As the most recent startup conference season has gotten rolling, I’ve been on the road to different cities in the CEE region. Warsaw, Kiev, Budapest, and soon Gdansk and Vilnius among others.
Certainly there are more startup conferences than there ever were in the past, so we’ve become increasingly choosy about which ones we attend. Today to evaluate a conference opportunity, we ask first “will they let us speak and present StartupYard,” and second “will we get 1 to 1 time with startup founders?”
The Best Startup Conferences Aren’t Tradeshows Anymore
I must say this is somewhat a reversal from the days when I first attended tech conferences. It used to be all about the pitch sessions. The whole event would be organized around a few keynotes at different stages, and a series of pitches, often with a big prize to draw startups and a crowd. That is the experience at places like Slush and Disrupt, as well as the former LeWeb.
We’ve written before about how useless this carnival approach can be for many who try to make real connections and tangible progress at such events. The light show outshines the personal connections, unless you are the type of person who can work a room full of strangers like a pro networker. You’re probably not. Natural social butterflies are rare in this business.
The most shiney startups would pitch, and then I assume they’d be bombarded with interest from investors who compete for their attention, rather than the other way around. This system had its obvious problems, but the worst was that it gave many startups the impression that they were shopping for the best offer from investors, rather than looking for a real match with the right investor.
My personal disgust with this dynamic culminated with an investor keynote in which a particular VC, who will go unnamed, patronizingly explained to startups that they need to “be the hot chick at the party,” for investors, and “play hard to get,” and assorted other bogus mind games that make founders impossible to deal with. Sexist and gross, of course, but also counterproductive and boring.
Obviously this is self serving, but StartupYard simply does not compete on the size of our investments, and we don’t want to talk to the “hot chick,” we want to find the company with the best team who want to make a real global impact. For a long time that kind of investor and startup attitude made conferences less than effective in helping us to scout and make relationships with startups that could fit well into our program.
The Pitch is Dead: The Conversation is Back
So I say with some relief and hope for the future, that it does appear that the up and coming startup focused events around CEE, the ones not burdened with heavy price tags and expensive catering, are doing away largely with the pitch competition format. Big ticket events focused on the public, corporate executives, and big speakers are still around, but happily startups are gravitating to more personal events where they can have time to really talk to people.
At Wolves Summit in Warsaw just last week, there was a pitch stage, but there were only around 50 seats, and I didn’t attend a single pitch session.
I was too busy taking great meetings with relevant startups, arranged in advance with intuitive software, and held in 4 different halls with a stunning 120 tables in total; most of them occupied. Interestingly too, at Wolves there is effectively no main stage, and consequently no temptation by the organizers to book big headlining speakers– a decision that inevitably leads to higher prices, more tech/startup tourists, and less time for startups to meet with each other and with investors.
When Wolves got started in Warsaw, the event was a pitching event. It was held in 4 screening rooms, and mentors were in fact pitching judges. As a result, very little personal interaction could happen because people were too busy with the pitching. The event has steadily improved with the focus on personal interaction.
Conferences that have built their reputations on speakers who charge €25,000 or more to talk about their salad days at Apple, or as VC investors, early Google employees, or startup founders, have becoming increasingly irrelevant for early stage, truly disruptive young companies that don’t have a splashy B2C concept and a great marketing gimmick. That’s ok. There is a place for more entertaining or corporate driven conferences with more flash, but for early startups, today there are much better options.
As the startup ecosystem in CEE gets more high-tech and less flashy and B2C, personal interaction is more important than ever.
At conferences like Wolves or Startup Fair Lithuania, speakers are unpaid volunteers, meaning only those with a strong urge to share their stories and a good reason to do so are speaking to smaller groups who are attracted by more than just a name or someone’s impressive resume.
That’s good news as far as I’m concerned, because it means that increasingly conference organizers and startups are understanding what is really key about these events: becoming a place where the relevant parties can make connections with each other. Today you see fewer startups sending their head of marketing or sales to conferences, and more likely you see the CEO and CTO there themselves. Even companies that are later stage seem to be doing this more.
Are Pitches Still Relevant?
Very much so. But not in the way they used to be. Not only conferences, but also accelerators and incubators have been recently questioning the pitch format for Demo Days as well. The key criticisms are exactly the same as for conferences, which is why at StartupYard we’ve continued to evolve the format to bring the greatest value to investors, community members, and startups.
We still strongly believe that preparing a killer pitch is a very important discipline for a young company and a first-time founder to master well. It forces founders out of their personal bubble, and defining the content of a pitch demands that startups make tough and necessary decisions, while striving to achieve things quickly that can become part of their story. All that is good and very much needed.
At the same though, much else has changed. For example, the stage portions of our Demo Days are now shorter than they were before. We’ve reduced keynotes significantly from the past (they used to take an hour or more), and we focus on holding the Demo Days in spaces where our startups can have meaningful contact with attendees after the pitch, and for much longer, up from maybe an hour in the past to multiple hours of 1 to 1 and group conversations. Demo Days are becoming more interactive as time goes on, and I see this happening in other accelerators as well.
We also introduced an official “Investor Week” a few years ago, and that has grown very popular. Investors who attend the Demo Day can now book a meeting with any of our startups in the following week, eliminating the fear that they won’t get in any facetime with the companies they want to meet.
Pitches are still relevant. But today’s connected world means that content is easy to share and to find. Personal contact, face to face, is more valuable as a result. By all means, work on your pitch, do your pitch, share your pitch, but don’t forget what a pitch should lead to: a real conversation.