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The Boulder TechStars program is in week three and the intensity level is high. The TechStars office is across the hall from ours at Foundry Group and it’s wild to see the level of activity ramp up during the three months that TechStars Boulder is in session.
I’m trying a new thing this program and doing a weekly CEO-only meeting. I’ve been trying to figure out a new way to engage with each program other than mentoring a team or two, and have been looking for a high leverage activity that I could do remotely for all of the other programs. My current experiment is an hour a week with all of the CEOs in a completely confidential meeting, but a peer meeting so each of them gets to talk about what they are struggling with to help solve each other’s problems as well as learn from each other.
We’ve done two of these meetings in Boulder and I love it so far. I’ll run this experiment for the whole program, learn from it, and iterate. If it works, I’ll scale it across all the programs.
Yesterday I also finished up my first set of 1:1 meetings with all of the teams. In my 1:1 meetings, I try to keep them very short – 15 minutes – and focus on what is “top of mind“. I learn more from this and can help more precisely than if I spent 30 minutes getting a generic pitch, which will likely change dramatically anyway through the course of TechStars. So each of these top of mind drills is “up to 5 minutes telling me about your company” and “10 minutes talking about whatever is top of mind.”
By the third week, I notice what I call “pitch fatigue” setting in. I think every entrepreneur should have several short pitches that they can give anytime, in any context, on demand.
- 15 seconds: Three sentences – very tight “get me interested in you” overview.
- 60 seconds: What do you you, who do you do it to, why do I care?
- 5 minutes: Lead with the 60 seconds, then go deeper.
- 15 minutes: Full high level pitch
- 30 minutes: Extended presentation that has more details
Bt week three, the teams are still fighting through getting the 15 second and 60 second pitch nailed. That’s fine, but there’s emotional exhaustion in even trying for some of them. The founders have said some set of words so many times that they are tired. The emotion of what they are doing is out of the pitch. Their enthusiasm is muted – not for the business, but for describing it.
Recently I was on the receiving end of a description from an entrepreneur, who has a great idea that I love, that had the emotional impact a TSA inspection at the airport. He was going through the motions with almost zero emotional content. At the end of it, I said one sentence - “Don’t get sick of telling your story.” I then went deeper on what I meant.
He responded by email later that day:
Thanks for articulating what was going on in my head. I think I was getting burnt out from telling the same story to so many mentors. I need to stay focused and stick with the story that worked well the first 40 meetings. I also need to be careful that the lack of “freshness” doesn’t affect how passionate and energetic I come across. Timing for this realization couldn’t be better given our upcoming fundraising trip.
I’ve done an enormous amount of pitching and fundraising over the years. When we raised our first Foundry Group fund in 2007, I did 90 meetings in three months before we got our first investor commitment. By meeting 87, after hearing no a lot (we got about 30 no’s out of the first 90 meetings before we got a yes) I was definitely had pitch fatigue. But every time I told it, I brought the same level of intensity, emotion, optimism, and belief that I did the first time I told it. Today, six years later, when I describe what we are doing and why we are doing it, and why you should care, I’m just as focused on getting the message across as I ever have been. And I never get tired of telling our story.
Here’s an email exchange that I had in the past 24 hours with an entrepreneur. Remember, I try to answer all of my emails and be responsive to any inquiry – this was a random one (which I get between 25 and 100 a day).
Entrepreneur: I just wanted to touch base with you and see if you are taking on new startups right now.
Me: Can you send me a paragraph and I’ll tell you if it’s something we’d be interested in. Everyone else to bcc:
Entrepreneur: It’s difficult to accurately describe the company, myself, and everything else in a single paragraph. To write something so small but somehow include every important aspect is near impossible, if not impossible. My company is too complex to be described in a single paragraph.
I responded politely that I didn’t think this was something I’d be interested in exploring. I did skim his longer description and took a look at the website (which was a landing page with some a vague description of the business.) I could determine from this that it’s not something we’d be interested in (it’s outside of our themes) but this entrepreneur also missed his chance to engage me more deeply since he couldn’t articulate what he was doing.
I was in Oklahoma City earlier this week with the entrepreneurs at the Blueprint for Business accelerator (it’s a member of the Global Accelerator Network). There were five companies there and in addition to the various talks I did around Startup Communities I stayed at BP4B until about 10pm doing 15 minute meetings with each of the teams. I did my typical 15 minute “top of mind drill” where I start by saying “tell me about yourself as quickly as you can and then let’s spend most of the time talking about whatever is on the top of your mind.” Several of the teams explained themselves in a minute or less and then had 14 minutes to ask me questions; several of the teams took five to ten minutes to explain themselves leaving less time for questions.
I strongly believe that a founder should be able to explain what they do in one paragraph. I’m not a believer in the “one sentence mashup approach” (e.g. we are like pinterest + groupon + facebook for dogs). Rather, I like three sentences: (1) what we do, (2) who we do it to, and (3) why you should care. Sometimes this can be two sentences; sometimes four, but never more than a paragraph.
Yesterday, I spent 30 minutes with one of the teams in TechStars Seattle that I’m a lead mentor for. They are a month away from Demo Day and wanted to practice the very rough version of the demo day presentation. I gave them a bunch of feedback – some specific, some general, including:
- Show don’t tell
- I hate doing the overview / bios at the beginning
- You wasted the first 60 seconds
- Weak explanation of what you are actually doing and why I care
- Still don’t really know what you do
If you are an entrepreneur, you have less than 60 seconds to get an investors attention. Don’t waste it.