Demo day is the cherry on top of your hopefully successful accelerator program. It’s a chance for startups to show off their progress (AKA recent acceleration) and connect with investors. For investors, it’s a chance to connect with early-stage startups before they get too far along (aka too expensive). It’s a very symbiotic thing and all Demo Days generally follow the same format more or less:

  • Introduction to program
  • Thanking of sponsors
  • A series of 2-3 minute startup pitches
  • Break
  • The remaining 2-3 minute startup pitches
  • Mixer and investor matchmaking

Some say that startup Demo Days are simply a dog and pony show. And let’s face it they’re not totally wrong. There is much pageantry and embellishment of hockey stick growth charts going on after all. Still, it’s a tried and true format so I would recommend including one in your program.

You are of course welcome and encouraged to innovate or individualize your Demo Day in some way. This helps with audience engagement and future attendance as well. Even for the most seasoned investors, it’s tough to sit through 10+ pitches back to back and not get a bit exhausted. So do what you can to keep them in mind in terms of event pacing and additional content.

As an example of a not so-great Demo Day that I once attended, there was over 1 hour of pre-programming and ‘words from our sponsor’ before we got into the many many startup pitches. This was a large program as well so the demos went on for several more hours! This, along with a lack of breaks, was more of a marathon than a pitch night. I even saw one poor investor leaning his head back and passing out before it was all over. Be sure to be respectful of attendee’s time, especially the investor’s time.

I’ve also personally tried to make Demo Days a much more fun and entertaining event. I am an American after all. This has included everything from creating original video content, having comedians on stage and an Oprah Winfrey like moment where we placed small gifts under every chair in the audience. I even went as far as to have a rock band play at the halfway point. Let me tell you, there’s nothing better than blasting a bunch of suited up investors with face-melting guitar solos and lead singer backflips to keep them awake and engaged. To this day some of them still tell me it was the greatest Demo Day they ever attended.

So as you can see it’s not just the startups doing some pageantry to pull off a great Demo Day! That all being said, as a program director your mission for Demo Day is simple. Get the startups as many leads as possible. That’s all Demo Day is – a lead generation machine to help your startups secure funding. Try not to lose track of this as you’ll have a lot of stakeholders involved in your event and at the end of the day, you serve the startups. Of course keeping program sponsors and everyone else happy as well. Good luck!

Working with investors

Now to the important part of Demo Day. Parting investors from their money!

First, it’s important to understand and accept that investments are almost never committed to right on the spot at Demo Day. The one exception here being Y Combinator where investors practically shower the startups in offers and term sheets. For most other programs however that is not the case. Demo Day is more about lead generation both for the investors and founders themselves.

You can, however, do a few things to ease the process for both interested parties. Much of this work should be starting well before Demo Day takes place, during your program. Build a list of your key investors and start inviting them to meet the startups right away. It’s helpful if they can see where the company was at the beginning of the program, to compare progress once Demo Day comes around. I’ve found that investors that participate during the program through mentorship and office hours are more likely to invest in batch companies. They also tend to make for better investors. [1] 

For programs, I’ve also created a small list of what I call ‘friendly investors’. These are a few investors that may or may not invest in my accelerator companies. It’s actually better if they’re not going to invest, as they’ll be even more honest. They often also have some close attachment to the program/fund or perhaps to the program director. It’s well understood that they’ll make time to hear pitches but also give *very* candid and honest feedback. Even when that feedback can sometimes be negative, or as we like to call it, ‘tough love’. These types of investors are incredibly helpful to get in front of your startups before Demo Day, to iron out the kinks in their pitches. You can even tell the founders that these are your friendly investors, to help ease some of the stress they might be having over pitching.

As you get closer to Demo Day, start building your even larger investor list. Try to think of everyone you can who might be relevant. In some cases, this might also include corporate partners, press and local startup community leads. When it comes to investors themselves they are tricky to lock down into a date. After all, these are people who spend a lot of time traveling and in other pitch meetings. So you can’t notify them soon enough of when your Demo Day is coming up. I recommend sending ‘Save the Date’ notifications and calendar invites at least 60 days before your event takes place. Don’t be afraid to follow up several times to confirm attendance. After all, come Demo Day, if you don’t have a good selection of investors in the audience your startups will be severely disappointed.

Some programs like to keep their list program companies secret to investors during the program. Perhaps this might be a way to encourage attendance at the Demo Day itself as it provides so-called exclusive access to the startups. I don’t agree with this approach however, and as such recommend sending lots of materials, your startups’ contact info and other assets well ahead of Demo Day. Investors like to read up beforehand and record the startup’s information in their own CRM (Contact Relationship Management software). This I feel can help to increase the chance of investors approaching startups they like at the event. Even better, sometimes investors and founders will start emailing each other prior to Demo Day. That’ll make their first meeting and following meetings just that much more efficient.

The day after Demo Day

When this day finally comes, both you and your startups are likely to be breathing a sigh of relief. You have both made it to the end of the program and it’s time, as it were, for the little birdies to leave your safe nest and venture out into the big big world. Before they do however it’s good to ensure they are maximizing their opportunities from Demo Day.

In startup investing there’s a certain excitement after you first meet a startup you like. Since this often happens right after a Demo Day, it’s your startups’ best chance to capitalize on it. So it’s recommended to have your founders not relax too much after Demo Day and instead strike while the iron is hot. That is to say, they should start reaching out to contacts made at Demo Day and book meetings as quickly as possible. With each passing day, there’s a chance the investor will lose interest or worse, get distracted by yet another Demo Day. So you want to capitalize on their interest quickly.

Additionally, in many programs you have startups coming in from other parts of the world. That also means they are likely heading back home soon after the program wraps. So, in this case, they have limited time to get those investor meetings booked. They also have a slight advantage as the investors have limited time to book a meeting before they go. Have your startups use this in their outreach emails as so:

“It was great to meet at Demo Day last night! We are in town for just next week. Possible we could come by Monday or Tuesday to discuss further?”

Regardless of if the startups are local or not, you want to advise them to push for meetings quickly. As we have discussed, Demo Days are primarily a lead generator for your startups. Any salesperson will tell you the slower you close a lead the less likely it will close at all. So give them one last accelerator boost in this regard to get those meetings on the books and hopefully soon funding will be in the bank.