Startup Riot Seattle 2012

Vancouver invades a great event, but we need more pitch mentors

I’m just getting back from 2 days in Seattle. In general, I’m trying to spend more time there, getting to know what’s happening in the Seattle community and seeing if Vancouver can connect more regularly (Cascadia!).

Startup Riot is actually run by a team from Atlanta, with Sanjay Parekh playing the front man. The event is run as a pitch contest, including feedback from experienced entrepreneurs as judges, plus several keynote talks and lots of opportunity for connecting with other attendees. Here’s the description and agenda for the day.

I loved the event. It was well run, it was curated (no service providers allowed1), it had great sponsors (MailChimp, Gist, Twilio, etc.), and there was a great crowd of people there. I was surprised to meet one entrepreneur who flew in all the way from the Ukraine to attend, but having attended one Startup Riot, I can definitely see why.

Vancouver Invades

There ended up being 10 companies from Vancouver attending. It was amazingly energizing to be in Seattle with this big Vancouver crew, and absolutely underlines that we should be spending more time working together to connect the Cascadia startup communities of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver.

This was also the one area where I wish things had been run differently.

The Startup Riot team selects the startups that are allowed to present, and then swears them to secrecy: no one is publicly allowed to announce they are presenting. I heard about the event privately from a few startups from Vancouver who had been selected, but I never expected to show up and be immersed in a sea of Canadians.

I love & respect the cone of silence approach. It means that to find out more about the startups who are presenting, you have to make the effort to attend in person. And then the startups each have a booth as well as their pitch time, meaning you can spend time asking more questions and getting to know the team.

But the feedback I sent suggested that somehow the startups in each region be notified of who else was going.

If more people had known, I think the Vancouver area attendance would have been even higher, and would have let us organize group rides and shared accomodations and such.

The Presenting Companies

I tweeted about each of the companies whom I saw present, which ended up being the first 10 of the day, and the last 10 of the day. I missed the middle 10 pitches because I was in deep discussion with Red Russak, who labels himself a startup concierge and runs StartupSeattle.

I have tweets about the pitches I did see, as well as the two keynotes, over on Storify, as well as embedded as a slideshow here:

Pitch Quality

One thing I can say is that the pitches were for the most part not very good. Startup pitches are relatively formulaic, especially with such a short amount of time. I first heard the tip from Paul Kedrosky to cover three broad areas – why you? why this? why now? Show the product that you’ve built. Tell your customer stories. Say that you have paying customers (cough QuoteRobot cough).

The startup pitches I saw were missing a lot of these basic items. My sense is they were under-prepared, and had clearly not had much help / feedback from people who have done early stage startup pitches before. Of course I have opinions on which of the startups seemed to have “big ideas” or were likely to succeed. Others were more vicious in their complaints2.

Ultimately, the story is about people trying to do their best to build a company, to get paid to be involved in solving a problem they are passionate about. Should all companies be big ideas? Should we all be building businesses focused on clean tech or nanotechnology? I’d rather see individuals doing startups of any kind – and learning from them – rather than working for a big company that is in need of replacing or at least reinvention.

No blame should attach to StartupRiot for this. All of those startups need to get better at explaining their story, at selling to customers, and about making people care. And they should ask for help, both from their community at large and from their peers.

StartupRiot was a chance for startups to stand up, tell their story, get some feedback from judges, and (hopefully) get some publicity and connect with people they wouldn’t have met otherwise. It definitely delivered.

See you in Atlanta

Congratulations to Sanjay and the entire team for putting on a great event. The next event is in February 2013 in Atlanta. I’m going to try and organize a group trip to attend. If you’re a Canadian startup and are interested, drop a line in the comments.


Footnotes

1</sup> Curated: This is what StartupRiot says about curating their attendees: We prescreen all applicants before allowing them into our events. For our main events that means we screen out all service providers. We do this because it leads to a better event for you, our sponsors, and us. I love curated events, and I think this is a great policy.

2</sup> Complaints: There was a particularly harsh article written up in Seattle’s alternative news weekly, The Stranger. I captured my comments on my link blog.