By Josh Zipin
Last week, I had the good fortune to be invited to the 9th Annual DukeGEN Startup Showcase event. This event is put on by a Duke alumni organization called DukeGEN which was formed by a couple of Duke alumni volunteers who wanted to make it easier for Dukies to help other Dukies launch startups, build startups, or find startups to work for.
This was my first time going to a pitch event (kind of surprised it took me this long) and it was pretty eye-opening. Duke alumni (undergrad and graduate) presented their companies for seven minutes each and each presentation was followed by three minutes of questions from the panel of investors/judges.
Here is a list of the companies that presented:
Crowdtunes-Digital cloud-based jukebox
Rocketbolt-Customer conversion tool for SMB websites
EasyNDA-Enterprise NDA management
Coheezion-Automated data analytics for clinical trials
All9s-Vendor-agnostic replication and recovery solution for cloud-based data
Fawn-Live photo broadcasting
Final Card-Secure digital credit cards
Here are five major takeaways from checking out this event.
1. Pitching is super hard
The quality of pitches was all over the map with some people far more prepared than others. One founder got so nervous that he had to turn the presentation over to his (more experienced) co-founder midway through. The investors preached preparation and simplicity in their feedback.
The best presentations defined the painpoint/problem clearly, addressed the market size, and stated their case as to why they're the team to fix the problem. It sounds simple but keeping this clear and under seven minutes is quite a challenge.
Crowdtunes (which ExitEvent featured when it won an NC IDEA grant in June) was probably the most polished presentation but they didn't win and the judges feedback to them was telling. Crowdtunes' major challenge will be distribution (getting into venues) and the investors wanted to hear more about how they would be addressing that obvious roadblock. Know your weaknesses and address them head on.
2. To be a good investor, you have to see tons of pitches.
There were a couple pitches that didn't get me excited. My disinterest was founded in some combination of the market the startup was addressing, the founder's lack of clarity, or my own lack of understanding. But for the companies that did get me excited (Crowdtunes, Rocketbolt, Fawn, Final Card), I found that I had very little context for evaluating these companies.
Savvy investors have a bank of previous pitches they use to compare ideas, market opportunities and founding teams. While this comparison is inevitable, it remains probably the most helpful thing an investor could do. The same way a founder probably looks for successful startups to emulate, investors must need to see hundreds (if not thousands) of pitches to be able to discern which ideas, markets, and most importantly people, are worth investing in.
3. Critically evaluating startups takes more than 7 minutes of slides and 3 minutes of questions.
The pitches, even the best ones, are just a glimpse into the company. It's impossible to know in 10 total minutes whether or not you've found the next "unicorn". On the panel of investors, each person had questions after every pitch and often the answers to initial questions necessitated further discussion. It's clear why due diligence and spending time with founders is so essential to making an investment- with so many future unknowns, investors need to feel good about the basics behind the market, idea, and team.
4. "Winning" a pitch event on its own means very little.
Following the conclusion of all the pitches, the judges got together and picked a winner (so did the audience) with Final Card coming out on top in both sets of voting. On the one hand, this is a nice accomplishment. On the other, what does a win here get you? The answer is not much. Even in pitch competitions with money for the winner, it's often not a ton (usually in the thousands of dollars).
The benefit of these events is the exposure and potential connections. After the event, I emailed Andrew Dietrich, Final Card's founder, and volunteered a couple of connections that I thought would be useful for him. The fact that he "won" paled in comparison with the substance of what he's working on. Ultimately, these events are a platform with the potential to be magnified and harnessed if done right.
5. Duke has this whole network-with-alumni-in-startups thing figured out.
I left the event thoroughly impressed with DukeGEN as an organization. The system they have in place for connecting Duke alumni in startups (or looking to get into startups) is really impressive. With over 6,000 members of their vibrant LinkedIn group and events in all the major U.S. startup hubs, they've afforded Dukies a real advantage. To be honest, it made me totally envious!