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My Startup Battlefield Story

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Editor’s note: Andy Pandharikar was co-founder and CEO of FITIQUETTE, which launched during the TechCrunch Disrupt SF Startup Battlefield in 2012. Andy is also a member of the SF Angels Group and is an adviser at various startups including StyleLend, DreamFunded, Scrible, SIMPLOTEL and EVryPark.

There comes a moment in a startup’s life that changes its trajectory forever. For us, it was a phone call from Alexia Tsotsis in August 2012.

FITIQUETTE was about to get selected to participate in Startup Battlefield at Disrupt SF 2012, and we were about to embark on an unbelievable journey. We didn’t win the Disrupt Cup or even get runner-up. Our story ends with an acquisition,  if that counts. And then our acquirer got acquired last month. We’ve been through a lot but it all started with TechCrunch. So for those who are about to apply and battle it out, here is our Battlefield story.

Why did we apply?
Our fashion e-commerce destination powered by fitting technology needed big money for the launch. We had built an intriguing technology. Other e-commerce companies were interested in licensing it, but we weren’t keen to go that path. Meanwhile, we started seeing the end of our financial runway and VCs were still giving their standard “too early” BS. Frankly, we were a bit desperate!

We had invested all our personal savings, worked our asses off without salary, and got our friends and family to invest their hard-earned money in us. When we ran out of that, we kept pushing more with bank line-of-credit and personal credit cards (thank you, Wells Fargo and Visa). We were losing key team members, walls were closing in, and the sky was falling. We were witnessing the classic “..Struggle” as articulated by Ben Horowitz.

The Application
I must have knocked on at least a thousand doors that week. Angel groups, crowdfunding sites, incubators, accelerators, rich friends (few remaining), grants, fellowships, awards and many more. Turns out, one of them was the Disrupt SF Startup Battlefield application.

Thankfully, our application struck a chord with TechCrunch and we were invited to join the Startup Battlefield. We knew we had to give it our best and nothing less.

The Preparation
TC imposes a strong embargo on all selected startups regarding any disclosure about their selection. This includes amongst the participants themselves, so we had no idea who we would be competing against. All we knew was that we needed to prepare a six-minute pitch (with demo) and that there were rehearsals scheduled at Sequoia Capital, where we were to be coached on our pitch.

The Rehearsal 
This was our first time at the Sequoia office. In addition to the TechCrunch editors, Sequoia’s in-house communications expert was present to help us improve our pitch.

Our rehearsal was at 2 p.m. There were these two underage founders presenting before us in the room. I Googled the company printed on their hoodies. Holy shit. They had raised $3 million from none other than Khosla Ventures. There is no way we could top that. To add to that, our initial pitch was in shambles. No surprise, we got badly battered by the experts in the rehearsal room. We walked out almost assuming that we were disqualified!

We were not going to go down without a fight. This was our last chance.

Preparation 2.0
There are good, bad and ugly pitches. I guess we must have started out with a super ugly one. Whomever we were pitching to was thrashing us. But we kept going and going, and kept getting better along the way. Here is the deal:

  • Pitching is never about pitching. It is about reflecting real progress of your real business. Get all the ducks in a row for your business before you start preparing the pitch. Strategy, current business model, your giant vision, engagement metrics, logos of your customers, their approvals, approvals of advisers if you are going to drop names, and so on.
  • Your pitch will sound awesome or incredibly horrible to yourself depending on your mood or weather that day, unless you have someone experienced listening and critiquing. So, get a real mentor to get the contents fleshed out before starting to perfect it.
  • Build up to your a-ha moment during the demo. Don’t start with the a-ha. Start with humor to describe the problem you are solving. It always works. Keep clear narration leading up to that a-ha feature.
  • Look at all available Steve Jobs videos before preparing your presentation.
  • Mention first what they are about to see, show the stuff and then repeat how and why it was so incredible.
  • Practice, practice, practice. I cannot emphasize this enough. You will run into all possible demo goof-ups, and you will learn to handle these on the fly. You will learn to track timing and you will think about all the possible questions the judges might ask.
  • It gets boring after some iteration, but it won’t if your life is in danger. So think about Startup Battlefield as hunger games — a battle for your survival.
  • Record yourself on camera and play it back to analyze your body language. We must have done that at least 25 times every day before the event, and I would still go back and make plenty of corrections.
  • And finally….HBO Silicon Valley got it all right. It applies to any startup presentation, Disrupt Startup Battlefield or otherwise. Always end with a sentence resembling.. “MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE”. It always works. The greedier you are in terms of your future funding rounds, the bigger and bolder your claims should be,about doing the right thing for society. Period.

We had a tech rehearsal one day before Disrupt. Surprisingly, that went well without significant technical issues, thanks to the demo gods!

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The Showdown at Disrupt

It’s a nerve-racking experience getting the microphone hooked up and waiting backstage for your turn. Suddenly you hear Jason Kincaid trying hard to pronounce your name. And suddenly you’re onstage!

I had just one thought while all this was going on: Our entire life now depends on the next six minutes. We had such bright green lights on our face that we weren’t able to see the audience clearly. We did what we trained ourselves to do. Delivered the pitch/demo with the utmost enthusiasm and energy, and ended with a bang. The judges asked their questions, and we already knew that the answers to most were tied to our funding (or lack thereof).

The Aftermath
I remember the night after our presentation. We partied like there was no tomorrow. Everyone was coming up to congratulate us; they wanted to know more about our story.

News came out that we didn’t get selected for the final round. There were other startups that were further along compared to us. I was very skeptical about biases towards VC-backed startups. But hey, that’s how it works in real life, too. We didn’t care much at that point anyway. Our signups were shooting up beyond imagination. We were getting ton of press.

We received our first acquisition offer within a few days. A small one from a lesser-known company. Many of the investors who said no to us before, now started responding to our emails. We started getting firm commitments towards our round. Meanwhile, BBC International featured us as the second-most exciting tech news that week — the first being the iPhone-5 launch. While we were expecting series-A term sheets, we received another acquisition offer, this time from Myntra. And that was the offer we could not refuse.
Myntra was acquired by Flipkart within a few months, in a deal touted to be India’s biggest e-commerce acquisition.

It all really started with a call we received from TechCrunch in August 2012. So all you founder’s out there, get those applications in by June 16.

PS: Aren’t we all intrigued by Pied Piper’s Disrupt Battlefield story as well? There are much bigger successes though TC Disrupt and I am sure they all have their own Battlefield stories that we haven’t heard about yet!