Category Archives: Accelerators

Pitch Deck Inflation

I see a fair amount of pitches and I’ve come to expect the unrealistic projections of hyper growth, the comparable buy outs slide, and the lack of clear use of proceeds.   However in the last year the pitches have had more of a “high pressure sales” vibe.

Many of these companies are pitching in front of hundreds of investors at Pitch Days, Accelerator Graduations, and other Pitch contests.  The number of companies fighting in the $500k arena has grown and in recent discussions with young entrepreneurs they’ve told me they feel pressure to “pump up” their results, projections, and team credentials to get investors interested.

I can see how this can happen when you’ve got 5 minutes to stand out over the other 12 companies pitching at the same time as you. Let’s take a look at a few of the things I’ve seen lately that make me take pause.

The Chief XXX Officer syndrome.

I’ve addressed this in the past  so I won’t go into it again here, but it’s still something I see all the time.  I recently saw a company pitch with seven employees. Five had C-level titles, including CEO,COO,CPO,CMO and CFO. I should’ve asked if the other two were EVPs.  It’s not a huge deal but one that still makes me give an internal sigh.

“World Class”

Be careful using over the top adjectives. Recently a friend asked me to take a look at a pitch deck for one of their accelerator companies.  The first thing that jumped out at me was the CEO was a “World Class UX designer”. Now when I see the adjective “World Class” I think “Holy crap I want to meet this person and talk about UX design”.  Unfortunately the same adjective set “World Class” showed up again in the deck and at that point I realized he might be good but probably wasn’t “World Class”.  I informed my friend that I’m pretty sure a kitten dies every time someone uses “World Class” in a pitch deck and being in favor of kittens they took out all references.

“We’ve had 2 Exits”

This one can be tricky.  Recently I’ve seen pitches that led with slides about their exits.  Now exits are awesome right?  But when someone puts this out there my response is going to be “So tell me about your exits.  Did you have investors?  Did they consider it successful? ” Unfortunately often the answers aren’t so good.  If you’re going to lead with your exits you should be prepared to discuss them in detail.  Otherwise maybe that’s something best left for later discussions.

“Data Science”  “Platform” ” Proprietary Algorithm”

The more buzz words in a deck that are meant to make the tech appear “magical” the more I grow suspicious.  I’m a little torn on this one as I understand that most pitches are going to non-tech people and it’s hard sometimes to get tech concepts across.  But be careful that you don’t get too carried away with statements like “Our data scientists have invented various proprietary algorithms that allow us to deliver a unique platform.”  I mean really what does that mean?  I could probably use the same sentence to describe every single SaaS startup I’ve seen in the last 3 years. Which leads me to the next section that is a little off topic but goes hand in hand with this problem.

“Talking down to investors”

You’ve got to know who you’re pitching to.  At a minimum use Google to get some background on the people you’re going to ask for money.  If you haven’t figured out that I was CTO of a software company for many years then you’re going to get in trouble if you try to “tech buzz word” me.  I can tell the second the presenter is trying to snow me, which I usually let pass by unless the language used implies we’re too dumb to understand the solution.  Start doing that and I’m jumping right in with hard questions about your tech.

“The aggressive follow-up”

I seem to get about a 90% rate of follow up emails from entrepreneurs.  A tip to the other 10%, even if there is no chemistry a follow up “thanks for meeting with us” is just common courtesy.  What’s just as bad is the other end of the spectrum. Instead of “Are you available to meet?” I get “I have an opening at 12:00 on Thursday so we can discuss your investment”.  I usually just answer these with “Sorry I’m busy at that time” and don’t try to negotiate another time.

Here’s my suggested format:

Dear (Insert Investor Here)

Thanks for taking the time to meet with us earlier today.  We’re hoping you have time for a short follow-up meeting.  We’re available (insert 4 options here).  If none of these work please propose another time or if you’ve already got all the information you need just let us know. We’re always happy to provide anything you need via email.

Obviously you can embellish it but I like something short and sweet that gives me a few times to pick from or the ability to completely opt out if I’m not interested.

I’m hoping these notes help a few of you adjust your pitches. I know you’re trying to compete with everyone else for investor mind-share but just like padding a resume can get you in trouble so can over extending yourself with your pitch deck.


Techstars Cloud 2013 Demo Day – back to San Antonio we go

After having a great time at last year’s Techstars Cloud it was time to return. It almost didn’t happen.

Last Wednesday Kent from Blue Point Investment Counsel and I headed out to catch our flight to San Antonio. Our flight was delayed out of Madison meaning we were going to miss our connecting flight from Dallas to San Antonio. I figured it was no big deal since they have flights every hour going into San Antonio. I was wrong. Apparently the prior day American had computer issues that caused all the flights on Wednesday to be overbooked.

Now on the way to the airport Kent was bragging about his Tripit app that had informed him of the flight problems and he was going on and on about how awesome it was. He had given it his gmail account and the thing scanned his email, found all his flights, and then informed him of any changes, gate updates etc. I told him he was nuts for letting them have his gmail account.

We stood at the American service counter for over 20 minutes but our service person couldn’t find us an alternate route to San Antonio. She even brought in someone else who knew all the “secret paths” through the American booking terminal. The best they could do was put us on a bus to Chicago and then fly us in to San Antonio late on another airline. At this point we were seriously considering canceling the trip. I try not to fall for the old “bus to O’hare” trick.

Now while all this is going on Kent has got his Tripit app out and is saying stuff like “Hey my App says there are 4 seats on flight blah blah blah .. did you check that one”? She’s responding with “No sir nothing on that one”. I’m giving Kent the evil eye during this whole process. “Really Kent”?

Well guess what. He finally says, “Hey I see 4 seats on this flight can you check that one”? Of course she finds 2 first-class seats for us to San Antonio. Kent+Annoying Tripit App : 1 , Me: 0. But at least we were off to San Antonio.

We got into San Antonio Wednesday night and the pre-presentation-day meetup was in the lobby bar of our hotel. We got to spend some time with the teams who were going to present the following day. In particular we hung out with the guys from Drifty, the Madison based company, who were presenting but weren’t seeking investment. Drifty makes a couple of cool products one of which I’ve used, JetStrap, for designing web UI. If you’re doing any work with Twitter Bootstrap (this might actually be a requirement for all accelerator companies) and you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out.

Thursday morning we headed over for the 12 scheduled presentations (only 11 actually presented but we’ll return to that). In usual Techstars fashion each company was introduced by their mentor followed by the CEO giving a short pitch.


Some were better than others but overall all the teams pitched well. I didn’t feel like I was watching an episode of Shark Tank since none of them ended with “Who wants to join me on this adventure”? I’ve included the program below with the list of companies this year.

techstars 2013 flyer

I found a number of the companies interesting but here’s some more information on some I spent more time with:

The first was Ziptask who is outsourcing project management for outsourcing. Got that? It’s actually a pretty cool idea. For anyone who’s tried to do an outsourced project on the web through websites like ODesk or FreeLancer it can be a nightmare to select a developer or manage them through the actual project.

Shawn Livermore, CEO, gave me an in depth demo of both the front and back end software they’ll be using to manage projects. I was genuinely impressed with both the functionality and user-interface. This has been a labor of love for Shawn and it shows in the software.  It includes portions to manage the bidding process, deliverables with due dates, milestones and a host of other things that anyone who’s managed software projects will immediately recognize.

I will probably run a project through them to see how it goes.  I talked to a number of people at the event who were thinking the same thing.  The only problem I see is if they enter a period of hyper-growth they’ll be having to hire lots of good project managers quickly.  This could be difficult as it’s been my experience that good project managers are tough to come by. Overall a great idea with some cool software behind it.

The second company I spent some time with was Threat Stack, a company offering a cloud solution for intrusion detection.  For those of you with servers that are connected to the internet you may or may not know what’s going on with your boxes depending on your level of laziness.  I’ve got a server racked over at our local data center 5Nines (whoa! Richard Branson.. wait.. nope just Todd) so after the pitches, I created an account on Threat Stack.  What’s impressive is that within 45 minutes I had the intrusion software installed on one of my servers and I was collecting data.

The interface is pretty straight forward as you can see below.  For those of you who are familiar already with the product Snorby this will look pretty familiar.  The Threat Stack team are the ones behind the open source project for visualizing data from products like Snort and Suricata.  The thing that they’ve got going for them with Threat Stack is convenience.  I’ve been meaning to set up something like Security Onion for some time but just haven’t gotten around to it.  After a few days of  it running I’ve seen literally thousands of attempts from China trying to log into my servers as root.

threat stack screen shot

My recommendation is to go check it out if you’re doing any kind of server management.  I probably won’t continue to use it after the demo as it’s a bit pricey for me ($200/month) but for people with actual servers of importance there’s plenty of value there.

The pitch by the company Conspire quickly captured my attention. You allow them access to your email and they then analyze your interactions with others.  They don’t look at the content of the email, just the headers, so they can see with whom you’re emailing, when, and how often.  This has a lot of cool applications from figuring out the shortest path through your network of connections to helping maintain relationships with people before they fall by the wayside.

One example CEO Alex Devkar provided was searching their network for someone you don’t know, but to which you need an introduction.  Their software will allow you to find the most relevant path to that person searching through your most contacted connections, your connections connections, and so on and so on.  The thing to remember is that you don’t have to build those connections it’s already been done with your email history.

I didn’t get a chance to meet with Alex at the show and I was concerned about handing over my email as well as some other privacy concerns so I reached out to him. After a 90 minute call I was sold. He was passionate and knowledgeable about the problem and their solution.  It’s always nice to have a first meeting with people who know their stuff.

After the show I was discussing their solution and there was some confusion with how they would compete with Linked-In and after further reflection here’s my answer to that.  Linked-In is the Rolodex of the web.  Instead of handing out cards we just connect on Linked-In.  The problem is that after time your Rolodex is overflowing and it takes conscious effort to keep track of who’s who within it.  With Conspire they do that analysis and work for you. These guys are definitely on to something.

The last company I want to talk about is DataRobot.

dr small

Above I mentioned that only 11 of the 12 presented at demo day.  DataRobot was the one that didn’t present, due to the fact they were not looking for any more investment.  I ended up talking to their CEO Jeremy Achin by accident. At the end of my conversation with Shawn from ZipTask he said, “Hey! You have to meet Jeremy he’s one of the smartest guys here”.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that Shawn was right.

DataRobot is all about predictive analytics.   Basically it’s using computer modelling to predict outcomes based on huge data sets.  This is used in insurance, banking, stock markets, bio-med and just about everything of importance in the world.  Jeremy and his team have been at this for a while including winning competitions on the site Kaggle, where it appears anybody who’s anybody in this field hangs out.

After my discussion with Jeremy I headed back to my hotel to check out Kaggle and the whole predictive modeling thing.  If you want to understand what  DataRobot is all about I recommend you take 5 minutes to watch this video with Jeremy Howard.  It does a really good job.

At the after party I again met up with Jeremy and his cofounder Tom Degodoy. What sets DataRobot apart is their plans for the company.  Most of the start-ups I’ve met with over the last couple years are always about the technology and when I ask for a business plan I’m met with a blank stare.  I spent a fair amount of time talking with them about company strategy, and things like pricing and customer acquisition.  You can tell that they’ve given a lot of thought not only to their technology but to how they’re going to monetize it.  There is no doubt in my mind that DataRobot is a company to keep an eye on.

So back to Kent and Tripit. Turns out on our way back to Madison our flight from Dallas to Madison got its gate changed 5 times. After the first gate change we ran into my buddy Duke from Garbage coming back from their concert in Mexico City. Here’s a picture of him and Kent looking nonchalant so I can send a picture to my wife and surprise her with the weird coincidence.


Every time the gate would change Kent would know about it first and inform us all. After an hour of plane maintenance and a few beers we finally got on board.

After we boarded a guy looking particularly 70’s rock musician sat in front of Kent. I happened to know that Steppenwolf was playing at Ho Chunk Casino in Baraboo, Saturday, so I leaned forward and asked him if he was with Steppenwolf.  Sure enough, he was the guitar player.  So Kent ended up sitting with Garbage in the seat behind him, Steppenwolf in the seat in front of him and I spent a good portion of the flight discussing 70’s rock.

If you want to know how I knew Steppenwolf was in town it was this text message to me and Pdub a month ago from Duke.


Techstars Cloud

Earlier this month I headed down to San Antonio to watch eleven start-up companies present the results of their 3 months spent at the start-up accelerator, Techstars Cloud.

Techstars is one of a variety of programs set up to accelerate start-ups using investment and mentoring.  In return they take a small portion of the company.  Techstars Cloud happened to be focused on a group of companies all who were trying to do “cloud” solutions, with San Antonio being the perfect location as that’s where Rackspace is.

I’ve been working with a number of small start-ups here in town, one a Y Combinator graduate, TrustEgg, was started in part by one of my former engineers at Sonic Foundry, Gabe Krambs. Gabe is one of those super talented guys who I always knew I was lucky to have around.  Then last winter I had the opportunity to meet one of the founders of VidMaker,  Dale Emmons, a former Sony employee had been working with his buddies Ryan and Yuri to build video editing for the cloud. At that time they were waiting to hear from Techstars.  It wasn’t but a couple weeks later and they were off to San Antonio.  So 6 weeks ago when they asked me if I’d like to come down and watch them present on their demo day I jumped at the chance.

First let me get snarky for a second…After a pleasant evening in San Antonio, including drinks with the VidMaker guys, I headed to the presentation in the morning.  Now I’ve practiced yoga for some time and one thing that’s always struck me is how unaware of personal space sweaty yogis tend to be.  But I’ll tell you they have absolutely nothing on tech geeks. Just try to navigate yourself through a crowded group of tech boys half of which are wearing backpacks bigger than a guy headed up Mt. Everest.  I mean seriously what is in those packs? I thought this was Techstars “Cloud” not Techstars “I’ve got a rack of servers and my tennis shoes strapped to my back”.

The presentations by the 11 companies were limited to about 5 minutes each and were extremely polished.  The VidMaker presentation was particularly well received, partly due to the recent Instagram  acquisition, and also because they were the one business model that the layperson could wrap their head around.  The other 10 were definitely more technical and aimed at people who are looking for SaaS solutions.


Here’s the program with info on each company and here are some comments on a few of them

appsembler – A pretty cool concept for developers who are looking for easy hosting, billing, support and deployment of software as a service products.  I had a chance to talk with Nate Aune at the After Party.  He’s a sharp guy and he hooked me up with the early beta.  This is a product that could save a lot of time for small SaaS developers who don’t want to be bogged down with all the backend maintenance costs.

cloudability – monitors and manages spending by companies on their cloud services.  These guys had a killer presentation wrapped up by announcing that every Rackspace customer got a free cloudability account.  They are solving a serious pain point for many companies and are going to do well.

cloudsnap – provides middlewear that allows you to connect web apps together without having to know about underlying api’s.  They provide a web interface that basically says whenever new data is added to this web application, take it, massage it, and send it over to this other web application.  I had a chance to talk with their CEO about how they were adding to their supported application list. In order to maintain quality they’re doing all the coding which is understandable. Eventually as they expand they may be able to have a 3rd party api that would let companies define their data input and outputs.  This would’ve been nice back when I was working on Mediasite. If we’d been able to provide an adapter to cloudsnap it would’ve been trivial for us to move data in and out of Salesforce whenever someone engaged with a Mediasite presentation.

Tempo – provides the ability to save tons of time log data in the cloud.  Think things like temperature sensors and other devices that log tens, hundreds, or even thousands of data points a minute.  I spent a lot of time talking with Andrew their CEO at the After Party.  They were all heading back to Chicago right after that to keep working on their company.  He had a lot of good insight on the companies there and I hope to spend some time at their space in Chicago in the next few months.

VidMaker – The Madison guys who are going to take the world by storm with collaborative video editing.  I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about them from me over the coming months.  They’re back in town and probably hiring.

Lastly while I was out there I met the head of the collaborative workspace Geekdom.  This is a pretty cool idea.  People coming together in a communal space to help each other build cool things.  I found myself thinking I need to find a place like that where I can hang my hat…. (foreshadowing)

Oh and I almost forgot.. these enterprising engineers decided to start some kind of new booze.. met them at the party as well.. it was a little sweet but they said they’re working on it…drinkupsmart