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3/15/2012
10:38 AM
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4 Common Mistakes Made By Startups

If you want your product to be taken seriously at the next big conference, don't do any of these things.

Entrepreneurs and the PR people who love them, listen up! I am going to help you avoid the journalism eye-roll when you hit the next show, whether it's next year at SXSW, or this year at Interop.

It's true that SXSW is a serious party and it marries innovation with good times, but that does not mean that the fundamental rules of reality and common sense are broken. If you want to be taken seriously, you must, at the very least, avoid these gaffes. Based on my observations, here's what you must NOT do at SXSW (or any other show):

1. Become a VC Stalker
No, really. I actually saw someone who got really creepy and came off as a major stalker. I was at a party for entrepreneurs, and some guy swaggers over and loudly demands, "WHERE ARE THE VCs? I CAME TO THIS PARTY TO MEET SOME VCs." I was sort of embarrassed to be within 10 feet, so I quietly departed, determined that I would not be party to subjecting any of the venture capitalists at the event to this. In fact, had I been SURROUNDED by the VCs that I met at the conference, I would have gone out of my way to introduce them as PR people, much in the same way that I might have tried to protect the ladies in my group from someone who swaggered over and loudly demanded to know where the hot women at the party were. Oh my lord. Do not do this unless you want everybody to fail to take you at all seriously. Or call the cops.

[ Facebook, Twitter, and Google explore the complexities of using one account to log into another. Read SXSW: Social Login Is Magical But Tricky. ]

2. Talk About The Hockey Stick
I was sitting in the press lounge, minding my own business, doing my work, and I kept overhearing PR briefings by startups that included the phrase, "hockey stick," meaning that "profitability (or other measure) is going to go down in the short term, but it's gonna explode in the long term." Hasn't anyone figured out that when entrepreneurs talk about "hockey stick," observers take this as code for "bluster about our product instead of talking about actual customer adoption?"

3. Pretend Uniqueness
When there are a gazillion products that are chasing the same general idea as you are, don't pretend that there aren't. Without picking on any one company in particular, the number of startups at SXSW who "invented the idea of using localization to find interesting people around you" was dizzying. Highlight, Sonar, Banjo, Glancee, all pretty much do the same thing in different ways. But when you tell guys like me that you're "unique," it doesn't make you sound special, it makes you sound clueless. Would it be so terrible to acknowledge that there are other vendors in the space, and to tell folks what you're doing that will give you the best shot at winning the race?

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4. Bend Reality
One "ambient location" vendor was running around showing her app to everyone who would stand still and listen. She showed the app to me, and I shared my concerns about ambient location and battery life. She said, "Oh, our app doesn't have that problem at all." Then I glanced at her battery indicator, and it was pretty much out of juice. Then I busted her on having a case with a built-in supplementary battery. It doesn't help your credibility when you start bending reality to fit what you hope we believe. This is especially when these apps seem a little creepy in the first place, and you NEED for us to trust you in order to want to use the app!

Bottom line is, people like me who are interested in startups actually start listening with a friendly bias. At tech's biggest party, it's easy to get buy-in--unless you start acting like the craziest and least credible dude there.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at jf@feldman.org or at @_jfeldman.

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pcalento011
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pcalento011,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2012 | 8:08:49 PM
re: 4 Common Mistakes Made By Startups
The "hockey stick" isn't unique to start-ups. It occurs in plenty of established businesses and IT projects. Particularly in (risk averse) established businesses, caution is not only well-warranted, but a credibility booster ... even if the "hockey stick" is possible. Regardless optimism, whether the project is entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial, is a needed part of the new opportunity puzzle that shouldn't be eliminated. --Paul Calento (http://bit.ly/paul_calento)
jfeldman
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jfeldman,
User Rank: Strategist
3/19/2012 | 10:31:04 PM
re: 4 Common Mistakes Made By Startups
By all means do the elevator pitch. Just don't bend reality or use projection instead of talking about how your product is benefitting customers. :)
Deb Donston-Miller
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Deb Donston-Miller,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/16/2012 | 12:31:10 AM
re: 4 Common Mistakes Made By Startups
I think this is all great advice. I have been on the receiving end of hundreds of product pitches in my day. At the end of far too many I have thought, "I have no idea what the product even is or what it really does." This is the result of too much marketing-speak and too little real-world evidence, a common mistake made not only by startups but by those who should know a lot better.

Deb Donston-Miller
Contributing Editor, The BrainYard
Steve G.
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Steve G.,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/15/2012 | 11:54:46 PM
re: 4 Common Mistakes Made By Startups
@bdudw

The author is not recommending not making a pitch. He's recommending keeping it honest and classy.
CHDFW
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CHDFW,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/15/2012 | 8:27:31 PM
re: 4 Common Mistakes Made By Startups
I don't agree with your perspective on this, maybe a little with the stalker part, but that's what events like SXSW are for and this is the culture of these events. It's funny to me that your telling start-ups to not make a pitch. If you are making a pitch this is what you need to tell people... why this product, why us, what makes us different. It's these "KPI" Key Pieces of Info, that you use to capture your audiance and do so in less than 2 minutes, that's about how much time you have to either intrigue or disgust. There's no in between.
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