As any experienced entrepreneur can tell you, it is not uncommon for the 'original' idea to be vastly different from the idea that is commercialized. The popular term for this kind of shift is called 'pivoting' and it is often seen by investors as the mark of a 'good' (subjective, to be sure) entrepreneur. The idea is simple; a start-up comes into the market with a new idea, tries to make it work, learns something from the experience, and then makes a decision about whether to pursue the original idea, make slight changes, or go in a new direction altogether. This strategy works within corporate cultures as well, and in the scientific community the approach is usually called 'experimentation'. In this regard, SlideStacks is no different from any other start-up out there trying to 'disrupt' (another popular, if not overused, start-up term) a particular market.
Based on my experience with boring, time-wasting meeting, the original idea for SlideStacks was to improve the way that slide-based presentations were delivered to a decision-making audience. At first, my intention was to simply build a PowerPoint plugin that gave presenters new navigation tools, but over time the idea morphed into building a more fully-featured web-based presentation solution (pivot #1). With some minor tweaks along the way, that's what we built, what we brought to the Rice Business Plan Competition
last month, and what our beta testers have been using for several weeks now. However, after combining the Rice experience with real user feedback, it became clear that we needed to take another look at how we are positioning SlideStacks as a solution.
After several weeks of reflection, we now believe that our next minor 'pivot' is to create a more intelligent
way to measure and analyze the effectiveness of presentations and shared materials. We are making this shift because we believe that by collecting and presenting more extensive data, our customers can gain greater insights into the needs and thoughts of their audience which in turn will inform future presentations and improve the way we communicate with an audience. To some degree, our decision to focus more heavily on metrics is simply an extension of what we already have in SlideStacks (slide view reporting) which is why I put the word 'pivot' in quotes. The reason this is a 'pivot' at all is because this decision means we are trying to extend the utility of the product to a different use-case (document sharing) and potentially attract new and different customer segments (corporations).
To be candid, we don't know exactly how this decision will turn out. That's why we are planning to experiment with new features and see how our user base and potential customers react. If it works out well, great news for us. If we fail, hopefully we learned something useful and then we can 'pivot' again. Although it can be stressful at times, the culture of experimentation is part of what makes being an entrepreneur exciting and fun. Stay tuned for updates.
Tue, 22 May 2012 15:48:00
I've just returned from Houston, Texas where my company, SlideStacks
, has been competing in the Rice Business Plan Competition
. The past three days have been an absolutely incredible, so I wanted to take this chance to highlight the experience. So much has happened over the past few days that it was difficult to put it all into words. As such, you're in for a long email notated with headers so you can skip around if you so choose..
By way of background, the Rice Business Plan Competition is the largest graduate business plan competition in the world with nearly $1.3M in prizes and investments at stake. Over 400 teams applied this year, of which 42 were selected to compete in front of 250 Venture Capital investors from around the country. In short, this is a impeccably well run event, with lots of time for networking, interaction with the other participants, and plenty of money at stake.
Here's how the competition works: The competing businesses are grouped into seven tracks (IT, Life Sciences, Clean/Green Energy, etc) with the top two teams advancing to the semi-final round. SlideStacks was placed in the IT track, and we went through several stages: Practice Round, Elevator Pitch, and Presentation, with the latter event determining whether we would go to the semi-finals or to the 'Shark Tank' round. In between the pitches, there were numerous opportunities for networking (including company showcases and cocktail hours). Here are some of the highlights and lowlights from the weekend:
Practice Round (Thursday): Could have gone better....
Meant to simulate the real pitch experience on Friday, each team had the chance to go through a practice round in front of judges. In this session, we delivered our well rehearsed presentation that we had been working on for two weeks to 50 investors and VCs. Well, delivered is probably a nice way to say it. We were supposed to deliver a well rehearsed presentation, but instead, 3 sentences into the story I drew a complete blank. It was a classic freeze; I was totally at a loss for words (for the first time in my adult life!) and I stood there in silence for what seemed like an eternity. It actually took one of the judges to prod me on. He said: 'just tell us your story'. So we did. We actually recovered reasonably well, had a productive Q&A session, and got some really valuable feedback that we would use to improve our 'real' pitch the next day. However, despite the recovery, this was a rough start to the competition and the experience let us know we had a long way to go to impress the judges.
Elevator Pitch (Thursday Evening): Speaking in front of a huge crowd!
After the conclusion of the Practice Round, it was time for the Elevator Pitch Competition. Just like it sounds, each teams was supposed to pretend that we had 60 seconds in an elevator with Warren Buffet to pitch our business and get a second meeting. The event was held in a large auditorium with balcony seating. With a standing room only crowd, my best guess is that there were 500 people in the house. The environment made things a bit nerve-racking. Although I generally believe that I'm a good public speaker, after my stumble earlier in the day, some doubts were creeping in. After waiting 33 patient minutes for the rest of the teams to go, it was finally my turn. I took a deep breath, stepped up to the plate, and let it rip. I think I did well, but not well enough to win. I was able to convey my message clearly and concisely using a structure I learned from a b-school professor. All in all, it was a good effort, and it gave me some confidence for Day 2.
The Real Pitch (Friday Morning): 2 steps forward, 1 step back...
On Thursday night, Cosme (my teammate) and I spent several hours working through the feedback from the practice round. We came to the conclusion that our attempt to do a rigid, rehearsed presentation was not giving us the opportunity to connect with the audience and show off the features and benefits of SlideStacks. Therefore, we decided then to skip some of the theatrics and move very quickly to the question and answer session. The format for the presentation was 15 minutes of uninterrupted presentation followed by 20 minutes of Q&A, but our strategy was to instead use 4-5 minutes of presentation, and 30 minutes of Q&A. We knew this was a risky approach (most teams use the entire 15 minutes to present), but we truly believed this was our best opportunity to sell ourselves, and the business.
The presentation went almost exactly as we planned. We did a quick explanation of the business and then invited questions from the 60+ people in the audience. Fortunately, the judges were willing to engage us in conversation, so we're we able to cover a lot of material and address their concerns. The 35 minutes went extremely fast, and when we walked out of the room, I was pretty happy. Independent of the judges reaction, I felt we represented ourselves and the company well, which is all you can ask for in an environment like this.
A few hours later, we got the feedback from the judges, and predictably, the results were mixed. On the one hand, most judges loved that we took a risk during the presentation, telling us that it was brave to let audience questions determine the content for the meeting and that we handled it very well. Additionally, they praised our sales ability; they loved how we were able to engage the crowd, think on our feet, and provide a little bit of entertainment in contrast to some of the other teams who presented with a traditional structure. However, despite the fact that the judges seemed to like us as entrepreneurs and sales guys, they still had a competition to judge, and we made it difficult for them to fill out their judging forms (sidebar: one guy literally said 'you guys are great, but I don't know how to fill out this form!')
The summary feedback point was this: there is a difference between a sales pitch (what we did) and a VC pitch (what they wanted). The judges expressed a need to go through their checklist (management team, problem/solution, market size, strategy, exit opportunities, etc.) as a means to compare us to other companies and our unstructured approach made that challenging. We received a comment that if we had done a better job of hitting those critical VC points, we might have been able to make it through to the semi-final round. Disappointed with the result but encouraged by some of the feedback, Cosme and I went back to the drawing board one last time, looking for a middle ground between our 1st and 2nd presentation that we would use during the Shark Tank Round the next morning.
The Shark Tank (Saturday Morning): Moving in the right direction....
The Shark Tank round was not nearly as hostile as its title suggests. Although to some degree, this was a consolation round, we saw it as another opportunity to improve how we pitch to investors. The structure of the pitch was to have a 25 minute combined presentation and Q&A - a format that suited Team SlideStacks very well. Therefore, our strategy this time was to give a 5-7 minute 'checklist' presentation and then get to the Q&A. This worked really well. The judges were very engaged, asked some great questions, and actually gave us some really cool ideas for where we might want to take the product. The 25 minutes went by extremely quickly, and looking back, it was actually fun! Some of the judges in the room had seen our pitch before (either in the practice round or the 1st round), and one of them felt compelled to tell the other judges in the room how impressed he was at our improvement in just two days. That was a HUGE compliment. Of course we entered this competition to win some money and maybe find an investor, but deep down, we also wanted to get better, and there is no question that we accomplished that goal. In terms of tangible results, later that night, we learned that we finished 3rd in our heat, which meant we finished in the middle of the pack for the overall competition. Not great, but certainly not bad either considering only 10% of applicants even made it to the competition.
The Company Showcase:
Throughout the event, there were two scheduled times for all 42 competing companies to set up a booth and speak with judges in an unstructured format. These sessions were really great because we had the chance to connect with people one-on-one and tell them about our product. Although I mildly regret not having posters, handout, or signage to help us stand out in the room, the ability to demo our product on an iPad and our laptops was a big hit. Something we've learned to be true over the past few weeks is that people tend to 'get' SlideStacks a lot better when they can see it in person. As a result, during these networking sessions we were exchanging business cards left and right and many folks asked if they could sign up and give it a try (which, of course, they can definitely do!).
Summary Thoughts: Incredible Learning Experience
It's really difficult to describe how great of an experience The Rice Business Plan Competition was for SlideStacks and me personally. Objectively speaking, this was the biggest and arguably best graduate business plan competition in the country and it was simply a privilege to be a part of it. However, the most impressive thing that I observed (beyond some of the amazing companies that were competing) was the willingness and interest from the judges to give us feedback and coaching. All of the judges were tough, but fair, and had a sincere interest in helping us succeed. Whether it was brainstorming ways to grow the business, thinking up new features, or introducing us to other contacts that might be interested in using SlideStacks, the entire community was incredibly warm and supportive making the experience just that more valuable and memorable.
To reiterate something I mentioned earlier, SlideStacks entered the competition knowing that we were perhaps over-matched by some of the other companies, but in the end we walked away Saturday night significantly better than when we walked in on Thursday morning. I can't think of many other experiences in my life that were as professionally transformational as what we just went through and for that, I'm thankful for the opportunity we were given.
Mon, 16 Apr 2012 02:47:00
In 2007, Prof. William Duggan from the Colombia Business School in New York wrote an excellent book called Strategic Intuition that shed some light on how we form creative thoughts, specifically, those 'aha' moments that we often encounter at random times (in the shower, while driving to work, etc). Duggan describes these moments as 'flashes of insight', something I think we've all experienced at some point in our lives. For example, recall a time when you were faced with a work related problem but no matter how long you stared at your computer, the answer just wouldn't come. Perhaps frustrated, you decide to take a walk, go home for the day, do something else, and then, all of a sudden it hits you: the solution. Somehow, while you were distracted with another task, your brain was able to sift through all of the information and construct a clear solution. These flashes of insight are called 'strategic intuition' because they provide an action plan (strategy) to solve a problem. But where exactly did this solution come from?
To answer this question, Duggan draws from a wide variety of fields to illustrate how creative ideas are really just new combinations of old ideas. Take Duggan's example of Google: The founders of Google did not intentionally set out to create an internet search engine; rather, they were doing academic research at Stanford when they combined their knowledge of computer science, the citation ranking system
used by academics, and a feature they saw on the Lycos search engine to create the first version of Google. Similarly, while Steve Jobs (and Apple) may have perfected the graphical user interface
, he certainly did not create it. Rather, it was a fortunate visit to Xerox Parc
that sparked his imagination to create a new, user friendly operating system for personal computers. In both cases, the revolutionary ideas were nothing more than new (and better) combinations of old ideas.
As I read this book, I couldn't help but think about how SlideStacks came to be. Although I spent over 6 years working in the software industry, had given hundreds of presentations to a wide variety of audiences, it wasn't until my boss suggested that rather than just delivering my slide deck start to finish, I should instead engage my audience in conversation to see which topics they wanted to discuss. I struggled with this ambiguity because traditional slideware made it difficult to bounce around the slides in a non-linear fashion. That's when it hit me. I immediately wrote the following question on a Post-It Note: what if there was a way to display slides based on the flow of an unpredictable conversation? I spent the subsequent weeks answering that question, but everything started from that single flash of insight when I unconsciously combined my experience of user interface design, delivering presentations, and my boss' suggestion of conversation-based slide delivery to create a new idea: SlideStacks. I did not intentionally set out to create an online presentation software, but when the idea struck, the path to creating the product was so vivid that I immediately jumped on the opportunity.
Fri, 30 Mar 2012 16:17:00