12 hours at a Startup: Ups, Downs, Highs, Lows
12 Hours at a Startup: Ups, Downs, Highs, Lows
Don't worry, this story ends well, but it does highlight the ups and downs a startup can face in the course of a single day. I'd like to say it's a story about perseverance, envisioning success no matter what, and hard work paying off. So for fellow (or would-be) entrepreneurs, read on, this one's for you. At 12pm, I had one of the most important presentations of my career. I was pitching Flow State Media to the Keiretsu Forum Screening Committee. If I passed, I would then be able to pitch to 300+ accredited angel investors in the Bay Area. But having gone to previous meetings, I knew that the committee of 30-40 members would be tough: every one an experienced investor that had heard hundreds, possibly thousands of pitches before. The View from the Keiretsu Forum Meeting
But I was confident. I had rehearsed my pitch dozens of times until 1:30am the previous night. I also knew that my mentor from the SparkLabs Accelerator program we participated in was going to be in attendance. He had made the initial introduction to Keiretsu, and was even going to make an introduction to the committee that morning on my behalf. What a godsend! Rollercoaster up. But as I sat in earlier pitches to gauge the audience, I couldn't seem to find him. I figured, "I'm sure he'll be here, no worries." But as I left the room to do a couple of dry runs, I got his text: "Sorry, can't make it. I'm ill this morning." Immediate sad face. Rollercoaster down. Now of course an introduction guarantees nothing, but I'm 1,000% sure that AN introduction is better than NO introduction. So I had to gather myself and say, "This changes nothing. You still need to go out there and kill this presentation." So I went out and did just that. The excessive preparation, knowing exactly what phrases I was going to use throughout the 7-minute presentation, paid off. Some members commented afterwards that it was the best presentation of the day. But before I heard any feedback I had to get through Q&A. When I think of Q&A from investors, the term "slings and arrows" from Shakespeare's Hamlet comes to mind. Fortunately, I started off strong. One investor started with "I really hate games because my kids are spending so much of our money on them." So I interjected, "Well, here's your chance to make it all back!" He laughed. The audience laughed. I was able to get through Q&A in pretty good shape. Rollercoaster rising. Then there's the waiting. Fortunately with Keiretsu, they let you know the same afternoon, but no matter the time period, there's always a little bit of agony while awaiting the thumbs up or down. So after regaining some strength with a quick sandwich, I headed down Market St to my next event: the PitchForce competition. I would square off against 8 other startups that night to try to win 1st Place and get confirmed meetings with the VCs and Angel Investors sitting on the judging panel. But I was hours ahead of time, so I plugged in and got caught up on emails. By 3pm I was getting a little bit antsy about the Keiretsu answer. By 3:30pm, a little more so. But then the call came. Startup Life: It's Sinusoidal
WE. PASSED!!! We scored high enough marks from the committee to pitch to the FULL Forum in September. I was overjoyed. I was ecstatic. I was going to be able to pitch to over 300 angels in just a few weeks! Rollercoaster was up, up, up! So I was in a great mood as I was setting up my table at PitchForce. I had my "Letter UP" sign proudly displayed, our pretty trailer looping, and I was ready for the show. Here's how PitchForce works. Each startup sets up a demo table. All the attendees get 3 fake million dollar bills. They drop their bills with startups they like the most. We have an hour of networking time to get the most bills. The 5 startups with the most bills do a 4-minute pitch to the judges. The 4 with the least must each do 1-minute pitches. Only 1 will advance to pitch with the other 5 startups. Networking at PitchForce
But I quickly realized something. I was low on manpower. I was the only one there from Flow State Media. With our dev team focused on completing the iOS & Android versions of Letter UP, I didn't want to pull them into the event. Meanwhile, other teams had 3, 4, 5 or more team members there to answer questions, talk about the product, and talk about the company. There were several people who stopped by and looked like they wanted to ask a question, but I could only focus on one question at a time, so many interested attendees had to move on. I had a very bad feeling that I would not make the Top 5. And I was right. When the results were announced, we were not in the Top 5. We had to "fight for our lives" by winning the 1-minute pitch battle in order to move on. Rollercoaster down, way down. I'd be lying if there wasn't a little voice in my head saying, "Just pack up. You're tired, you didn't eat dinner, and you already got through with Keiretsu. Call it a day." But I silenced that voice. I knew I still had a chance to win. After all, I had been pitching all day. I rehearsed silently about which points I wanted to talk about, and which points I wanted to cut out from my 4-minute presentation. Next thing I knew, I was up. The crowd was even bigger than in the morning. It easily felt like 150 maybe 200 people in attendance, plus the 5 judges. But my points were ready, I focused on the problem, market, team, solution, traction and what my investors could gain, all in a minute. It was a very close vote, 3 to 2, but we made it through. We survived! Rollercoaster up. Fortunately, as the last one into the 4-minute round, I had time to gather myself for the longer version. Some people congratulated me on the 1-minute pitch. It was a good feeling, but knew I had one last mountain to climb. The pitches before me were getting solid scores from the 5 judges. The new leader scored an 18. Then, the next to last pitch scored even higher, a 19! So I had to get a 4 from each judge on average to win. And these judges were not afraid of giving 2's, so I knew I had to be just as sharp as in the morning. But by now, I was rolling. It was probably the 40th time I went through my pitch in the last 24 hours, so everything was dialed in. I knew what to say, how to say it, what time I should hit the last slides, and how to succinctly summarize the opportunity to investors. I ended EXACTLY on 4 minutes. The timekeeper and judges were like "Wow...that...never...happens." The Q&A was equally as tough as in the morning, maybe more so. But I was ready. I was able to answer their tough questions and I think even put smiles on their faces when I was done. One judge, the one closest to Simon Cowell in terms of the "tough love" he would give to other companies, actually had entirely good things to say about the pitch, saying that it was very well done and complete. Throughout, I felt like the other shoe was going to drop, and I was going to get slammed. But it never did, it just ended on a very positive note. So I felt good. But the question was, how did the judges feel? How would they score? Quickly, the cards were up....20! We won! We won PitchForce! I was so elated. I got a great chance to talk with all the judges, get some more advice, talk about their experience with gaming investments. It was great, and I was on cloud nine. Most definitely, rollercoaster up! First Place Award @ PitchForce
So as I drove home, exhausted, there was a rich feeling of euphoria. Of accomplishment. Of yes, I did it. In the startup world, as an entrepreneur that's raising funds, the world can seem cruel. You must develop a tough skin, because most people are doubters. Most people will say no. Most people want to see more traction or signals about your space before they say yes. So when you get validation, from a group like the Keiretsu Forum and established VCs and members of Harvard Angels, it feels good. It feels really, really good. Because then you know that all the hard work and preparation was worth it. Redoing your slides endlessly and talking to yourself in front of a mirror deep into the night was all worth it. Max Shapiro Presenting the Award
So this is one more message to entrepreneurs out there. You can do it. If you truly envision success, even when others do not, that success CAN be realized. But you have to have the faith in being able to shape that reality for yourself. No, on that day we didn't hit 10M Daily Active Users in Letter UP or have a massive exit to a Korean gaming company, but on that warm Thursday night in downtown San Francisco, we won. Flow State Media won.