What I Learned At DEMO 2012

The DEMO conference, held each year in Silicon Valley, has been home to many successful product launches over the last decade.  I was honored to be in attendance this last week in Santa Clara and it did not disappoint.  For those who aren’t familiar with DEMO, it’s an event where scores of startups have 6 minutes to present their product on stage.  At the end, a few awards are given to winners voted by a panel of investors and journalists.  The trip was actually the winning prize from the SURF Incubator pitch competition we won in June.  Before I go any further I want to publicly thank SURF Incubator for the opportunity and I hope we represented you well.

Although we didn’t present or pitch on stage I definitely had a great time.  Here’s Ray Kurzweil speaking on what he see’s as the future of technology.  Things are about the get crazy cool and I’m very glad I was sitting there that day!

The event – one I won’t forget for a number of reasons – was notable, tiresome, and educational.  We spoke with a number of other startups and were shocked at how strong our pitch has become, even to other entrepreneurs.  It’s pretty cool to see others grasping your concept and actually wanting to use it themselves and integrate within their offering.  The trip in itself was very travel intensive, which takes its toll on you mentally and physically.   We spent way too many hours on public transportation, that’s for sure.  But the biggest thing that stuck with me was how much you can learn by just observing people.  As I closely watched the presenters, I noticed a few things that I feel are not covered enough in the media, lessons us “early stage” founders desperately need.   I realized by following a few simple principles any founder can successfully demo their product and impress an audience.


The truth is, as an attendee watching all the DEMO’s you get quite restless and bored.  This is natural when you are indoors seeing 75 companies parading across the stage throughout the two-day event.  As a presenter, you must understand people are drawn into passionate communicators and distaste anything boring or monotone.  I watched most of the presentations during the event, and I was struck with how many presenters lacked expressive passion for their concept and cause.  They might have had some really cool tech but I wouldn’t have know it by how little they expressed their excitement.  Maybe they were nervous or something, but for whatever reason they did not positively influence me on what they were trying to DEMO.

To me, as an attendee, if the presenter did not elicit belief and passion as they spoke about their product, I tuned out.  It became background noise and monotone distraction to me and my iphone.  You think I am alone?  Occasionally I would glance around to the crowd only to see most attendees face lit up with some sort of device in front of them.  This is something all presenters should not overlook.  Today, you need to give people a reason NOT to grab their phone and play with it.  The best presenters were passionate in the right way, and helped me become passionate about their concept, albeit even for just a few minutes.  It’s notable to mention EVERY award winner passed my passion test.


In addition to passion, presenters must employ a great deal of poise when on stage in front of hundreds of people.  This is challenging yet probably the most important aspect of public speaking.  Face it, people are very superficial and if a presenter doesn’t come across comfortable, collected and confident the audience will immediately judge negatively.

The presenters that most impressed me were the ones that came across the most comfortable, confident and collected.  In a word, they were very poised onstage.  They told me, through their non-verbal cues, “I am the expert on this subject at the moment one the one you should be listening to.  Our market leading product is one you definitely need to check out.

Unfortunately, a few of the presenters actually froze on stage and forgot what they were going to say.  This is not a good outcome, especially when being onstage in front of investors and media could result in great fortunes for you and your company.  The result, for me as an attendee, was I didn’t really understand what they were doing (in addition to feeling really uncomfortable).  The result for them, probably very little investment leads.  Whatever it takes, speakers must get prepared!


Great product demo’s lead the audience on a journey of discovery into insights and personally useful information.  If not, it’s a waste of six minutes of a person’s time and attention (yes, this is what we all are thinking).   The successful demos all encorporated concepts or illustrations that instantly became relevant to me and others in the room.  One of the startups, StressFriend, has released an app plus wristwatch called Bandu that monitors your current level of stress and displays it in real time on the smartphone app.  Not only that, it maps my stress areas on an interactive map so I can see where I am stressed and where I’m calm.   It’s awesome, and something our society really needs so we can all just chill out!  During their demo, they actually had a drill sergeant come out from behind the stage, yelling and screaming in the face of one of their team members in the audience.  On the big screen, they showed his stress levels changing in real time.  Indeed, they were one of the award winners.  The relevance here is obvious; we all are stressed, we all hate raging people and we all felt it at that moment.  They brought it home!  You gotta believe very few people in the room were messing around on their phone or tablet during their presentation.

Winning pitch competitions can be the difference between gaining media attention and millions of investment dollars… or not.  It doesn’t have to be that difficult, you just need to follow a few major principles.  First be a passionate communicator so the audience feels you and your cause.  Second, be confident and have poise on stage in front of the crowd.  Lastly, no matter your product you need to present a story in which everyone can relate.  These three simple things will go a long way to help with your next demo and hopefully launch your startup successfully.

Here is Why Your Passion is Always A Blessing

This post is built off of Bob Crimmons’ recent post Entrepreneurial Passion: A blessing or a Curse.  In one part I agree with Bob and in another I find disagreement and will offer a slightly varying perspective.  Let’s call it taking a different path to a similar conclusion and in doing so encouraging any entrepreneur that yes, they should pursue their passion to the fullest extent.

I agree with Bob in his general message – you must validate the idea you have become passionate about.  As he eludes, it is natural for an entrepreneur be overcome with the passion for “scratching their own itch”, working long hours to get something out into the market only to launch and then realize their execution is all wrong.  The way around this (and what I believe Bob was encouraging any entrepreneur to do) is to do massive market testing and validation prior to any time invested in production.  How do you do this?

Observe – Go into your target market’s environment and observe them interacting around where your product would fit.

Investigate – Ask them open ended questions regarding their thoughts on X, Y, Z products and features.

Float The Idea – Spend $25 on a google ad promoting your product with the link leading to a landing page, observe the click response.

Test and Research – Do massive business model research prior to launching a product, especially if you are developing a “social app”.

These are just a few actions that fall within due diligence and business validity testing and they should be done prior to any product work.  So yes, I agree with Bob when he cautions entrepreneurs in blindly pursuing their passions.

I should know, I was the guy Bob was talking about the first attempt at my start up, Loyaltize.  I was extremely passionate about building a business which not only was to be a web 2.0 darling but would also rewrite the books for the new social media marketing era.  Our bright idea was to integrate local business marketing and the support of local non-profits, such as youth soccer teams.  Local business created offers and coupons with donations tied into them, so when someone redeemed the offer a donation would go from the local business to the local soccer club.  Everyone wins right!  We were so passionate about this idea we spent more than a year to build our site (remember, I was living a double life so things take double the amount of time you think they should) and finally launched in our test market.

BAM…. fell right on the ground.   We scraped it forward for about six months but basically realized our execution around a few main features was flawed.  Would we have saved the year if we did proper user testing and validation?  I am not sure but we would have learned a few key lessons and we probably would be still growing right now had we validated properly.  I learned you need to do major validation, testing, and “pivoting” around your initial assumptions to get the proper fit.

-I am now going to talk strongly here and although I have never met Bob, I fully respect him-

What struck a cord when I read Bob’s post is I am that guy – incredibly passionate, focused, head down working to build out a new platform to take over the world.  It struck me quite deep because after working so hard on something you start to wonder if you are doing the right thing and really cut out to be an entrepreneur if things aren’t coming together.  It struck me because, as they say, “truth hurts”.

Passion definitely can work against you, and if you are an entrepreneur you are probably nodding your head with me.

But I would caution Bob on cautioning entrepreneurs to be wary of their passions.  It has the potential to send the wrong message to young aspiring entrepreneurs; because it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.  They will hear messages such as “don’t follow your passion, follow a proven business model” and “Your passions are not valid businesses”.

Following a proven business model does not inspire innovative new ideas, it does not create new markets nor does it spawn new industries.   Encouraging entrepreneurs to follow proven business models creates hundreds of daily deal sites.  We don’t need more competition, we need more innovation.

I would not be writing for you today had I taken Bob’s advice.  There is a high probability that if I went to a mentor such as Bob and they cautioned me on pursuing my passions, I might be on a different path.  Keeping aligned with my passion is what helped me gather enough knowledge and courage to make the leap and put me in the position I am in today.  I am so grateful someone I respected didn’t pull me aside and say “ya know Nick, this Loyaltize thing just does seem like it’s panning out for you.  Are you sure you should pursue this passion?”

I think Bob’s message takes the wrong angle on a good point.  Rather than telling entrepreneurs to be wary of things they are passionate about, I think a better angle on this issue would be to encourage entrepreneurs to harness their passions for everything they have.  Understand you have been tapped by something (someone) and dive deep into the problem area you are looking to bring a solution to.  Indeed entrepreneurs need every ounce of their passion to get where they want to go.

Jack Dorsey was obsessed with how cabs moved and communicated about the city.  He was so passionate about the idea of communication networks he sat on the idea for twitter for something like 6 years.  He couldn’t shake it and decided to build it even though it seemed crazy and didn’t make sense.  We are lucky to have twitter today to help us connect with people around the globe (@jnickhughes if you want to connect with me)

Dennis Crowley was seemingly obsessed with location aware technologies, so he built Dodgeball.  He ended up selling it to Google quite quickly, which some saw as a success, but they subsequently shut it down.  This really bothered him.  Because he was so passionate about this concept he build another application, Foursquare, with the knowledge and validations they learned from Dodgeball.  Foursquare just crossed the 10 million user mark in a little over 2 years and is paving the way in geolocation applications.

I am not being facetious here, I am being totally serious.  I guarantee Jack, Dennis, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or any other successful entrepreneur followed their passion.  The next “Jack” or “Dennis” is probably reading this right now.  They are gripped by something in the world, so gripped they want to build a product and business around it.  I say follow it.  Build it.  Test it.  Work it.  Rework it.  Test it again.  Stay on it.  Just don’t give up, the right thing will come together.

Call me crazy and laugh to yourself if you want, but I wholeheartedly believe this: The only difference between you and Jack Dorsey is… you just haven’t figured out the combination yet.  That is it.

In fact, I am of the camp we need more entrepreneurs who think bigger.  I agree with Jason Freedman of FlightCaster.

Jason wrote a post recently about a recent trip he took to visit some friends, Henderson and Rebecca who live in Mississippi.  He was shocked at what he felt as he was leaving them:

I’m glad we’ve moved past throwing sheep at each other on Facebook.  I’m glad we’ve moved past acquiring users by downloading someone’s contact list and spamming their friends.  The startup ecosystem is much healthier than it was in 2008.  But still, I’m concerned.  As a fellow geek and early adopter, I’m psyched for one of the photo-sharing concepts to really take off.  I think it’ll be sweet to instantly share pictures with my friends in cool new ways.  But I know it’s not a huge problem for Henderson and Rebecca.  It’s just not an issue that affects them.  I’m concerned about how many of us are working on problems that just don’t matter all that much to the rest of the world.

Look, it requires a lot of passion to change the world.  I mean, to really impact Henderson and Rebecca you are going to need to harness all your passion and give it everything you got.  Just remember to test and validate along the way.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Horia Varlan