It's Showtime: Inside Demo Day

Demo Day is the culminating event of each SparkLabKC session. After 90 days of intensive work, mentoring, and collaboration, each team has the opportunity to “demo” their product for an audience of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and angel investors. Think of Demo Day as a final exam -- a high-stakes pitch that can either launch a startup on the path to success or leave it grounded.

With so much riding on an 8-minute pitch, it’s no surprise that preparing for Demo Day is the primary focus of the final month of SparkLabKC’s accelerator program. But how do we prepare our companies for those nail-biting moments onstage? I’ve invited Vincent Wagner, our in-house Presentation Coach, to give you the inside scoop on the lead up to Demo Day:

My name is Vincent Wagner, and I’m not a startup geek, I’m a theater nerd! I studied acting in New York City for many years before returning to my hometown of KC to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts in Acting & Directing at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. While there, I discovered a love of teaching and coaching, and refined my acting skills into specific and relatable techniques that are valuable not just in theatre, but in any situation that calls for strategic communication or storytelling. SparkLabKC’s Demo Day certainly fits the bill!

Sara Davidson of Hello Fearless presents on Demo Day 2014. 

My work with the startup teams begins in the second month of the accelerator process. By week 5, the companies have been through enough mentor meetings and shake-ups to refine their direction. They have been asked by a lot of people “So, what do you do?” They also have learned that they need help telling a concise and compelling story.

It’s my job to help them turn that answer into what we call the “elevator pitch” -- a quick, concise, carefully crafted, one-minute long introductory statement for their company. We work to create a strong introduction and conclusion, and to stay physically and vocally engaged throughout the pitch.

Once we have a solid elevator pitch, we can apply these techniques and more to the more complex Demo Day pitch. As each team develops their script and pitch deck (the visual component of the presentation), we meet several times to tackle the task of getting comfortable with the material, through practice and specific application of technique.

I’ve found that the more conscious of the little things like speed, inflection, and pausing we can be when speaking in public, the less likely we are to be overwhelmed by an audience. We develop places to check in with ourselves throughout the presentation, so it never feels like there is a loss of control or momentum.

SparkLabKC keeps this process moving by holding regular “Pitch Practice” sessions, where every team gets the chance to present the current iteration of their pitch. The startups hear feedback from the founders, mentors, and other teams.

I’m inspired by the teamwork and collaboration that the participants exhibit in these sessions. Everyone who is involved wants to see everyone else succeed - there is no unhealthy sense of competition. Instead, these sessions bring everyone together to build a final presentation that will reflect well on each team and SparkLabKC as a whole.

Through lots of repetition and refinement (and occasional major overhauls), the Demo Day pitches get stronger and clearer in the final weeks. The teams build confidence in sharing their ideas. In the week leading up to Demo Day, we have a final Pitch Practice at the venue, where each team gets two shots at their presentation.  The practice session allows them to get comfortable with the environment they will be pitching in, and to work out any technical issues with the projector, lighting, and microphones.

Mayor Sly James addresses the crowd at Demo Day 2014.

The first two SparkLabKC classes delivered their Demo Day presentations in the J.C. Nichols Auditorium at the National World War I Museum. It’s a great space, with comfortable chairs for the audience of investors and a big stage that gives a lot of power to the presenting teams.

Everyone arrives early on the morning of Demo Day, buzzing with excitement and nerves. The teams share words of encouragement and plans for trading microphones over coffee and breakfast provided by SparkLabKC. As investors begin to fill the seats, it’s focus time – three months of hard work, intensive mentoring, deep collaboration, and practice, practice, practice are coming to fruition in the next two hours.

Kyle Fitzgerald of Life Equals speaks to a reporter on Demo Day 2014. 

I’m always amazed as I watch the teams present at Demo Day -- not only by their great ideas, but also by the passion they have for the work they are doing, and by the support and enthusiasm they offer their colleagues. As I sit and watch them from the sidelines, I see entrepreneurs coming into their own. They are smart and powerful and prepared to unleash their ideas into the world.

If SparkLabKC is a cocoon, providing nourishment and nurturing,

Demo Day is when the butterflies emerge.

After the presentations, entrepreneurs and investors mingle and network over lunch in the lobby. You can always pick the SparkLabKC teams out from the crowd by the wide smiles on their faces, simultaneously expressing excitement and relief. Once lunch is over, we head out for early afternoon drinks in celebration of all they have accomplished.

I was largely unfamiliar with the accelerator concept before beginning my work with SparkLabKC, but through the last two classes I’ve witnessed incredible growth and change in the teams involved. The program provides an amazing opportunity to share and strengthen ideas, and the accelerated timeframe lends itself to hard work and rapid growth. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to coach the SparkLabKC teams and to see their great work on Demo Day. I’m ready for Class 3 in 2015!

All Photos taken by T Maxwell Wagner for SparkLabKC.