Getting Your Demos Right

I get demos every day. Multiple times a day. I don’t want to see a powerpoint deck – I want to play with something. I don’t want to hear a description of what you do – I want to see a demo. I don’t want you to tell me your background, where you went to school, or where your grew up. I want to see what you are working on.

I still remember my first meeting with Bre Pettis at MakerBot. I walked into the Botcave in Brooklyn and was confronted with a long, narrow Brooklyn-style industrial building where I could see people working away in the back. But before I got to them, I had to walk through a 1000 sq. ft. area of MakerBot Thing-O-Matics printing away. This was an early “bot farm” and it probably took 15 minutes before I walked the gantlet.  They were printing all kinds of things, there were display cases of other stuff that had been printed, and a vending machine for Thing-O-Matic parts.

MakerBot Bot Farm

When I got to the back where people were working, I totally understood what MakerBot did and what was possible with 3D printing.

We are lucky to be investors in a bunch of companies creating amazing new products. One of them, Oblong, as been working on spacial computing since John Underkoffler’s early research in the 1990’s at the MIT Media Lab. For a number of years they were described the “Minority Report” technology (John was the science/tech advisor to Spielberg and came up with all the tech in the movie.) The following video is John showing off and explaining the core G-Speak technology.

The demo is iconic and amazing, but it takes too long and is too abstract for their corporate customers buying Oblong’s Mezzanine product. The short five minute “overview video” follows.

While this gives you a feel for things, it’s still showing the “features and functionality” of the tech, applying a general use case. For several months, I kept banging on them to set up a simple use case, which is the how I use the Mezzanine system in our office. I use it every day and it’s been a huge factor for me in eliminating all of my travel.

A few months ago, Oblong had a sales off-site to go through the progress they’ve made this year and to focus on the balance of the year. They’ve had a great year, with a strong quarter-over-quarter sales ramp for Mezzanine on both a dollar and unit basis. The customer list is incredible, their classical enterprise land and expand strategy is working great, and new high-value use cases are being defined with each customer. So I smiled when I the following slide popped up on my Mezzanine during our weekly leadership team call.

Feld Oblong Mezzanine Use Case


While a little abstract in writing (I don’t expect you to understand the first three bullet points unless you know how Mezzanine works), when it’s shown in the first five minutes of a demo it simply blows your mind. And you totally get all three of the core technologies that Oblong has incorporated in Mezzanine (spatial computing, pixel virtualization, and data pipelining.) Your next reaction is “I want one.” And then you are ready for the feature / function discussion, which can easily go on for 30 minutes.

There is endless talk about product development and getting “personas developed” while you figure out how to build your product for them. This approach is equally useful for demos, but it is so often overlooked. I can’t tell you the number of times people start just showing me stuff, rather than saying “here’s the problem I’m going to solve for you that I know you have” – BOOM – and then I’m totally captured for the next 30 minutes.

Try it. The first five minutes is the most important with someone like me. Don’t waste it.

  • Totally agreed. That said, 2 comments:

    1) Do you think Demo Days are changing? I’ve seen Demo Days with no demos, just slides. That’s a downer. I’ve seen 2 minute successive pitches, 5 min versions, 8, and 10 min ones. It’s all over the place. Maybe we need a Demo Day Manifesto. Just sayin…

    2) I love the persona identification, but the only risk is that if the target persona is not “you”, you need to be aware of that, and think “oh, it’s not for me, but I can see who will use that.” So, you’ve got to do sometimes a mental “proxy BOOM”.

    • 1. Some demo days are great. Many suck. We work really hard at Techstars to make them great.

      2. Yup – absolutely agree!

      • There has been some posts recently wanting to obliterate Demo Days, saying it’s more for show than substance. I disagree.
        Just because some demo days are done badly doesn’t mean they all have to go.

        • I completely agree with you.

  • [email protected]

    Agree 100% with Brad. I was at 99u Pop-up School event in NYC and pitched MessagePetz to a group from R/GA giving a presentation on prototyping. Introducing myself during audience partication, I said “MessagePetz brings text messaging off smartphones and onto connected devices” Silence from 75 people. I then pulled our prototype out of my bag and said “we make messages huggable” while holding up the bear. Smiles and “awwww”s from the crowd and the R/GA folks, then a 5 minutes chance to go into a deeper dive during the panel and afterwards people approached me 1-on-1 to learn more. Lesson learned? Show, then tell.

    • I love love love “We make messages huggable.” A favorite recent line on mine is “Email crushes your soul. We help uncrush it.”

      • [email protected]

        Thanks Brad!!

        Someone I recently met (John Genovese) at the Princeton Tech Meetup #PrincetonTM just launched a Indiegogo to try and cure a part of the email problem

  • Here is what I have learned, this is for pitching anybody not just VC’s.

    There are many people that still like Powerpoint but you can please them. (I know its easy to say they are so stupid you should not pitch them, but you will leave out a lot of people)

    I used to not have a scripted demo, that was a mistake.

    What you need to do is start with the end. Show the end (that is what Brad has a picture of). Then show how you got there.

    You will be tempted to dive deeply into an area. Don’t. Have roughly 10-20 screens that you go through as if they were Powerpoints. Tell the people (idiots) that want to “just show me your deck” that we are showing you are deck it just happens to be live.

    You should have this at three levels 5, 10, and 15minutes, depending on your meeting. If the person is interested, now they will start asking questions and you go off of script. Then you dive deep and go into an area they want to talk about.

    • Great feedback Phil. I agree that Powerpoint can work. I just personally hate it. But like anything you need multiple tools – there are plenty of people (VCs included) who prefer Powerpoint. @ryanleask:disqus point is super important – tell a story!

  • Ryan Leask

    There are a lot of ways to mess up a demo, but I agree that this is perhaps one of the most fundamental (and common) mistakes. In fact, I put it at #1 on my list of “9 Ways People Screw Up Their Product Demos” (
    “1. They show features and don’t tell a story. Your product is only as good as the problems it can solve for someone. What I want to hear during a demo is what problems you are solving and for who, not a laundry list of features in your product… “

  • The Oblong demos were very interesting, particularly the part about being able to use a variety of input devices. I have a couple of questions tho. The Chief Scientist stated that he gloves were giving better than 1mm spatial granularity. That makes me wonder whether the UI imposes a maximum to be useful for whatever apps. For example, if there were using simple Kinect with no assistance at the user’s hands, what would the spatial granularity be and how would that affect what can and can’t be done at the UI level? Also, what does that fancy rig with the cameras cost?

    • They are input device agnostic so they work with Kinect and other approaches. The Kinect is so coarse grained that it doesn’t have very good control – and for the magic to really happen you want pixel level control. The camera+gloves and the wand+sonar approaches give you this. Ultimately, we believe that we’ll be able to do this without any special hardware beyond the camera and get pixel level resolution – a lot of this is software, some is optics. It’s actually a total blast to use the different approaches, including Leap and other new things coming like Thalmic – once you realize that a spatial OS is totally different than a 2D OS (mouse + screen) you start engaging with the computer in completely different ways.

      The camera rig (full G-Speak) is $500k.

      • I do think the UI paradigm will continue to evolve dramatically. I’ve seen some kewl stuff in the last few years. While not necessarily competing with Oblong, I thought I’d point out a couple of other things that I’ve seen that I like. First is a startup by a CEO I used to work for 😉 Hillcrest Labs ( They were NEA founded to do stuff based on motion sensors a few years back. I believe they settled lawsuits against the Nintendo Wii base on their patents in the area when the Wii was super popular. Second is a sort of UX study done also a couple years back by an independent designer type that I found to be appealing in that the UX experience seemed very well thought out to me called 10/GUI ( that focuses on how to coherently make use of 10 fingers in a multitouch environment. I actually tried to start writing a Linux GUI based on 10/GUI at one point but got distracted… Just some links for fun.

        • Yup – I know them both!

  • Christian

    good read. I wish all investors would share this belief, but to a degree. I have always viewed an angel investors role as one that looks to the future and imagination of what a team can do, meaning that sometimes you are not quite in a position to demo the product yet (hence the need for an injection of capital). Excited to see you guys coming to KCMO.

  • Take a memo! I don’t want to see no stinkin demo!

    • Ah – the joy of disagreeing. The meta message is “know your audience” and the cliche is “to each his own.”

      However, when someone DOES want to see the demo, make sure you nail it in the first 60 seconds.

      • Agreed, it takes all kinds to make a startup world.

  • Nikki Braziel

    We’re working on our presentations now, and this definitely helped me think about the product section differently. It was feeling very awkward to write slides about products we could hold up and explain in 30 to 60 seconds, and I love demoing our products. Maybe a PowerPoint/demo combo would work for us in those five minute pitch settings. I’m a little intimidated by the idea of trying to anticipate all the different sorts of presentations and demos we might be expected to give… Thanks for the thoughts!

  • Tim Enwall

    Two wise people recently said two things:
    – “people buy on emotion and justify with logic” (David Mandell)
    – “customers want to ‘see themselves’ in whatever message or image you present” (Mike Dee)

    This post is more affirmation of that mantra. The demo, when it focuses on the story of human need as its organizing mechanism, can be super powerful implementations of these two marketing comments.

  • I think that your perspective is deep, its just well thought out and really fantastic to see someone who knows how to put these thoughts down so well.


    Awesome! I think that is much better than a stuffed shirt presentation. Get creative!