The Disrupt Experience

9/21/11

The decision to apply to TechCrunch’s Disrupt Battlefield competition wasn’t an easy one. TalkTo had been operating in stealth. We didn’t want to launch publicly, we wanted to launch successfully.

Something changed once that application went forward. None of us knew if we’d even be selected as a finalist but we worked as if we would be. We were laser focused on what needed to happen before the public launch.

It wasn’t just the product that had to come together. It was the total experience, the feel of the brand and logo, the messaging. Making sure you can communicate well with beta users, and that their experience is delightful from start to finish. That the promise of TalkTo––the ability to text ANY local business and get a text response-–-could be realized.

We were somewhat deflated a few weeks later when we hadn’t yet heard from TechCrunch. And then we got an email—at midnight—from now editor Erick Schonfeld asking if we could answer a few questions and demonstrate the product, right away. He was keeping the same hours we were!

We connected the next morning and the demonstration went really well. I think Erick saw something special that fit the Disrupt model. We felt there was a strong chance we’d be selected. And we were.

Riley, my co-founder, and I met Erick in New York one week before the conference to rehearse. We were horrible. The product performed great but our ability to describe it was poor. Erick gave us some much needed advice.

It’s worth noting that this was a tumultuous day in Erick’s life. The drama surrounding Mike Arrington’s potential departure from AOL and TechCrunch had erupted the day before. Just as we were to meet with Erick, it wasn’t even clear if he still worked for AOL or TechCrunch! All was up in the air. Still, Erick took our meeting on time. He was spot-on with his advice. Not once did he let the drama interfere with our meeting. We walked away really impressed.

Final touches were put on the product and website, and we re-wrote our script a few more times with help from friends. The night before the big launch, we asked Erick if we could pitch him once more. Again he hated it. In fact he thought we’d gone backwards. The product could be magic, but our ability to let it shine? Not so magic.

To say we weren’t feeling great at this moment is an understatement. Over a beer and dinner, we hacked away at our script. We decided to take out half of the words and tell a real story about how you use TalkTo. In that one hour-–-the day before we were to present to thousands of people-–-we changed everything.

We wanted to show the audience you could talk to ANY local business so we decided to do a live demonstration on stage. Riley would get a table at Zuni Cafe, he’d have flowers waiting at a local florist chosen by one of the judges, and then he’d get a room at a hotel, chatting in real time with the reservationist. All of it would happen in the space of a live six minute demo. It was risky but pulling it off would be magical.

And it worked! The judges were impressed, and sent us on to the final round the next day. We were elated and exhausted.

At 2:40 AM we received an email saying “Congratulations!” We’d been selected as one of six finalists to present that next afternoon. By 4 AM we were up, ready to work. It would’ve been easy to do the same thing but we wanted to show the breadth of TalkTo. This time we used TalkTo to chat in real time with a local bakery to order some treats. We pulled up a daily deal and sent a text to the business to ask a question for that night’s presentation. And we asked one of the judges to pick a bar so we could find out whether they had Anchor Steam on tap. It was tough to smoothly pull this off in the space of six minutes-–-all with text messages-–-but we took the chance.

The judges had great questions. Any entrepreneur that’s raised money will tell you that pitching investors isn’t easy. Doing it live, on stage, in front of some of the world’s best is another level altogether.

Backstage, it was finally done. Time to enjoy some beers with our amazing team. We’d launched TalkTo to the world, and it was received with open arms.

P.S. Our favorite tweet of all?


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Stuart Levinson is the co-founder and CEO of TalkTo, a mobile startup in Cambridge, MA. His last company, Venetica, was acquired by IBM. Follow @

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