TechLaunch Startups Evolve Through Candid Feedback at Demo Day Practice, Part 2

Photo: SeamBLiss founder Shawn Oates presents his practice pitch to investors and advisers. Photo Credit: TechLaunch
SeamBLiss founder Shawn Oates presents his practice pitch to investors and advisers. | TechLaunch

On Sept. 5, 2012, 10 TechLaunch startups, very early in their evolution into ongoing concerns, practiced their Demo Day pitches before six seasoned investors, advisers and entrepreneurs.

In Part 1 of this story, NJTechWeekly.com discussed the overall day’s message and shared examples of what the companies were advised. In Part 2 we continue to cover the coaching given the TechLaunch startups.

TechLaunch, located at Montclair State University, is N.J.’s tech accelerator, formed with assistance from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA) and several angel investors to jumpstart the Garden State tech startup ecosystem

On the panel were veteran industry executive Bob Barbiere; serial entrepreneur and investor Mike Ajnsztajn; angel, consultant and professor Gina Tedesco; entrepreneur-turned-angel-investor and business adviser Joel Cartun; TapFame cofounder and CEO Satjot Sawhney; and TechLaunch founder and general partner Mario Casabona. TechLaunch executive director Travis Kahn sat in on the session and offered his insights. To continue:

Presenting next was Photoflow, pitched by founder Dan Ackermann, who said he wants to solve a problem faced by many brides: they never get to see photos taken by wedding guests. The company wants to sell a sleek photo booth-type system directly to catering halls, to be offered as part of their package deals to brides. The booth would be connected to a cloud service that would aggregate all the photos taken at the wedding. Barbiere questioned the business model because of the need to service local hardware, but others, including Casabona, were enthusiastic about using catering as a distribution channel. Ajnsztajn urged the company to pivot to get beyond the hardware issue. “I think this is a viable business, but is it investable?” Tedesco asked.

Pervasive Group’s James Zhou presented MMGuardian, an app that lets parents control when and where their children engage in text messaging. One company differentiator: this app doesn’t seriously affect phone battery life, as do others. Ajnsztajn told Zhou to show the actual product, not in a live demonstration but page by page, to explain its features. Tedesco suggested changing the slides to ensure people understand it’s a product that has already been downloaded 45,000 times in the  Google app store for Android devices. Casabona thought a matrix would be a better approach to show the competition. “I think you have a real human product. Not many people can say they saved a life,” Barbiere said, adding, “You glossed over the fact that you have a 4 out of 5 rating. Very few apps have this kind of rating.”

Flying Kick presenter Luis Croussett pitched his company’s idea for menus and ordering on proprietary tablet computers, which would eventually be integrated into restaurant POS systems. He was advised to change the order of his slides and explain up front how customers interact with the menu. He was also told to make sure the business’s back end, how the restaurant sets up the menu in the cloud, is clear. “I’d like to see a slide of how you will scale this business,” Barbiere said, and Sawhney suggested that distribution could be very hard with this model. “I didn’t come away from this presentation thinking this was something restaurants needed,” Sawhney added, so the company has to emphasize just how much money this approach would save a restaurant.

Pitching for NickelBus, Nicholas Catania described his bus routing system, which allows users to investigate rides offered by not only big bus companies but smaller, regional carriers. This lets them book trips from, say, Washington, D.C., to Albany, N.Y., without having to visit several websites. The company expects to create affiliate deals with top bus companies, which will result in their routing options appearing at the top of search results lists. Panelists noted the investment audience is removed from having to take buses, so it needs to be reminded about the size of this market and the real business opportunity here. One investor said he wouldn’t commit money unless one of the affiliate deals had a memo of understanding. Another said the company should consider partnering with firms that automate bus scheduling for smaller carriers.

SeamBLiSS, presented by Shawn Oates, created a lot of buzz in the room because it had a great set of slides. The startup is connecting clothing designers who can offer custom fit to consumers who need custom clothing. Often these designers are with small shops that don’t get enough exposure. Some investors took issue with the company’s business model, which involves charging designers for exposure on the site. Ajnsztajn preferred a straight e-commerce model giving the site a percentage of sales. Several panel members suggested changing the slides’ order to make an impact and emphasize that real people are already using the site in a pilot project.

CodeSquare’s Salvatore Salpietro pitched his startup, which wants to “channel offline relationships, online.” The company offers a way for retailers to let cellphone users obtain offers by taking them online. It does this in part through Quick Response (QR) codes, but there are many alternatives. The panel was down on using the codes, saying the slides needed to be revised to reflect the other methods. “Your business is turning into a commodity. You have to show investors that your commodity is better than the others,” Ajnsztajn said. Cartun noted the company wasn’t sufficiently clear at the pitch’s beginning about what it does. One slide showed an exit strategy, but Barbiere said the company is too new to have one. He suggested replacing that slide with one showing what is going on in the market.

The final presentation was given by Jason Webley of True College Bound, which recently changed its name to LivinSport to follow the suggestion to choose a name that more closely reflects what it does. Webley’s company is developing a social network for college-bound athletes that will connect them to trainers, fans and especially coaches who want to recruit them. The panelists praised Webley’s presentation and enthusiasm for his product, but Cartun said he wasn’t sure how the startup would make money or get universities to buy in and sign up. Ajnsztajn said the company needed to work on the roadmap to monetization, and Tedesco requested more “meat in the middle” of the presentation to present a clearer image of the target market. The advisers liked the idea of using former NFL players, among others, to interact on the site.

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