This post was inspired by an article on Fortune's site by Erin Griffith titled Inside a startup accelerator demo day: Techstars New York. Erin makes a lot of good points, but this is my own perspective as a Techstars startup Cofounder on the exact same story; this is a view of Demo Day from backstage.
The lights dim and Mackenzie, Spoon University CEO and Cofounder, steps onstage to the sound of Red Hot Chili Peppers guitar riffs. Immediately, she brings up a slide, draws parallels between Spoon and other media and content tech companies, and then touts Spoon's growth statistics over the past few months. Needless to say, they were extraordinary. I've seen Mackenzie and her awesome team work ridiculously hard to build their food network for generation Z. At demo day, they have impressive quantitative results to show for it and their work has obviously had an impact on tons of college age foodies across the US. Many Spoon University users hopped on the platform to explore content creation using new online and mobile mediums, hone their writing skill, and discover a passion or new creative outlet.
The next eleven pitches follow a similar formula. Each CEO steps onstage accompanied by an energizing soundtrack and hypes their company. Some CEO's show off growth, some focus on product, others on the technical prowess of their team or on historical customer relations and development. But, a common message unites them all - each company has hustled to expand and has the potential for explosive growth, a sound business model, and thus has at least the potential to generate massive returns on venture investments.
Lets get something straight; Techstars is a business. So is each and every startup whose founder took the Skirball stage on April 17th, so is every Venture Capital firm with representation in the audience, and so is Fortune Magazine. During Demo Day, startup founders trumpet company progress during their time at Techstars and their goal is very obviously, whether it is stated explicitly or not, to raise money. Founders literally sell shares of their companies to investors, so yes, Demo Day feels like a sales pitch. Big numbers make Techstars companies look good and "hockey stick" growth makes each startup investable. And, Demo Days might seem like a marketplace because, even through it is a showcase of tech in NYC, buyers and sellers of startup equity frequently unite shortly thereafter.
What makes any marketplace dynamic possible is the equal exchange between buyers and sellers; both parties agree on a "fair" price. Usually the buyer trades a little more than they are comfortable giving up for a commodity that the seller cautiously and painfully relinquishes at such a "low" valuation. This is market equilibrium. In Griffith's article, she hints that Feld asked investors to give, when instead they give and get. In fact, for the whole system to work, investors need to have skin in the game and ownership over a real company with real growth potential; that's the only way that venture investing is sustainable. Investments should not be charity and to make it seem like such is to devalue the work that early companies have done and discredit the activity of venture funding as an unsustainable endeavor. In the real world, which includes the Demo Day stage, companies must create jobs, create new technologies, build products, generate revenue, and generate returns for their investors more often or in greater magnitude to offset those that fail. Demo Day might be a dog-and-pony show, but everyone knows what the risks are in supporting early companies, and everyone knows the upside reward if the founders do their jobs and the stars align just right.
So, Fortune, my point is this: #givefirst is not a guise for charitable fundraising, but an ethos which drives creativity and successful entrepreneurship. I will talk more about the non-monetary benefits, both on a personal level and a business level, of a program like Techstars in a future post [EDIT: the future post]. At the end of the day, Techstars fosters a creative community and its emphasis giving back is the driving force behind successful founder talks, new network connections, and a supportive startup ecosystem. Demo day is about building relationships and hyping new companies as much as it is about fundraising. The two are not to be conflated.