Lessons from the startup battle at Disrupt Asia 2018

Disrupt Asia 2018 seemed to have gone over and above expectations (kudos to the team at the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka). Although the start and end time of the event was a point of consternation, the packed auditorium at 10 PM for the startup battles was a pleasant surprise.

Four startups were pitted against each other. Blood and gore akin to the battle between Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane and The Viper at King’s Landing (#gameofthrones) was being promised by the emcee. The structure of the battles was pretty straightforward, each startup would pitch for 5 minutes (at which point they would be unceremoniously stopped) followed by an 8 minute Q&A session with the judges.

Approximately 60+ minutes later, here are a few pointers we took note of from the pitches:

Technology fails

Smart homes, cars and loos are all the buzz these days, however, the battling startups learnt the hard way that technology is not always your friend. As each startup walked on stage and their immaculately prepared slides came up on screen, it was difficult to avoid letting out an internal groan as most of the slides were distorted and illegible. This was no fault of the startups but an unfortunate technical complication.

Technical glitches are part and parcel of any presentation. It is always better to expect them and be prepared than expect Murphy to take a day off. As a presenter, it is important to test your slides on the screen ahead of time (even if you cannot fix the issue, you will know an issue exists and mentally prepare yourself so your 5 minutes in the spotlight is not ruined).

Next, do not be dependent on your slides entirely. Even if your slides are not available, be able to deliver your pitch. Many of us rely on the deck to recall what we should talk about next, and when your slides are no longer there you start to wing it and a high-altitude crash is inevitable.

KISS

It was interesting to note that every pitch on stage, had to re-explain what their startup did during the first few minutes of the Q&A (battle judge Glenn Robinson was unrelenting in spotting startups that didn’t get their value proposition across clearly).

At Show & Tell, one of our favourite quotes is a quote from Gregory Burns, which reads “A person can have the greatest idea in the world – completely different and novel – but if that person can’t convince enough other people, it doesn’t matter.”

Therefore, when you are pitching it is always important to keep your deck stupidly simple (or KISS i.e. “Keep It Simple, Stupid”). It is always a good practice to write down why you started your startup and build up your proposition from there. If you follow Simon Sinek’s golden circles and craft your value proposition focusing on why your startup exists, how it achieves its purpose and what it does to make that happen in a short sentence you will be able to convey your reason for existence very quickly to your audience.

Also, when you have only 5 or 10 minutes to convince a person to invest in your business, you need to be smart about how the Q&A time is also used. Q&A is an opportunity to swing the investment decision in your favour, by answering the grey areas in your investors mind. However, spending that time repeating your points from the deck is a wasteful crime that could cost you your deal. 

Fonts matter

Font selection can be a tough decision when creating your slides. Choose the wrong font and your entire deck can be lost. However, the font you decide to use should not be based purely on how great the slide looks on your screen.

The choice of font should be decided based on a number of variables such as will you be presenting from your own computer or a third party? Will it be a Windows, Mac or Linux? How big is the room in which you are presenting?

Becoming too creative with your fonts can work against you if your font is not available in the PC being used. The end result is either a last minute change in fonts or an automated font replacement by the software (yikes).

A good rule of thumb is to go with fonts with strong lines and sharp edges. Fonts like Calibri, Arial and Times New Roman are safe fonts. However, if you are a little braver you can use other fonts like Montserrat, Roboto and Open Sans (provided you remember to embed them into your deck – give us a shoutout in the comments if you want to know how to do that).

Thy shall know thy numbers

As the judges, like Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, began throwing punches, it was obvious that they were taking blows on the startups’ knowledge of their numbers.

Questions on burn rates, liquidity and staying afloat and growth rates, I am sure got the blood pressure of a few startups rising.

Have your numbers ready! Unfortunately, for many startups this will be a burnt & learnt experience. Be that as it may, don’t go to your next pitch without those figures.

Also, don’t dilute your pitch with “this is what happens if”. If you are on the road raising funds, focus on telling them what you are going to do when you get the funds instead of focusing on “if we get the funds”.

These are just 4 of the many areas we noted in the pitches from the Disrupt Asia battle. Look out for more posts in the coming days with even more pointers. However, in the end, it was a good battle (with less blood than in Kings Landing), and our heartiest congrats go out to the winner (Park & Pay) and runner up (Sixer Video)!