Jason Calacanis On How To Get Into (and win) TechCrunch50

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Jason Calacanis sent out another of his periodic emails to his email subscription list today where he gives great advice on how to get your startup idea into the upcoming TechCrunch50 conference. I’ll be giving my own thoughts on this soon, but his email is worth reposting.

From: Jason Calacanis
Date: April 20, 2009 9:30:27 PM EDT
To:
Subject: [Jason] I want to help you launch your company

Location: Mahalo HQ, Santa Monica, CA
Weather: Absurdly wonderful: 85 and Sunny
Date: April 20th 2009, 6:30PM
Topic: Launching your company at TechCrunch50 (or any event)
Subscribers: About 14,000 of you
Disclaimer: This is somewhat self-promotional, but heartfelt. Skip it if you’re not launching a company/not interested in TechCrunch50. :-)

==============================================================================

Team Jason,

I want you to launch your new company at TechCrunch50 this September in San Francisco.

Not only that, I want you to win the competition and take down the $50,000 grand prize!

For background, the TechCrunch50 event is a conference where 50 companies demo their new product or service on stage for eight minutes before a panel of industry experts. It’s basically “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent” for startup companies.

The conference was started two-and-a-half years ago over a steak dinner with Michael Arrington, the editor of TechCrunch, tech pundit Steve Gillmor and me. While eating far too much red meat, I explained to Mike that, during my Silicon Alley Reporter days, our business was largely based on conferences. A TechCrunch conference was guaranteed to be a hit. Mike wasn’t sure, but Steve Gillmor was. Steve pushed us to collaborate on an event, and I suggested that we do something to help entrepreneurs break out. A DEMO-style conference, only without
what I call DEMO’s $18,500 “conference payola” charge. I offered, “what if the winner got a $25,000 prize?” In classic Mike Arrington style, he responded “let’s double it to $50,000.”

Truth be told, this conference was the extension of something I had started in New York City’s Silicon Alley in 1997 called “Ready, Set, Pitch!” You can read about it here:

http://www.wired.com/techbiz/media/news/1997/06/4436
http://www.nytimes.com/1997/06/16/business/virtual-pitch-but-real-jobs-on-the-line.html

Over the past two years, the TechCrunch50 event has become a juggernaut.

We had 600 companies apply the first year and 1,000 the second. We had 40 companies present in Year One, and 50 in Year Two. We’ve landed epic partners like Sequoia Capital, Microsoft, Google, Charles River Ventures, Perkins Coie, MySpace and Founders Fund. Our judges are just amazing, and have included Mark Cuban, Marc Andreessen, Marc Benioff, Roelof Botha, Marissa Mayer, Evan Williams and Esther Dyson, to name just a few.

The first year, we had over 1,000 attendees. Last year, we passed the 2,000 mark.

In this email, I’d like to explain to you exactly how you can get accepted to the conference, by standing out.

There are two votes to get into TechCrunch50: mine and Mike Arrington and his team. (I don’t have a team.) We debate for three weeks in the summer over who should get accepted. Some of these conference calls have gotten heated, to say the least, but in the end, this massive debate and suffering by everyone involved results in a crop of amazing companies.

What stood out in my mind at TechCrunch40 in 2007:
————————————–
Wow, it’s been two years since we did our first sold-out event and it seems like yesterday. Here’s a listing of the companies that debuted at TechCrunch40: http://www.techcrunch50.com/2007/

I’d like to explain why I supported three of them. These are my personal beliefs, for better or worse, but that is what the conference is about: our opinion as to what is interesting.

1. Powerset: Search is a huge problem and Powerset was one of the first companies to take a totally new approach to solving it. Their semantic technology essentially understands the words on a page and their relationship to one another. This means that, if you were to ask someone’s age, it wouldn’t just send you to a page that had those keywords on it. They would also try and answer your question. Obviously, as the CEO of human-powered search engine Mahalo.com, I’m a sucker for search companies. Powerset was eventually bought by Microsoft, confirming our intuition that they were on to something big. You can watch some of the video coverage of PowerSet here:
http://www.techcrunch50.com/2007/session.php?number=1 (It’s only the Q&A… grrrr) I’m going to try and find their actual presentation; I think we might have had a technical problem.

Bottom line: very big problem + cutting-edge solution + huge market = no-brainer acceptance.

2. MusicShake: This Korean-based company had an amazingly fun concept: letting folks make music without having any musical training. It was a super fun application that, when you watched it, made you want to start playing with it–sort of like watching someone play with a Nintendo Wii or an iPhone. (You can watch the demo at 2:50 at the video link below). They had a good story: making music is not easy, but everyone would like to do it. What if making music was super-easy? Sounds like the YouTube/iMovie story to me: what if shooting and sharing videos was easy?

Note: Some people have asked if we give non-US companies extra consideration. The answer for me is yes and no. Yes, in that I always give non-US companies a little extra attention and time during the selection process, but no, in that they have to beat the other companies applying after their initial evaluation. Mike and his team might have a different perspective on this, but I’d like to be upfront about: I do give non-US companies a little extra time/attention in the pitch process, because we want diversity in countries. Still, they must earn their slot.

Bottom line: Fun software + Huge User Generated Content Trend of 2007 + Great Demo = no brainer acceptance.

Watch the video:
http://www.techcrunch50.com/2007/presenter.php?presenter=23#video

3. MINT: This personal finance application solved a huge problem: analyzing and managing your finances in order to help you save and make money. Their pitch was incredible because they SHOWED us the power of their product; they didn’t TELL us the power of their product. Essentially, you put in your bank account and credit card information and MINT analyzes it in order to help you find better offerings, determine how you’re spending your money and suggesting ways to manage it better. Everyone wants to save time and money; this product does both.

Bottom line: My Uncle John told me one time that if you can save people time, save them money or entertain them, you’ve got an amazing business. MINT does all three. They wound up winning, raising a TON of cash, and many people I meet tell me they use it. They’ve been the
subject of much acquisition speculation.

Watch the video:
http://www.techcrunch50.com/2007/presenter.php?presenter=28#video

What stood out in my mind at TechCrunch50 in 2008:
————————————–
1. Good Guide: When I first watched the demo for this green guide to products, I immediately thought “my wife–and all of my friends’ wives–would use this every day.” Not trying to be sexist–I’m sure there are many men who use the product as well. However, the green movement for products in the home seems to be mommy-driven in my experience. (My wife made her own organic pesticide for our tomato plants out of Tabasco, for example). Their management team had domain expertise in product production and they showed amazing examples of common products (like a sunblock) that contain carcinogens (what?!?!). Good Guides was the runner up last year, and there is not question as to why–it rocks.

Bottom line: Green Trend of 2008 + Product Scares of 2008 + Domain Expertise + Information that wants to be free + Great demo = No-brainer acceptance.

Watch the video (note videos in 2008 are more professional–we get better every year!):
http://www.techcrunch50.com/2008/conference/presenter.php?presenter=94

2. Yammer: In 2008, we were all enamored with Twitter, but frustrated by the service not having key features, such as groups and private tweets. In fact, we’re still frustrated by Twitter’s lack of groups, but back to the point: People want to tweet privately within teams. Yammer’s product was so well put together, it felt MUCH better than the fragile Twitter of 2008. It had an iPhone and Blackberry application, it had threaded messages, groups, stats and tags. Yammer
won.

Bottom line: Twitter for Business + Perfect execution + Game changing for companies + Revenue Model ($1 per user, per month) = No-brainer acceptance.

3. TonchiDot: This was the biggest crowd pleaser of the event, but the truth is, we weren’t sure we were going to accept it, because we couldn’t figure it out! This iPhone application augments reality by placing tags on the items you would see through your camera’s view finder. We had no idea it would be such an entertaining presentation live, which just goes to show you how little we actually know as the folks running this event! Seriously, we do the best we can to select
the best companies, but obviously, we’re not perfect. We accept companies that bomb on stage and fail in the market, and we reluctantly accept companies that steal the show–there’s a wonderful madness to this!

Bottom line: Wildly visionary + Stunning demo = No-brainer acceptance.

Watch the video:
http://www.techcrunch50.com/2008/conference/presenter.php?presenter=71

Step One: How to get from application to demoing with a live person
————————————–
The first step of TechCrunch50 is applying via the web, which you can read about here:
http://www.techcrunch50.com/2009/blog/submit-your-company/

You’re basically asked to give us some background on the idea, using up to three slides and up to an eight minute video. That video part is new and I highly recommend making one that is clean, impactful and simple, like the ones you’ve watched above. We have an army of folks go through these applications to make sure that they are complete, that the submission is NOT just a business plan and that it’s NOT a product that is already launched. Once it passes this test, Mike, Heather, TechCrunch editors and I take a look at it.

So, you want a complete application, and you want the following to come across.

1. Solve a big problem: One of the best ways to get accepted is to solve a big problem, like like PowerSet and Mint did for search or personal finances, respectively. These are big ideas that impact every person who uses and spends money on the Internet (read: almost everyone). A niche service like BirdPost (accepted in 2008) is a long-shot for getting accepted, and in fact, they were accepted only because of my next point: execution.

2. Superior Execution: Chances are, there are two or three people with your idea, or a very similar one, applying to TechCrunch50. How do we select one video search company over another? Simple: execution. We want to put the best companies on stage so that we have the most entertaining and interesting show, sure, but we would also like to stand the test of time. We’re going to pick the services that are the most far along with the best execution so that, selfishly, we look really smart five years from now when your company is still running or gets bought by Microsoft. I can’t tell you how many folks demo products for us with HORRIBLE design and terrible sample data in them. It’s like going to a great chef and suggesting they serve you their signature dish on a paper plate in a dirty alley. It might be the most delicious dish in the world, but you screwed yourself by presenting it like garbage. Spend $1,000 on a great logo and spend a week cleaning up your data/demo so it actually works. Details, details, details….Details matter in a competition like this!

BirdPost was niche, but it was amazing execution. Watch their demo and you’ll see why it got in:
http://www.techcrunch50.com/2008/conference/presenter.php?presenter=85

3. Demo-ability: We’re putting on a show at TechCrunch50, so we’re looking for folks who can present their ideas in a clear and concise way. If you look at the 2008 TechCrunch50 videos above for Yammer and Good Guide, they are VERY solid. Demoing your product is a real science and I’ve written two pieces on this already, which you can find below:

How to Demo your Product Part One:
http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/08/09/how-to-demo-your-startup/

How to Demo your Product Part Two:
http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/09/01/how-to-demo-your-startup-part-two/

Read those two pieces and really ask yourself: “am I showing or telling?” If you’re showing the entire way, you’ve set yourself apart from 90% of the applicants, who tell us why their great and are going to change the world. All we really want to do is SEE IT! Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. Say it again: show, don’t tell.

4. Simple screen shots speak volumes: In relation to point number three about demo-ability, you’re going to be asked to send a couple of slides. TechCrunch50 is NOT a business plan competition, so sending us a PowerPoint deck is really not going to score you many points. I’d much rather see two or three screen shots–or a screen-cast–of your product, with some notes (i.e. circles and arrows on the backs of each one). Remember: your screen shots don’t need to be the actual product in the submission phase. When I demoed Mahalo for folks, I had finished mockups that looked amazing and a wireframe live demo. This let me show folks both where we were and where we were going: I showed it two ways! Show, show, show… Mocks + working demo = holy grail for the submission phase. Show us your final product as produced by your designers and show us your working demo as designed by your developers–we can figure it out from there.

5. Videos: This year, we’re letting folks submit videos. I’d suggest doing a demo exactly like Good Guide, Yammer, Bird Post or any of the good ones from TechCrunch50. Watch the videos over and over and ask yourself “what would I think if I was a judge?” If you can’t make a video, don’t worry, you’ll still have a chance.

In Summary
————————————–
Any two or three people with six weeks on their hands could build a demo that knocks our socks off. It really is that simple: two to five folks busting their butts for a couple of weeks to make something that solves a big problem and is well executed (but doesn’t need to be complete). If you get into the event, you’re guaranteed to get countless meetings with venture capitalists and the press. If your product and business plan are solid, and you’ve got a decent team, you’re going to get funding. Period. Almost all of the companies in the event for the past two years have raised money. Some of them have raised a LOT of money.

Of course, many folks have tanked–that’s the nature of startups. However, your entire life could change by buckling down for two months and making something that knocks our socks off, enabling you to get on that stage and knock the socks off the rest of the world.

We don’t care who you are, where you’re from or who you know.

We only care about how frackin’ cool your work is and that you get your application in by June 30th.

TechCrunch50 is a meritocracy in which you’re not qualified by being able to pay a ransom in payola or because you know the right person. You’re going to get into TechCrunch50 because you’ve got a KILLER IDEA and KILLER EXECUTION.

Period.

You can do it. You know you want to do it.

The only question is WILL YOU DO IT?!!?!?!?

all the best,

Jason

PS – I really want you to do it!
PS2 – If you want advice, hit the reply key and ask.
PS3 – If you want to attend, you can buy one of the half-price
“recession busting” tickets that are only $995 and which are almost sold out:
http://www.techcrunch50.com/2009/blog/get-tickets/

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