Wine, Startups, and VCs—A Report from DEMO

Opinion

Late last fall, after discussion with some board members, I decided to apply to show some new features from Evri at DEMO 09, which we were about to start active development on. We got accepted, so now we really did have to get the stuff ready to ship. In fact, one of the great reasons to do something like appearing at DEMO is the motivation it provides to get more done, in less time, than you think you can. Well, we got our new Collections feature done, and a Firefox and IE toolbar to boot, so that part worked out! Here’s how our experience went on the ground at DEMO.

Day 1

I flew down to Palm Desert, CA, early Sunday morning to get to a mandatory noon presenters meeting. This was a good intro—the DEMO team was all there, including outgoing chief Chris Shipley, and incoming one Matt Marshall. They really did a good job making everyone feel that they would do whatever it takes to make this successful for the presenters. After that we (me, our CTO Deep Dhillon, and product manager Keith Williams) tried to do our equipment check and rehearsal. Now, understand that we hadn’t actually pushed our new code to production yet—I was waiting until closer to Monday morning, when the show opened, to deploy. We fought with our VPN and the DEMO network for a long time to try and do our walkthrough with our behind-the-firewall version. After a grueling hour-and-a-half, we finally just launched the stuff live—about 6 hours early—and had a good run-through. This is when it was particularly nice to have a kick-ass team covering us back in Seattle. (Thanks Mark, Ryan, and the rest!)

That night was a CEO dinner, with a panel discussion on public technology policy. I missed most of the discussion, but had a good conversation with James Joaquin, from Xmarks, Raman Khanna, a VC from Onset, and Michael Wheatley from Ensembli. Not yet having looked closely at the DEMO schedule, I didn’t quite realize that James, Michael, and I were presenting in the same “Smarter Internet” group on Tuesday morning, but figured that out soon enough. After more wine than food, I went back to my room to catch up on work, and make sure everything was working in preparation for our first full day at the “booth.”

Day 2

Monday was mostly spent on one thing: talking about the product, over and over. Either we were at the booth giving demos, or I was talking to press, or I was rehearsing my two minutes of our six-minute presentation scheduled for Tuesday morning. But the day went well. Deep was off pitching to a potential partner, so Keith and I handled the booth, with ace PR guy Lane Buschel helping out. Some of the first DEMO stories came out later that day. The first I saw pitted Evri vs Ensembli as competitors. I don’t see it that way, but all press is good, right?

Some good companies that day. I really want to get my hands on a Touchbook when it comes out, and Skout is funny, if nothing else. Fellow Northwest startup Ontier, from Portland, also showed well with Pixetell. The panel that ended the day—with VCs ranging from angel Eric Tilenius to First Round’s Christine Herron to August’s David Hornik—was a bit grim, but interesting. Coupled with the overall economic news that day, it was good to get to cocktail hour. Meeting a friend in the bar later, I had my first major DEMO disappointment: no Don Julio at the bar. C’mon DEMO, don’t skip the details next time.

Day 3: Demo Day

Got up way too early on Tuesday, to rehearse and get ready. Of course, the disaster occurs—we have our first site outage around 6:20 AM. And we have to do our final check at 7:15. Yikes. Douglas Adams’s advice is still good in these cases, so I didn’t panic, and all was better in a short time. There’s that kick-ass team again.

The team meets near the “green room.” Keith is looking a little green, Deep is his usual buddha self. We run through the talk multiple times—never twice the same way—but we’re pretty spot on at six minutes. I am a machine with my intro, hitting my one-minute target flawlessly. It’s quite beautiful. We get mic’ed up with the other morning presenters, including Ensembli, who go on first. People are pacing around, reciting their speeches to themselves—it’s pretty comical.

Show time now. After Ensembli goes on, we queue up to go next. They finish, come off. Chris does a really nice intro, and we’re on. It all goes well, I think—though I haven’t seen the video yet. I add a line during Keith’s two minutes, causing him to run over. At the end, that forces me to cut my 30 second closing remark to 5 seconds—I really want to finish on time—but I am an East Coast native and we were born fast-talkers so I almost make it…Then we’re off.

Lot’s of congratulations, nice tweets from tweeps back at the office and elsewhere. After winding down a bit, I watch some other demos, then we go back to our booth, to good crowds and feedback.

Back Home

To answer what might be the first question, “Was it worth it?” —the answer is yes, and that was the general feeling I got from the other presenters. I asked about a dozen directly, and 10 of the 12 were an unqualified yes—the other two being more “wait and see,” but not negative. Now, the mood was a bit somber at the start—smaller attendance than recent DEMO conferences (down about 30 percent from last DEMO) and some of the press didn’t make it. But, the nice thing about the smaller set of presenters was more focus. The companies showing were almost all really solid I thought, and almost all of the demos went pretty well. The staff is super helpful to the companies—and Chris does a great job of understanding and introducing each presenter. I liked that the conference seems less ego-driven than its “competitors”—it really does seem much more about the companies than the personalities putting on the showcase. Now, the nice thing about the personality-driven shows is that people show up for just that reason, so there’s a tradeoff, I guess.

But, you should have reasonable expectations if presenting at any of these shows. A single demo won’t make or break you—only your product will. Particularly for us, and the members of our presenting group, we need tens of millions of users to succeed, so a show like this can provide momentum, but it’s unrealistic to expect it to make instant success. We had a worthwhile DEMO experience, but now it’s back to focusing on what’s most important for us, user experience.

Neil Roseman is the founder and CEO of Seattle-based Evri. Previously, he was vice president of technology at Amazon.com. Follow @

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2 responses to “Wine, Startups, and VCs—A Report from DEMO”

  1. Competitors, not because I’d choose one over the other for the very same task, but in the sense that you and Ensembli are very different approaches to the same problem; using context, categorization, semantic analysis and ontology to make sense of the mass of online information and present it more comprehensibly. I’m thinking about the Primal Fusion and even Xmarks in the same way.