Start-up ‘demo days’ are how Silicon Valley pitches to itself

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Gary Chen, co-founder of Raise Robotics, strides on stage at the University of California, Berkeley wearing a bright yellow hi-vis vest. The attention-grabbing outfit is his ploy to stand out to an audience of investors and convince them to hand over $2mn. If successful, he and his robots will continue on a journey that might one day end in a billion-dollar valuation. If not, it could spell the end of his company.

This is Demo Day at Berkeley SkyDeck, an accelerator created to support early-stage start-ups. Like the most widely known accelerator Y Combinator (whose success stories include Reddit and Airbnb), it provides investment and an intense programme of training and mentorship in exchange for an equity stake in the companies it backs. SkyDeck takes 7.5 per cent for $200,000 and is highly competitive to get into, accepting just one in every 100 applicants.

Early-stage investors have been part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem for decades. They sift through thousands of requests and take on the risk of inexperienced founders and new ideas. The hope is that one or two will be successful enough to attract a buyer willing to pay tens of millions of dollars, which will give backers a high enough return to cover losses elsewhere.

Demo Day follows a standard format; what’s different this year is the attitude towards start-up culture. Charismatic founders, the stories they tell and how well they tell them are under more scrutiny in the post-Theranos, post-WeWork era. How much that factors into the way Silicon Valley pitches its ideas to itself is a work in progress.

Raise Robotics is one of 21 companies presenting on stage today, and the nerves are palpable. For the start-ups, Demo Day is the culmination of an enormous amount of work. Showmanship is part of the training. Convincing investors to believe in a business that may be little more than a theory requires extreme levels of self-confidence. This might come naturally to some but is usually a hard-won skill.

Investors also want to know exactly how money will be made, more so than in times past. This may be why start-up pitches have stopped claiming to make the world a better place and focus more on the business.

There have been other changes over the years. Diversity is now a priority and remote applications means more international companies. There is also more money floating around and more competition.

Most of the start-ups here have just a few minutes to tell a story. The founder of Akin Mental Health asks investors to think of someone they know who struggles with mental illness and the sort of help they wish that person could receive. Others focus on numbers, telling the audience about existing deals and funding already secured.

The best presentations combine the two strategies, telling an anecdote that the audience will remember while reassuring them that other investors are already on board. The chief operating officer of clean energy company Tesserol’s speech is a little rushed but he hooks the audience when he explains that he lost his house in a wildfire that might one day be prevented and then adds that his company has already secured an agreement to launch a pilot programme with Google.

There is one aspect that remains unchanged: most of the companies presenting here will fail, whether or not they receive investment. At this Demo Day, at least, it’s a truth that largely goes unspoken.

Elaine Moore is FT ’s deputy Lex editor

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