7 Marketing Secrets from 500 Startups Demo Days

7 Marketing Secrets from 500 Startups Demo Days

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Have Fun, Get Deals Done – The Future of Marketing is the Brand Experience

Pitching to top Silicon Valley investors like Tim Draper is nerve-racking. It helps when he’s dressed in a superhero costume.

From Valentine’s Day-Themed (Batch 19) to Summer of Love-Themed (Batch 20), 500 Startups Demo Day is more than a pitch day, it’s a festival where everyone has fun and gets deals done.

Here’s a look back at lessons we’ve learned from the last 7 Demo Days, and how 500 Startups stumbled upon creating the unique pitch day in Silicon Valley.

1. Listen to Your Audience

Back in the day, 500 Startups Demo Day was pretty basic (see Batch 8):


500 Startups Founding Partner, Dave McClure, speaking at 500 Batch 8 Demo Day (back when the most colorful thing at Demo Day was Dave’s language).

During Batch 13 Demo Day, things got a little bit more interesting.

It all started when I bought Dave a unicorn hoodie for his birthday, which happened to coincide with the Batch 13 Preview Day (an invite-only sneak peek to Demo Day). To our surprise, many investors and founders in the audience loved Dave’s unexpected fashion statement, talking and tweeting about it.

Dave noted the audience engagement and decided to wear the unicorn costume again on Demo Day. He also encouraged Founding Partner Christine Tsai, a former ballerina, to wear a rainbow tutu. Again, the response was extremely positive at Demo Day. Silicon Valley Business Journal even dedicated an article to Unicorn theme.

The lightbulb turned on, and we saw the potential marketing value in bringing creativity to our Demo Days. But it wasn’t a mere fluke — we listened to the audience feedback, saw the marketing value, and applied it.

 

2. Turn Challenges into Creative Advantage

When planning for Batch 14 Demo Day, we found out the only day the venue was available was the day before Halloween. We were not happy. Typically we tried to plan our events around major holidays, like Halloween, assuming people would be busy attending their own company parties. We were worried about not having enough investors attend our event, but we couldn’t change the date. So we decided to exploit the timing instead. Thus, Demo-Ween was born.

In our past Demo Days, we always focused on the pitches, not wanting to take away from the big day of our batch companies. However, the thematic timing forced us to look at the Demo Days from a different angle. We decided to make Demo Days more entertaining. We added the Halloween theme to our Demo Day, aka “Demo-ween” — presenting the content in a new form. The new form of Demo Day allowed startups and investors to dress up, have fun, and get deals done together.

As a result, the Demo-ween not only helped us maintain the previous demo day attendance, it also attracted more international investors than ever before (50% increase). By presenting the content in a more engaging format, we turned a challenge into our competitive advantage.

The first Demo-ween was so successful, we decided to make it an annual theme. 




3. Use Product-Launches to Rejuvenate Your Brand

In 2016, we started adding speciality tracks to our seed program, starting with a Fintech track in the Batch 16 program.

In order to highlight our new Fintech focus, we made the Batch 16 Demo Day poker themed. In order to create an authentic experience, the 500 events team hired a top poker player to give attendees poker lessons and play blackjack. Founding Partners Dave McClure and Christine Tsai also dressed up for the poker theme.

Partly in thanks to a successful Fintech-Themed Demo Day, we saw a 23% increase in Fintech applications to the following batch.

4. Embrace Company Culture

During the Batch 17 program in June 2016, the 500 team and batch companies attended the San Francisco Pride Parade. Pride inspired us to redefine the meaning of “unicorn” at 500. In tech, a unicorn company means a billion dollar company valuation. We decided that being a unicorn also brings about a sense of love and unity. We are not only about making profits and increasing portfolio company valuations but also about celebrating people and culture.

The momentum of the Pride Month continued into our Demo Day planning process. We wanted to use the upcoming Demo Day as a platform to promote 500’s company value of embracing diversity and inclusion. We chose the theme “Beauty & the Geek” based on our B17 tracks Fashion & B2B and decided to break down gender stereotypes by having Dave dress up as the “Beauty” and Christine the “Geek”.

After Demo Day, Microsoft offered to sponsor our efforts to advocate diversity in tech by supporting our Unity and Inclusion Summits. Our open and embracing culture has attracted a very diverse group of companies. In our latest batch, Batch 20, 36% of our batch companies were international (from 10 different countries), 20.5% of companies had at least one female founder, and 25% of companies had a black / Latinx founder.

5. Make It About Your People

At the end of the Batch 17 Demo Day, a flash mob of the 500 team appeared from the audience and started dancing on stage with Dave. The big screen started playing videos of venture capital investors and founders of successful 500 portfolio companies around the world wishing Dave a happy birthday. The B17 Demo Day happened to be Dave’s 50th birthday and our 500 family planned a surprise for Dave.

The Demo Day birthday surprise is just one example of the many things that we would do simply because we care about people. We build the 500 brand by connecting with people on a personal level.

6. Create Positive Emotion

From the previous Demo Days, we began to see that themes created a supportive environment for founders and investors to develop relationships. For Batch 19, we chose a Valentine’s Day theme because we wanted to bring more emotion into the experience.

We dressed up our founders as Cupid (Christine) and the Queen of Hearts (Dave) and decorated the stage with all shades of pink and hearts. Investors could give batch companies Valentine cards that said, “I have my eyes on you!”.



 

7. Leverage Culture & History

Our Batch 20 program was based in San Francisco around the same time as the city’s 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” – the 1967 summer event that drew nearly 100,000 young people to the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Starting from early spring 2017, streets in San Francisco were decorated with the “Summer of Love” theme. We decided to do the same theme for our Demo Day to pay tribute to the city’s history.

With flowers, rainbow-colored lighting and our emcee in a Grateful Dead bear costume, this Demo Day brought a sense of nostalgia to the city many 500 Startups team members call home.



Conclusion

Our Demo Days are instrumental in building the 500 brand. We strive to provide our audience with meaningful content and an engaging format. We make an effort to create an ecosystem which organically brings people together, regardless if they are investors, startups founders or corporate partners.

Learn from the 500 Startups experience, and you can build your brand, stand out from the crowd, and tell people exactly who you are.  Also, incorporate these 7 Marketing Lessons You Can Learn from 500 Startups Demo Days:

  1. Listen to the Audience: Gather feedbacks from your audience, catch the opportunity, and act on it
  2. Reframe the Challenge: Look the problem from another perspective and turn challenge into your advantage
  3. Inspire by your product: Rejuvenate your brand with your new products
  4. Embrace Company Culture: Integrate the company value and culture to create a powerful marketing message
  5. Focus on People: Build a people-centric ecosystem to organically grow your business
  6. Engage your audience with Emotions: Create Positive emotions to Drive Connection and Awareness
  7. Integrate Art to Business: Leverage the power of culture and history in marketing

500 Batch 22 begins July 24th, 2017 in San Francisco.

Click Here to apply for our the Batch 22 Seed Program.

More from Yiying Lu: 


yiyinglu-profile-squareYiying Lu currently leads creative direction at 500 Startups. She is an award-winning artist & designer with more than 10 years of experience in the creative realm. Her projects have been featured in many publications, including The New York Times, Forbes, NBC News, TIME, CNN, BBC, San Francisco Chronicle, TechCrunch, Mashable, and The Huffington Post. She was named a “Top 10 Emerging Leader in Innovation” in the Microsoft Next 100 series. For more from Yiying, you can follow her on Twitter, Linkedin and Medium.

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