In Pirates of Silicon Valley, one of the most exciting scenes is when the doors blow open to the West Coast Computer Fair, and a 21 year old Steve Jobs launches the Apple II. Surrounded by stacks of what look like ready-to-buy computers (they were actually empty boxes), Apple stole the show by demoing brand new technology with a touch of reality distortion – or as Steve would say, magic.
This magic is the centerpiece of the DEMO conference being held in Silicon Valley. DEMO is not an ordinary trade show, but the grandaddy of conferences dedicated to the idea of the demo. In front of a huge audience, entrepreneurs come to demonstrate their products that have virtually never been seen before. The goal isn’t just to discuss speeds and feeds, or to pump up investors and try to raise money, but to dazzle the audience with the product itself (and magic is encouraged).
On-stage demos included ballerinas, live birds, and flying sparks by a real life craftsman cutting metal. On Tuesday night, I had the opportunity to experience a different type of demo – the one on one demo – during the reception (or what I call “the demo pit”). After hauling it down on the VTA train on roads paved with silicon gold, I was ready to bust through the doors just like the attendees in “Pirates of Silicon Valley.”
After circling the room to get a quick sense of the scope of the reception, I grabbed a Sierra Nevada and got to work. This was one of the finer details I noticed about the DEMO conference: how difficult it is to pull off an atmosphere of calm excitement. Unlike SXSW or other startup conferences, you won’t find crowds of enthusiasts, or any logistical congestion of any kind. DEMO hosts top tier panelists like Ray Kurzweil and Evan Williams, and the layout of the pods allows leaders like these to cherry pick the demos they would like to see most.
My strategy was to let the startups pick me, and I visited with each company that invited me to their pod. The types of companies ranged from consumer web to enterprise storage, so there was plenty to see. I left grilling these companies on their ideas or business models up to the “demo gods,” and focused more on observing their demo techniques to see what worked best.
Among the first founders I met was Andrew Mayhall with Evtron. This demo kept it simple: with a big blue box stacked on their pod, Andrew explained to me that I was looking at was an appliance that crams more data into your data center. This booth was light on bells and whistles, leaving me curious as to how they fit so much data into the box. This simplicity worked to their advantage, as fully describing this product could have easily induced information overload. Instead, I got the idea quickly.
Founder David Joo demoed his education app to me and was very relatable. Representing yourself on a personal level goes a long way with these demos, and David seemed to have confident familiarity with his product. He was able to show me how Knowre allows grade school teachers and students to work on assignments and track progress in realtime, while also grading the student. This demo felt well-rounded, but David was still able to demo some nice touches, such as a gaming component.
CTO Amit On demoed CallApp, which really puts the phone into the term smartphone. The app pulls in data you would want about business and social contacts, local reviews, and social networking profiles. The cool thing about CallApp is that it really replaces the dialer on an android device with something that feels just as quick, but with much more power. Instead of juggling several apps to figure out who/what/when/where you want to call, this app gives you those tools without a hodgepodge of social features. I was a little bit apprehensive to hand over my contact info for the demo, but Amit reassured me he wouldn’t be spamming me later.
Givit CEO Greg Kostollo drew me in via his PR staff and showed me his video sharing utility iPhone. Givit connected an iPhone to a flatscreen, which was a smart demo tactic and helped us prevent neck strain from staring at yet another tiny screen. Givit was another startup in what I call the “keep it simple” style of demo, and they leveraged their PR team to keep organized. With the demo on screen, I was able to see the simplicity of video sharing and storage via Givit, as well as the power of filters and quick editing tools.
Although it wasn’t obvious on initial explanation of the technology, this company attacks a real pain point among international travelers. Truphone makes it easier and cheaper to use your own smartphone abroad. The company provides users with a universal SIM card that holds multiple international phone numbers. Users log in to Truphone and buy the appropriate foreign carrier’s calling/data plan through the Truphone portal. Upon arrival into the country, the user turns on the service of the other carrier and is ready to make calls and use data without costly international roaming. Best yet, people who call you from abroad use their local number for you even if you’re using a foreign carrier (and thus have a new number), because the SIM holds multiple numbers.
Co-founder Aneil Mallavarapu has a compelling story. He wrote a computer language during his time as a systems biologist at Harvard. The language simulated the biochemistry of cell-to-cell signal communication. It also sparked his interest in how people signal one another in daily life, and how mobile technology can be effectively utilized to deliver the right information at the right time. Enter Blipboard, a mobile app that signals the user about location based tips provided by friends. With Blipboard, you can “tune in” to people, places, or businesses of your choosing. As a use case example, you can walk down the street of an unfamiliar city, when an alert comes up from an old buddy that the cafe you’re next to has shockingly great cookies. It instantly enhances your travel in the city, connects you to the friend, and provides peace of mind. Pretty compelling. If the app is well-executed, I could imagine the pleasure of leaving blips for friends everywhere.
Hendrik van der Meer caught my attention with a friendly hello to demo his app Vilynx. Coincidentally, Vilynx is also a video app and I caught this demo right after seeing Givit. The Vilynx demo was more informal than Givit’s and I think this worked well. Not every demo needs to be done the same way, and I enjoyed discussing with Hendrik the story of why he came up with the idea for Vilynx. As a father with young kids, him and his wife take a bunch of video of their son. Hendrik is an Android guy and his wife is on team iPhone, so the app works on both. This app eschews a timeline interface for a unique system of clustering snapshots of each video into four images. From there, you can drill down and put together a movie quickly here and upload to Dropbox. Vilynx demo was effective at being personable and simple, and it felt like a chat you might have down at the farmers market while sampling the wares.
George Huff is CEO of Opal, and this team and demo was about polish. Not every team has the same amount of resources, and some try to fake polish when a ‘keep it simple’ strategy would have worked better. Thankfully, Opal was the real deal and it was clear that the team had prepared heavily to give demos. The reward here was a the ability for George and his team to play well off of each other while giving a smooth demo of their collaborative brainstorming app. At first the team seemed all business, but they were able to hold their own while talking tech. When I noted their fluid UI, they were quick to mention they accomplished the experience with a backbone.js frontend and a backend API built with rails. Opal enables creative ideation within fortune 500 corporations. Taking a page out of the Yammer playbook, their software leverages emerging UI trends from consumer social networking sites and integrates them into enterprise software. Opal seemed to meet or exceed the slick look and feel of their social networking cousins. As a nice touch, their marketing collateral matched the card UI metaphor in their app. These types of nuts and bolts marketing tactics are often overlooked by startups and sometimes rightly so, but for the target market Opal seeks, looking the part is crucial, and this team had the right stuff.
The team behind Hallway is definitely marketing savvy – bright-eyed teenagers enthusiastically beckoned me over to check out their app – a place for kids to organize their notes and academic calendar as well as study with other kids from around the globe. One of these teens was co-founder Sean McElrath, founder of his schools entrepreneurship club. Sean pitched the idea to Evan Burfield, Chairman of Startup DC, a mentor at the club who then partnered with Sean to build the company. Clearly prepared, the kids preempted expected questions on existing competitors by describing how Facebook groups just weren’t cutting it when it came to effectively studying with other kids. With Hallway, subjects are also open to students around the globe to post questions, answers, and advice according to subject. There’s a gamification element to keep kids motivated, and the promotion of subject monitors to engage the best, seasoned students (and build up the college resume).
Rebecca Palm, Co-Founder of Copatient, spoke with me about their consumer oriented application that enables users to review data about their health care and insurance costs. By empowering their users, it becomes like Carfax for your own health. It tracks how much have you paid for certain procedures, and checks if the amount is in line with other patients in the same region or hospital. By aggregating this data over time, patients can help keep their health care costs down, which is an angle that insurance companies can get behind. Rebecca spent most the time during the demo discussing with me how the app came about, and her background in the health care industry. We did not spend a huge amount of time in the app itself, but that seemed appropriate. From what I did see of the app, the premise made sense, and based on Rebecca’s familiarity with her industry, I was confident that it was something worth checking out and following up with. Ultimately, it was one of my favorite demos because healthcare related software isn’t so much about bells and whistles, but instead building trust that this company will be a good steward of the data it collects on users.
Phoebe Farber, Founder and CEO of Prospective Plus, did the last demo for me of the evening. She was lucky to be next to the exit, and she invited me to take a look at her HR recruiting tool. Prospective Plus gathers data points about students entering the job market and generates a resume-like profile for companies looking to hire. The system is able to determine skill level of the applicants based on screening tests, and also verify skills that the applicant claims to have via their resume. The tool seemed straightforward and something that would be familiar to HR departments. It also included an applicant intake system that can plug into any website. Based on the demo, it seemed worth checking out for small and midsize companies that need to compete with larger firms leveraging similar software.
After the Demo
After seeing my last demo ,it was time for me to head back home to the east bay. The location of the Demo conference is a key part of the experience. Although competing conferences in San Francisco provide the sparkle of the city, the backdrop of Silicon Valley is a bit more reserved. On my way out of Santa Clara and San Jose, I noted the streets were lit by glowing logos of any technology imaginable. With that as the setting, it is just a little bit easier to believe the demos seen at the conference are more than just a magic trick.