Confessions of a DEMO startup, or how to survive DEMO when (almost) everything goes wrong

Redgie Snodgrass was VP of business development at mobile dating startup Skout when it presented at DEMO in March 2009. Skout went on to receive a DemoGod award for its presentation.

Startup culture to outsiders may seem like a fraternity, a social club, or even a cult. It’s hard to explain the stress (I have little hair left), the relational toll (all my girlfriends go crazy), the financial in-opulence (Ramen is not a food group). To the outside world we are like the aesthetic monks of the middle ages that purposely beat themselves for redemptive purpose … all because we want to impress YOU, change the things that don’t make sense to us, or redefine the world, as we know we can do it better than that guy right over there.

The people in the startup community are my family. We get beat up, we argue, inflamed with passion, our hearts rise and fall at valuation, conversion, and clickthru. Each and every decision is rooted in analysis in an attempt to squeeze ourselves into the blessed 3% of startups that actually survive. Once in a while a risk/chance/endeavor plays out big for us. Such was the case of my startup Skout, a mobile dating service, at last year’s DEMO.

We were a team of eight strong-headed entrepreneurs — the vast majority Swedish, me being the only Oklahoman American — located in the heart of South Park, Silicon Valleys aortic valve of startups. We had just put together an extremely compelling use-case scenario for our Mobile “Hookup” application: we created location-aware touchscreen dating machines (we called them “jukeboxes”) that could be installed in pubs or other locations where singles might want to find each other. And we were negotiating with a partner to bring our solution to real life when we applied to DEMO. Although the product hadn’t been completed, we were accepted to present 10 days later at what is undisputedly the largest sounding board for launching your product to the world. The fact that we managed to get the product ready in time says a lot about the fortitude of our crew and the value of DEMO to an unknown emerging player like Skout.

The Weeks Before
The build out of the product came fast. In just 8 days we had it working stably at around 40% of the time and were convinced that this “singles touch” would be the wave of the future in finding that Mr/Mrs Right Now. The presentation prep came from our hilariously brilliant board member Andreas Weigend. I rented a car, picked up the jukebox from our partner who moved mountains to help an underdog startup pursue the dream of being on the DEMO stage. And as a (premature) prelude to victory, our gang went out to celebrate the launching of our revolutionary product.

Day Before Presentation
1 – 4 am
I went home from the bar early around 1 am, since I had to drive the product to Palm Springs at 4 am to make our live rehearsal, and I wanted to make sure I’d be fresh for the trip. My annoying buzzer went off, and my girlfriend angrily wondered aloud when I’m going to get a real-job. I got dressed, hastily showered, and walked outside to pick up our product director for the journey. To my amazement, my rental car (with the jukebox inside) wasn’t where I left it! The Ecast Machine is a beautiful 42 inch piece of artwork. It looks more like a supermodel than a jukebox, but I’m a dude and I geek out on sexy touchscreen devices. This beautiful thing is GONE … along with my rental car.

Earlier in the evening, my roommate, who is 50% Canadian, 50% dbag, and 100% VC, had come home to see a strange car in our driveway, and instead of asking around, he thought the best course of action was to have it towed. (You’d think it’d be nice to room with a VC … maybe it would get you an inside track to funding. But, funding is a bit like marriage, and while Jon, my VC roommate, and I are good friends, the synergy ends there. His firm focuses on clean tech … yawn for me. The one thing we did share that night was co-annoyance when he drove me to pick up the car he’d had towed. (Please leave a comment if you think he should reimburse the fees for this.)

4 — 10 am
After I got back the car and the work of art inside it, I picked up the director of product, and barreled at breakneck speed down the I-5 with only Mr. Goodbars and can after can of Redbull to keep me going. I drove while my product guy complained and snored.

10 am — 3:30 pm
We were back on track and almost at the convention center when we got absolutely lost — for like 1.5 hours. Ben, our brilliant product guy, can’t read a map or get directions via iPhone. (Ben, I still wish all the bad things I muttered against you at that time we were lost come true, if just to serve as a cautionary tale to other product guys out there who sleep during the whole trip.)

5:00 pm
We rolled up to the hotel just minutes before the live practice presentation began. We broke 2 monitors while offloading the equipment, but things were beginning to look up. I was able, with the help of the hotel staff, to drag in the machine and get it set up on the DEMO stage just as it was time for us to rehearse. Our rehearsal was amazing, except for the fact that I didn’t know what to say, as I’d forgotten my script. And the fact that the machine crashed on stage. We all felt fear.

7:00 pm
We went to the day-before mixer. It was full of incredible people. Everyone you’d ever want to talk to for your company — press, angel/VC investment, top past successful entrepreneurs, other startups chomping at the bit to make a mark, and some really smart, smart people. During the mixer we received an email from a blog asking us to put together a video demonstration of our product, and we realized we would need a camera to do that. My mission would be to get a camera. I was able to convince another startup crew to let us use their camera, and all it cost was extensive liver damage and a slight scolding from the group. Thanks Bjorn and Jessica Scorpio!

The Night Before
We were restless. Tossing, turning with the feeling you get when you’re waiting for Christmas to come, but you know you may just get a lump of coal in your stocking. Although we were prepared (kind of), we still weren’t 100% sure the machine would make it through the demo. We were out late, practicing our presentation, working on finishing the product (yes, it wasn’t completely ready), and sending out press releases.

10 am
We got up too nervous to even look at the other demos. We kept practicing over and over again to try to get the presentation down, but for some reason it just wasn’t clicking. And the product kept crashing.

11 am
We finally pushed the last build right before we were to present. We needed to get the machine on stage at 11:15. The last build not only crashed, but there was a gigantic typo. Now, Swedes are notorious QA machines and are extremely strict on process, protocol, and … grammar. So we had to fix it. Needless to say, we got our machine to the stage not only a little late, but with an untested build. We headed to the ready room.

12 ish
We were back stage and decided that even if the machine was going to break down, we were going to let people know how proud we were of our team, our product, and our play. I began getting psyched and jumping around. I shadow boxed with VCs behind stage. Our CEO, Christian Wiklund, and I were slapping each other like pre-game football players. Energy was on our side. The people before us had a total melt-down and received a 404 error. Yet, we were not afraid.

On Stage
Bright lights … the blurr from the camera flashes is blinding, and the heat from the stage light could melt an iceberg. Nervousness melted into passion. We were able to standout — Christian commands presence with his Arnold’esque height and tone. Our presentation was humor, seriousness, and passion. The one thing about Skout is we sometimes have just as much passion as sense, we are proud of what we do, and the crowd LOVED IT. (Well, according to Twitter they did.) When you look out from the DEMO stage, all you see is the upper eschalon of media, digirati, and the fore-runners of startup culture. You get the chance to immediately prove that you belong where you are. It’s a surreal feeling of accomplishment amid the exhaustion leading up to that moment. PS: You get plenty of bonus points if you make them smile.

Post Presentation
If you do well at DEMO you do WELL. Skout, which was virtually unknown, has since been in nearly every major Western publication. Our DEMO presentation has allowed us to easily get in and pitch at every major valley VC fund. Before our presentation, we had to explain to disinterested people who we were and what we did. Post presentation, we had people at the conference, partnership opportunities, and VC firms coming to us. This may not be the case for every startup. Honestly, your product may suck, or your pitch may be terrible (although, if that’s the case, you’re unlikely to get through the vetting process). Just as Skout helps singles hook-up a little easier, DEMO makes driving awareness and mindshare of your startup a little easier. I plan on coming to DEMO regularly now. If you come find me, I’ll buy you a drink and tell you some good stories.

VentureBeat is studying mobile marketing automation. Chime in, and we’ll share the data.