For MBAs seeking a career in the world of technology, the true test of their carefully constructed business plans can often come down to a six-minute performance on stage in Silicon Valley and San Francisco in September.
Demo Fall in Santa Clara and TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco’s South of Market area are held at the same time, and compete to host the best start-ups as they battle for recognition, prizes and the attention of venture capitalists. It all comes down to that strict six minutes in the spotlight, where amateur dramatics experience, a few props and some flawless demos count more than any business calculations in convincing an audience that a start-up still in its infancy can succeed.
There are American Idol-style VC judges giving their opinions and asking questions, but unfortunately no system of shutting up and counting out the lamest ideas.
After viewing dozens of these presentations at both shows last month, I realised that imaginative pitches can help, but they cannot hide any lack of originality and appeal in the business concept itself.
I was appalled at the delivery of some of the presenters – one sounded like a town crier in the way he shouted out the features of his product. Others charmed with their attempts, particularly some of the youngest MBAs.
A case in point was Zero2One, whose mobile app presented at Demo Fall is designed to help prevent back pain. The start-up comprises three Stanford University graduates – a physician, an engineer and an MBA – who started out without a business idea.
They were given six months by Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavours venture fund to come up with something. After conceiving and rejecting 52 ideas, they settled on a service that could help people improve their posture and avoid back problems.
Lumo Back consists of an app and an adhesive sensor that can be attached easily by anyone to their spine. The founders showed how the app picks up data from the sensor to give a representation on the smartphone’s screen of your current posture, showing whether it is good or bad.
The app can make the sensor vibrate if a person slumps while sitting, and it awards points and shows charts of how well the person is sitting, standing or moving in the course of a day or week.
It was a confident demonstration and it addressed a need, with 80 per cent of Americans expected to suffer back pain at some point.
Zero2One was one of a handful of “DemoGods” chosen, representing the judges’ favourites.
Demo Fall did not confine itself to Silicon Valley start-ups. There were many international entries, and Aurasma from the UK was the big winner, with both DemoGod and People’s Choice awards.
Aurasma’s aura of success comes from its augmented reality technology – it describes itself as the world’s first visual browser. Its presentation seemed like a magic show. A copy of The New York Times was held up to the camera of an iPad, and a picture of Osama Bin Laden on the front page suddenly came to life on screen as video played where the photo had been.
The linking of an image to such digital content creates what the company calls “auras” – and these can be changed at will so the video report could be updated with newer material. Also, moving the iPad’s camera around did not disrupt the video, which stayed within its photo frame.
We were shown a Harry Potter movie poster transformed into live action with 3D effects, and a 3D building rose from a 2D floor plan placed on the ground. With Harry Potter-style wizardry like this, it was easy to see how an audience could be wowed by the pitch, and Aurasma could emerge as overall winner.
After the auras, we had aurals over at TechCrunch Disrupt, where the entertainment continued with a string quartet accompanying a presentation by Tonara, which described itself as a Kindle for sheet music.
It was actually just an iPad app, but we were able to watch as a red bar moved across the sheet music as the app heard and recognised the notes played, helping everyone follow their parts and automatically turning pages for them. A singer was introduced, but her voice did not distract the app from continuing to hear the instruments and accurately keep its place.
While this was all easy on the ear, Shaker shook things up by throwing a party on stage. This was meant to illustrate that this kind of real-life social networking could not be imitated by a website like Facebook or LinkedIn.
Shaker unveiled its alternative – a virtual night club where people can dance as avatars while listening to the same music. The avatars have bubbles over their heads showing their Facebook pictures and profiles. Conversations can begin by walking over to someone on the dance floor.
“This is not a game, this is real life,” Shaker said, though the cartoonish figures and setting looked pretty unconvincing, even compared with something else less than real, like Second Life or The Sims.
However, the judges were impressed. TechCrunch’s founder revealed he was investing in the Israeli start-up and Shaker was declared the overall winner of a $50,000 prize, out of 31 start-ups presenting and seven finalists.
Shaker may not have been the most original business idea, but it had style and it was already proving popular – a beta version had attracted tens of thousands of users. And, of course, with its victory, it now had the excuse and the money to throw a proper party.
Apps for printing, phoning and remote computing
PrintCentral Pro (iOS)
Printing a document from an iPhone or iPad is made easy by this $10 app.
It works best when a small program called WePrint is installed on your local computer, giving the app instant access to any printer it uses. PrintCentral also has hooks into Google Docs, the Dropbox file storage service, and is able to print attachments straight from email.
Photo printing, converting files into PDFs and even dragging files between a computer and an iOS device are all no problem for this versatile app.
Line 2 HD (iOS, Android)
Line2’s founder claims to have completely replaced his office desk phone with the large-screen iPad version of this app – using its built-in speakers and microphone as a speakerphone or linking up a Bluetooth headset for more private conversations.
The app is free, but for around $10 a month Line2 provides you with a US phone number and free calling over wi-fi to phones in the US and Canada. There is unlimited texting and conference calls with up to 20 people.
Splashtop XDisplay (iPad)
Splashtop has come up with a series of Android and iOS apps that tap its server software installed on a remote PC.
So a Windows PC desktop can appear on an iPad’s screen and be controlled from it from anywhere in the world with Remote Desktop and you can see what the PC’s webcam is seeing with its CamCam app. A computer can be controlled from across the room with Touchpad and the $5 XDisplay lets you prop up the iPad next to the PC as a second monitor.