to-action

If you’re lucky (and good), the audience will remember only one thing about your pitch. Are you looking for a key investor, customer, or hire? When you’re writing your pitch, sculpt the entire story around a targeted call-to-action to this person.

Don’t be the company that ends their pitch by saying “please come talk to us after the event.” Challenge the audience to do something. Bribe them with a free coupon to try your product. Give investors a one-week window to get into your seed round. Be memorable and actionable.

Focus on design

The majority of the audience will have never heard of you or your product. For better or worse, they will use your presentation design as a heuristic to judge your product quality.

This makes sense. Great design is now essential to product development. The new generation of billion-dollar startups, like Tumblr and Fab, has simple, beautiful, intuitive design at their core. Make sure you leave a good impression with your slides.

I can’t take any credit for LabDoor’s success in this area, which should be attributed to my co-founder Rafael Ferreira. If you don’t have an all-star designer on your team, keep your slides simple and intuitive. Think Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone. Minimize text, use a simple background, and limit yourself to one message per slide.

And don’t use video clips. They are distracting, and they break.

Work a real crowd

A wise mentor once told me “the first five times you give any speech, you’ll be terrible.” That’s because there’s so much more to public speaking than the words and slides. If you don’t interact with the crowd and feed off its energy, your message will fall flat.

Find a group of strangers willing to listen to your early pitches. Sign up for Startup Digest, and be on the lookout for public entrepreneur meetups and pitch events. Volunteer to speak at a local high school or college. Work on your new material in low-pressure situations, and you’ll feel much more comfortable when D-Day comes around.

Drop the mic (literally)

You have your speech memorized. Now it’s time to practice making a mistake. It sounds crazy, but something always goes wrong in the real pitch. The slides get out of order. The clicker runs out of batteries. You trip and fall on your way to the stage. Even seemingly good things can throw you off your game. I’ve seen speakers get completely flustered when the audience laughs at one of their jokes. They practiced the speech a hundred times without the laugh, and the three-second pause throws them off their rhythm.

So I practiced dropping my mic or clicker, picking it up, composing myself, and getting back on track with the pitch. I also had a teammate start me on a random slide, and then let me try to finish the presentation from there. I practiced with and without slides. I practiced facing a brick wall. Anything to throw me off my game. Most people in the audience won’t even notice if you get stuck for a second. Learn to relax and get back on track smoothly, and you’ll be fine.

Get in the zone

On the morning of the big day, try to get to the event location as early as possible. Keep the whole day free of work and distractions – it will be hard to concentrate on anything else anyways. Walk on stage and get comfortable with the environment. Run through your pitch once or twice, but don’t obsess over it. You’ve practiced hundreds of times for this moment. You are ready.

Drop the mic (figuratively)

I’ve seen this happen over and over again. Entrepreneurs stress about Demo Day for weeks or months. They make mistakes at every pitch practice. And then, magically, they have the best pitch of their lives on the big stage. There’s something special about walking onto the stage with the bright lights on you and darkness over the audience that brings the best out of people. It’s your big moment – go out there and crush it.

Follow up immediately

The best Demo Day pitch in the world means nothing if you don’t close the deal. Identify your top targets, and track them down. Use your team to your advantage here – divide and conquer, starting in the lobby of the event. Timing is essential. Excitement will be high on Demo Day, but it’s up to you to keep up the momentum in the following days and weeks. Close your seed round. Win over that big customer. Keep building.

Note: This post initially appeared at VentureBeat.com.

Choosing the right startup accelerator

Part 2 of my mini-series on startup accelerators. (See Part One)

This is a seemingly complex problem, but it all comes down to one simple question:

What is your startup’s biggest challenge?

Product:

  • Don’t have the resources to build the product of your dreams? Incubators run by notable operators can help you with user testing, prototyping, manufacturing, pilot programs, etc.
  • Consider Industry-Specific Programs: Rock Health, Lemnos Labs, Code for America

Team

  • Need help finding a co-founder? Missing a key hire? Many incubators can serve as a temporary solution to personnel gaps through design, development, or marketing support, or be a great way to connect with smart entrepreneurs that could become future business partners.
  • Consider Mentor-Driven Programs: TechStars, AngelPad, Rock Health

Customers

  • Most startups would greatly benefit from a bigger focus on Steve Blank-style customer development early in their life. I have a great deal of respect for Dave McClure’s methodology here – why not learn from the man himself?
  • Consider Growth-Focused Programs: 500 Startups, Science, TechStars

Fundraising

  • First of all, this is probably not true. Almost all fundraising challenges can be traced back to the team and/or product. But accelerators and incubators are excellent fundraising resources, providing startups with built-in social proof, seed funding, and networks.
  • Consider Big-Name Programs: Y Combinator, 500 Startups, TechStars

Network

  • Whether you need help meeting a key sales contact, a valuable new technical hire, or a top angel investor, chances are that you can find the one-point connection from an advisor or classmate in your accelerator.
  • Consider Programs With The Biggest Classes: Founder Institute, Y Combinator, 500 Startups

Should I join a startup accelerator?

Whenever I recommend a startup accelerator to a skeptical entrepreneur, I usually hear one of these three common objections:

  1. “I’m too advanced for an incubator.”
  2. “I don’t want to give up a huge chunk of my company so early.”
  3. “I don’t want to move to Silicon Valley/New York/Boulder.”

Let’s answer these one at a time:

1. Are you the perfect entrepreneur?

Does Jack Dorsey routinely call you for startup advice? If not, I would highly recommend optimizing your startup through an incubator or accelerator.

There was a startup in our accelerator class that had multiple founders with 9- or 10-figure exits under their belts, and had already raised millions of dollars for their current venture. If they can find value from a startup accelerator, I’m sure you can too.

2. Should I give up equity this early?

The average startup rarely goes through more than one accelerator/incubator, so it’s often hard to price out exactly how valuable the program is in equity terms. One great point of reference is Paul Graham’s “Equity Equation,” which boils down to the following statement: “You should give up n% of your company if what you trade it for improves your average outcome enough that the (100 – n)% you have left is worth more than the whole company was before.”

It is very hard to argue that the best programs aren’t worth the 5-10% equity for most early-stage startups. The key advice and mentorship provided in the formative months of a company can be worth years worth of failed product development and provide a support system that keeps an early team on track.

Better yet, find an accelerator that decouples advice and funding. Rock Health is a well-known example of this. Their team, mentors, and advisors all work for the non-profit Rock Health, while investments come from Rock Health Fund, with LPs Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Mayo Clinic, Mohr Davidow Ventures, and Aberdare Ventures.

Y Combinator is a program that does both: it takes equity for a small stipend and also facilitates external funding options on an uncapped convertible note. But when you’ve got the name recognition, fundraising skill, and exit history of Paul Graham & Co., it doesn’t seem like that bad of a deal.

3. Moving to join a startup accelerator/incubator

In the first six months of LabDoor’s existence, I moved twice. The first time, I said goodbye to my favorite city in the world, Ann Arbor, temporarily leaving behind my girlfriend and two dogs, to join a great product team in Indianapolis. The second time, this team, now four-deep, packed up our whole lives and drove a moving truck 2,000 miles to San Francisco to join Rock Health. Without these two decisions, it’s extremely unlikely that LabDoor would be as successful as it is today.

Good entrepreneurs do whatever it takes to maximize the success of their venture. While I’m confident that startups can be successful anywhere, a great startup accelerator can take years off a company’s path to success. Don’t let your comfort zone keep you away from a great opportunity.

Note: If this all still seems too complicated of a decision, feel free to email me at neil(at)labdoor(dot)com, and I’ll do my best to help!

Is entrepreneurship contagious?

This post first appeared on August 2, 2013 at Forbes.com.

What made you an entrepreneur: nature or nurture? Can you really ‘catch’ the entrepreneurial bug?

For me, entrepreneurship was not a conscious decision. I was raised by immigrant parents who highly valued hard work and independence. My father always told me, “Don’t be a doctor or lawyer; work for yourself. Be an entrepreneur.” He ran an analytical chemistry laboratories from the time I was 2 years old, so it was little surprise when I launched my own lab shortly after graduating college. That path led me from technology startups to launching LabDoor, and it has been an amazing journey.

I love my career ‘choice’ and assume that everyone else would love it too. I’m always pitching my friends on new business ideas that I wish would exist. The target of most of these unwanted pitches is my partner Shoua, who usually shrugs them off without much thought.

But this June, Shoua’s eyes lit up when I told her my idea for a startup focused on making life happier and healthier for expectant mothers. She had studied nursing and women’s studies in college, and while she decided against a career as a nurse, she always loved her obstetrics rotation. After a couple of weeks of ideation and strategy sessions, we settled on a model and a name: 10 Storks. From there, Shoua’s passion took over, and she uncovered an entrepreneurial spirit she didn’t know she had. For better or worse, we are now a two-entrepreneur household.

Is entrepreneurship actually contagious? Not everyone is cut out for startup life, but there is clear evidence that startups are great for our communities and the economy. So how can we identify and promote potential entrepreneurs around us?

  1. Track entrepreneurial characteristics. Great entrepreneurs are risk-seeking, mission-driven missiles focused on a singular goal. Degrees mean little to a startup – you’re actually more likely to find a future CEO in the engineering department than the business school. Find people who are creative, flexible, and above all, willing to work hard and delay gratification.
  2. Plant the initial seed. First-time entrepreneurs often cite a lack of ideas as their main impediment to launching a startup. Meanwhile, ask the average serial entrepreneur about startup ideas, and you’ll probably find a journal full of concepts that will never be executed. Real entrepreneurs quickly learn that ideas don’t mean much in a vacuum, and they don’t have the time or energy to execute on multiple visions concurrently. Donate your startup ideas, and watch them spark entrepreneurial excitement elsewhere.
  3. Respect alternative career paths. For years, my dad, brother, and I –all entrepreneurial addicts– tried to convince my mom to join the cult of startups. We pitched her all types of companies, from small salons and boutiques to brands based on her amazing cooking skills. Despite our best intentions, she always told us that she was happiest with her current jobs: part-time work as an accountant and full-time work supporting our family. The world needs doctors and lawyers (and moms!) too.

Nearly every startup founder can trace back his or her entrepreneurial inspiration to an early mentor who motivated them to choose this unconventional career path. So pay it forward. Mentor a friend starting their first business. Inspire a stranger to join your next startup. Support a family member struggling through their early entrepreneurial months. Help spread startup fever to the next generation of great entrepreneurs.

 

It’s cool to stay in school.

“Should I drop out of college to become an entrepreneur?”

My only advice regarding potentially leaving school for a startup: Even the most successful college dropouts (see Zuckerberg, Gates, Dell, et. al) never came into their startup expecting to drop out. They just started building their product, and the amazing scale of the startup forced them out of school. I wouldn’t leave school unless you’re getting forced out of school by an amazing startup opportunity.

Just start building.

No excuses – just win baby.

One of the most transformative moments from my High School years came from a very unlikely source, a Madden football video game.

I was playing this game in our football team locker room against one of my teammates. The game was not going well for me, and I was furiously trying to make a comeback on offense. The game ended with me throwing an interception over the middle, and then loudly complaining that my virtual wide receiver had messed up his passing route.

At that moment, our head football coach, Matt Irvin, had stopped to watch a couple plays. He looked at me for a second, and then said “Guess you’ve got an excuse for everything.”

I thought about talking back to him, but instead sat dumbfounded. He was right. I had a tendency to assume that all of my successes were hard-earned, while my failures were the fault of everyone but me.

This is actually a well-known human cognitive bias, called the negative agency bias. However, just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean we’re going to let ourselves get away with this sort of spoilsport attitude.

In the seven years since then, I’ve gone out of my way to attribute as much of my activities and outcomes, both positive and negative, to myself.

When an investor turns me down, I know I need to refine my pitch. When our company misses its monthly targets, it’s time to check my bearings and make sure our strategy and implementation are still on track.

This is not an invitation to beat yourself up over every little setback; rather it is an acknowledgement of your personal responsibility over the outcomes in your life.

Try this approach for a few months, and let me know how it goes. The key to this strategy is to acknowledge the negative outcome, and then immediately look towards your path to improvement. Take that motivation with you as you retool your pitch, fine-tune your business strategy, or even just aim to complete your next virtual pass.

Why LabDoor?

Note: This post was initially published at LabDoor.com.

To understand the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of LabDoor’s products, you must first learn why we first became obsessed with simplifying the world of product safety.

It all started when I watched my parents come home from a doctor’s appointment with a new prescription. After years of taking Pfizer’s Lipitor, they had both been prescribed Ranbaxy’s generic equivalent.

My father, a Ph.D. chemist, pulled out every book, article, and online review he could find on the two products. 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry helped him make the right choice – after over ninety minutes of intense research.

Why did he tackle this problem himself? How can LabDoor make this process easier for everyone else making the same decisions? What is the perfect product to solve this huge challenge?

Why: Be safe. Be certain. My dad was choosing an important medicine for my mom and himself, a pill that will be a daily part of the rest of their lives. Just like him, you want to know you’re making the right call.

How: Find the best product research and safety data. You could do this yourself, like my dad did. But wouldn’t it be great if a team of scientific and technical experts did all the work for you?

What: Choose a product that is safe, effective, and affordable. We make decisions like this every day – whether it’s choosing a new lotion, reviewing your daily multivitamin, or deciding which prescription to fill. You want to make a smart decision faster. LabDoor provides this through our report cards for pharmaceuticals, supplements, and cosmetics.

Every LabDoor employee is here to build a little peace of mind for someone special. For me, it’s my parents, whom I adore. For others, it’s their wife, brother, daughter, friend, or even a stranger.

When we put in a sleepless night at the lab or in the office, we’re working to make sure each LabDoor user sleeps a little better. We invite you to share our passion, join our journey, and sign up for our exciting new product at LabDoor.com!

This post was inspired by Alexis Ohanian’s book Make Something People Love and Simon Sinek’s speech How Great Leaders Inspire Action. Both are at the top of my list of great resources for bold entrepreneurs.

The Liam Neeson School of Entrepreneurship

“I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.” – Liam Neeson, Taken.

For those who have never seen Taken, the whole plot can be summarized as follows: CIA operative’s daughter gets kidnapped by a European gang. Said operative (Liam Neeson) spends the rest of the movie on a killing spree to get her back. In Silicon Valley/Hollywood speak, it’s essentially ‘Die Hard in Europe’.

You wouldn’t expect it, but in terms of entrepreneurial takeaways, there’s a lot to be learned from Neeson’s character. His focus and resourcefulness under pressure is impressive, and he executes on his vision flawlessly.

Here are three important lessons that every startup founder should follow:

Focus on what makes you special:

“You can be so bad at so many things… and as long as you stay focused on how you’re providing value to your users and customers, and you have something that is unique and valuable… you get through all that stuff.” – Mark Zuckerberg

Neeson’s character has a lot of flaws. No social skills, stuck in an unfulfilling job, and his wife left him for a billionaire. But he has two things going for him: his undying love for his daughter, and decades of CIA experience in assorted James Bond-style badassery.

The best startup founders have this level of single-minded passion. Entrepreneurship is incredibly hard. To truly succeed, you must be absolutely obsessed with your mission and put a lifetime worth of experience — and years’ worth of work — into building something people love.

Then go execute like crazy:

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” – Steve Jobs

Executing on your entrepreneurial vision is rarely pretty. Few people believe in you, and there are times when you’re sure your idea is dead. But if you trust your instincts and skills, greatness is within reach.

CIA operative Liam Neeson understands this. He leverages his assets to a flawless victory, and even gets his wife back. Not back for a few days of work.

Caveat: Don’t do it alone:

Now, this is where the movie ends and real life begins — Liam can do it alone, but we can’t. All entrepreneurs have weaknesses.

Steve Jobs relied a lot on his excellent technical and design staff; Zuckerberg heavily leans on the operational expertise of Sheryl Sandberg. LabDoor is only successful because I have an awesome team next to me. People who have their own very particular set of skills. And together, we’re going to make LabDoor a nightmare for companies who use fancy ads and confusing labels to sell bad products to consumers.

Note: This blog post was initially published at Forbes.com.

Are you running your business like a lemonade stand?

On day one of your new business, you have a hundred job functions. Try to fit “CEO, President, CFO, Technical Director, Web Developer, Accountant, Sales Representative, Receptionist, Janitor” onto your business cards. To millions of experienced entrepreneurs, this feels like what a small business is always supposed to be.

Wrong. The problem is you. There is currently a 1:1 relationship between your work output and business operations. That’s your Growth Multiplier.

Think back to second grade, an age of lemonade stands and multiplication tables. That’s when we learned that you couldn’t change anything by multiplying by one, either in the classroom or selling sugar water by yourself on the corner.

An entrepreneur’s passion, drive, and intelligence can be a startup’s greatest asset, but for a company to grow, it must expand beyond its founders. The best leaders develop key systems and personnel and trust them to succeed, freeing up time for innovation and vision and multiplying their businesses’ growth potential.

So What Are The Key Multipliers?

1. Add a Super Assistant. Find someone you trust with your schedule, your customers, your money, and your life. Make them the hub between your business and the outside work and give them the power to tell you what to do, where to go, and when to be there.

2. Create a hierarchy of business functions in your job description, from lowest to highest impact on growth and profitability. Start at the bottom, and delegate like it’s your job. Because it is.

3. Forget the old corporate cliché of boring, slow HR departments. Hiring and developing A+ talent is a powerful engine for company growth. Hire and train well early, and you’ve built your future leadership team. Hire poorly or ignore training, and you’ll lose valuable time, customers, and profits.

4. Plan for explosive growth. The best businesses will grow too large for an entrepreneur to manage alone and linear growth brings exponential complexity. Mastering business growth requires an early focus on key operational systems. Consistently gather customer feedback for inputs into the product development process. Track key business metrics and attach them to an employee compensation plan.

5. Give away your corner office. Find someone you trust to run daily operations, and let them. Then go start your second business. Or sit on a beach.

It’s hard to scale a business using Growth Multipliers.

Only 21% of businesses in America will grow to 10+ employees and only 4% ever make $1 million in revenues. The average entrepreneur is most comfortable while manning their own little ‘lemonade stand’, living and dying with every sale. Fight this false sense of security, build your way out of daily operations, and become the leader and visionary your business needs. The payoff is immense, both for your life and the bottom line.

Note: This blog post was initially published at Under30CEO.com.

Surviving a failed tech startup

What to do if your first company isn’t the next Facebook

In my first startup experience, I worked nights and weekends in an entry-level position with the founding team while finishing up my college degree.

Now that I’ve finished school and launched two startups of my own, I’m beginning to reflect on the lessons I learned outside the classroom, especially in that first startup job—and how they came to influence my decisions as a startup founder four years later.

Timing does matter

I absolutely loved that first team’s product concept, which aimed to improve the in-stadium experience at sporting events by providing live statistics, video replays, and even concessions orders to a mobile device. The in-stadium atmosphere is great for fans, but teams are increasingly fighting to increase ticket sales against the free and convenient experience of watching games at home.

I knew that bringing some of those comforts to a stadium seat could be valuable for both fans and teams. But after working on the product launch team for a season, I was in a unique position to project the long-term viability of both the product and the overall company. Unfortunately, the view wasn’t promising: It always felt like the company was too early for its time.

We initially loaned out iTouch devices at the venues, since not enough people had smartphones at the time. This iPhone/iPad sales chart shows the market growth in these categories from under $5 billion in sales in January 2008, when I started at the company, to close to $100 billion now.

Failure is not the end

We had difficulty gaining traction. Whether it was the market, the timing, or the business model, I didn’t see much of the company after I left in mid-2008. Four years later, new companies are having success in that market, including FanVision, owned by the namesake of my alma mater at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Meanwhile, the founding team has gone on to do other great things, which led me to research what drives serial entrepreneurs. It’s a common theme in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, but is it really true that startup failure breeds future success?

2008 study from four Harvard researchers argue the answer is yes, but barely: They found that a successful serial entrepreneur has a “30 percent chance of succeeding in his next venture. By contrast, first-time entrepreneurs have only an 18 percent chance of succeeding, and entrepreneurs who previously failed have a 20 percent chance of succeeding.”

The lessons I learned

Clearly, past success is a better indicator of future success. Employees, investors, and customers are all drawn to big-name entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, my college experience working with a failed startup greatly shaped my future successes at both Avomeen and LabDoor.

Specifically, they taught me:

1. Customers come first. I loved that first company’s focus on customers. They only had a few full-time employees back then, so they did a great job of leveraging associates like me to be at every sporting event interacting with customers. I followed their lead at Avomeen, where we constantly requested feedback from our clients, especially when launching new services.

2. Analyze—and capitalize—on market trends. My early exposure to mobile development and its user growth informs our work at LabDoor, allowing us to time the launch of our product-safety applications at a key inflection point in the market. Mobile health users doubled in 2012, and we’ve capitalized on that growth.

I loved the experiences at my first startup and will be eternally grateful to my bosses there for giving me my first shot in the tech-startup world. I didn’t work there long and definitely never made any money in stock options, but it was a transformative experience that I still refer to when running my current startups—and one I’d recommend to any entrepreneurial-minded student weighing entry-level work versus a startup gig.

Note: This blog post first appeared in an edited form at Upstart Business Journal.

3X Startup Founder. Love Science & Startups.

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