Deciding who makes it and who goes back to the drawing board to start over is tough work. As part of a three-person panel in Dar es Salaam evaluating applicants at the Dar Teknohama Business Incubator (DTBi), a high tech business incubator in Tanzania, I had to make these decisions quickly. Each applicant had 20 minutes to make a solid presentation showing us their startup idea, their startup team, and what they expected from the incubator.
As their words (and pictures) washed over me I had several thoughts. The first is how much I hate bad PowerPoint presentations. More on that later. The second is that from the beginning, I wasn’t looking at the business model as much as I was the individual, and looking to see if they had the “right stuff.” So what is the “right” stuff for a high tech entrepreneur in a startup environment?
Business startup success vibe
Not to be too woo-woo (I am from California) but it’s their overall vibe. It isn’t their business savvy or their business relationships, although those are always good and helpful. It isn’t how well developed their business plan is, although it’s nice to see a well-thought-out and well-researched business plan.
The vibe comes out of their enthusiasm, passion and commitment. Are they excited? Are they having fun? Do they enjoy their work? It shows.
The vibe comes out of their eagerness and openness to hear feedback because they care about making their business model better, not making it their way. It comes out when they are being honest and humble, not trying to hide or cover up weaknesses. After all, they are applying to come into a high tech incubator — if they didn’t need help, why apply?
The ones that didn’t have that vibe didn’t have a chance.
The humble problem solvers
What clearly set the winners apart were the real problem solvers. It was exciting to be there when the problem solvers came in. One of the worst parts about the high tech business (besides bad PowerPoint presentations), and I’ve spent 30 years in it, is listening to people who have developed a solution for a business problem that doesn’t exist.
I remember a meeting way back in the day with a software developer (who got funding by the way, largely because he had been on the original Lotus 1-2-3 development team). He had developed a product that he wanted to engage my firm in selling, and as I interviewed him, I asked him what motivated him to build this particular product. “Oh,” he replied, “It was a really interesting algorithm.”
“But,” I argued, “no one has the problem you’re solving. I get why you would build it. I just can’t figure out why anyone would buy it.” I passed.
You could argue he had a neat problem and he went about solving it. Nope. Not the problem solving I’m talking about. I’m talking about solving for real, everyday problems. This is where startups succeed and grow to scale, when they tackle a real business problem, research how people are solving it today, and come up with a technology solution that solves it faster, easier, more completely and better.
I use “headaches” as an example in my free 11-slides Guide to a Successful Presentation. Everyone gets them. When you have one, it hurts, and you want to make it go away. When someone offers you a solution to your headache problem, you buy it. When it works, you buy more and tell your friends.
The real problem solvers are people who either have a problem themselves or they listen to other people who have a problem, and then they use technology to solve that problem. It was so refreshing in the interview process when these folks come in.
US: “What motivated you to develop this?”
THEM: “I tried to do something, I couldn’t, so I sat down and developed a way to make it happen.”
US: “What motivated you to develop this?”
THEM: “Someone asked me if I could solve their problem, and I did. And then I found other people who had the same problem.”
Don’t be defensive
If we’re asking a lot of questions, it’s either because we’re interested and want to know more, or you’re doing a crap job of explaining and we can’t figure it out on our own. Questions are good. Be excited when you get them. Challenges are good. Take a minute to think about it.
At the end of the day, for most of the winners, we said “we’d back that guy / that team regardless of the business plan.” It just underscored how important the right spirit is for entrepreneurial success.
Power Point Presentation Tips
I promised I’d get back to this. here’s my best advice for making a decent presentation, whether it’s to an investor group, a potential customer, or a panel deciding on whether or not you get the opportunity to participate in a high tech business incubator.
- Don’t read your slides. I get very cranky. I can read faster than you can talk.
- Don’t write a book. It’s a slide presentation.
- Make one point in each slide and just get that one idea across.
- Use simple language.
- Don’t embellish. You’re not developing an “e-commerce portal”, you’re building a website.
- Have a point. And get to it. Quickly.