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.
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at @_jfeldman.
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