Last year marked the first Startup Summit, an entrepreneurial add-on to Internet Summit. This year, it was back again, spread over two days and conveniently scheduled to start just after The Startup Factory Showcase.
The conference began at 1:30 pm with a great panel on early stage fundraising moderated by Jonathan Perrelli, Founding Partner at Fortify.vc (and one of the keynote speakers at The Startup Factory Showcase earlier in the day). The panelists were David Jones of Bull City Venture Partners; Bob Hower of G20 Ventures, a new Boston-based fund that invests in east coast B2B tech startups; and Eric Olson of Origin Ventures, based in Chicagoland.
By the second half of the panel the conversation had turned to — you guessed it — the growing number of startups stuck between seed and Series A rounds. And the questions had turned to — you guessed it again — what to do when your startup needs money but is having trouble raising a round.
Answers from the panelists were two-fold: 1) keep doing what you can do without funding and 2) stop focusing on what investors want and instead focus on what customers want.
To summarize what I found to be the most useful advice shared — or at least the most universally useful advice — the panelists said that ideally, founders should show investors that customers are willing to pay for what they offer. If founders can’t do that, they should at least show that customers are using what they offer. And if they can’t do that, founders should at least show that they have an uncanny understanding of the customer’s problem and will therefore eventually figure out how to solve it.
This discussion hopefully lifted a misplaced weight from the shoulders of some investment-seeking entrepreneurs in the audience. Pitching investors isn’t about giving a description of, as Hower said, “what your business will look like.” It’s about focusing on the same thing we should almost always be focusing on: the customer.
The next panel for the day was on people and culture, moderated by ExitEvent Founder Joe Procopio. Red Hat’s DeLisa Alexander, LinkedIn’s Leela Srinivasan, and Prysm’s Amit Jain were on the panel and a lot of ground was covered.
A highlight for those hiring early stage employees was given by Jain, who addressed the need to not just find the right skill set, but to find the passion that will keep that skill set at your startup when times get tough.
“We recruit not just the right talent, but the right passion,” said Jain.
Also noteworthy was that Joe dropped a total of zero f-bombs while moderating the panel. Give him a pat on the back at the next ExitEvent Startup Social (which is on Monday).
The 20 Startup Pitches
Among showcasers were companies I know well and have covered for ExitEvent in the past, such as Avelist, Coursefork, and PopUp. Other notable Triangle companies included Groundfloor, Adzerk, and INRFOOD.
Overall, the pitches were good, but a couple couple left me wondering how, exactly, the company’s solution was different from what is already out there. To be fair, though, I had a pretty short attention span after watching 25 companies pitch throughout the day (six at The Startup Factory’s Showcase and 20 at Startup Summit, with Coursefork pitching at both).
Five of the 20 showcasing companies were from outside of North Carolina, including Voterheads, which came in for the conference from Columbia, SC and caught my attention.
Voterheads offers a solution for those of us who want to participate in local elections, but aren’t always (or ever, just admit it) entirely sure which candidates really have our backs on the issues we care about.
As Cleve Langdale of Voterheads told me after the company’s pitch, if you only care about increasing the number of bike paths in your community, you’ll only get notified when there’s an election in which bike paths are an issue. Along with that notification, you’ll also get a list of the candidates who should get your vote based on their bike path stance.
Other out-of-state companies came from Austin, Bethesda, Dallas, and Gainesville. Thirteen companies were from the Triangle and two were from Charlotte.
After the three panels and over two hours of pitches, Startup Summit wound down for the day around 7 pm. At this point, some left and some were just arriving as the official opening reception for Internet Summit began.