[Headline updated to reflect accurate startup count of 45, not 46. That’ll teach you not to do math in your head at 2 in the morning.] One secret to getting through yesterday’s Y Combinator Demo Day, if you were one of the 800 people enduring three hours of presentations at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, was to ignore the perky “We’re X for Y” shorthand summaries employed by so many startups.
“We’re Yelp for Latin America,” said one startup. “We’re Git for documents,” said another. “We’re eBay for capital equipment.” “We’re Stripe for shipping.” (Also: “We’re Stripe for printing.”) “We’re Uber for flowers.” (Also: “The Uber of food.”)
Such comparisons get a startups’s idea across quickly, without stretching the listener’s mind too much; they’re used to pitch TV shows and movies for exactly the same reason (“it’s Annie Hall meets Splash“). But these glib descriptions are usually incomplete, even misleading. Worst of all, they make it sound like today’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are no longer innovating, but simply recombining bits of previously successful companies into Franken-startups.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The 45 startups that debuted publicly at yesterday’s pitchfest were, as a group, as daring and impressive as any I’ve seen (and I’ve been going to YC demo days since 2010, when they were a lot smaller and less organized). There were companies out to replace e-mail, go Google Glass one better, and change the very protocols underlying the Internet. Others, meanwhile, are trying to stir up backwaters like the legal profession, banking, real estate, restaurants, mental health services, international money transfers, and the laundry business. For every predictable social-media-analytics or try-before-you-buy e-retail startup there was something genuinely surprising, like the True Link credit card for cognitively impaired seniors.
I’ve summarized all of the public pitches in the captions for the slide show above, in the order they were presented. (Three companies gave off-the-record pitches.) My picks for the companies to keep a close eye on: Amulyte, Ixi Play, Hum, True Link, SoundFocus, Crowdery, and CoreOS.
Here’s another tip for audience members struggling to stay alert through dozens of demos: ignore the charts claiming “30 percent week-over-week growth” and “a $4.5 billion total addressable market.” If a tiny, early stage company sells one widget in the first week of its existence and two widgets in the second week, it has achieved 100 percent week-over-week growth. If its product serves a major market, and it’s the lucky outlier that ends up making other offerings look obsolete, then yes, the company may eventually be able to put b’s in front of its illions. Until then, such bluster says nothing about its real merits.
YC teams are evidently coached to dazzle the gathered investors with lots of dollar signs, and to brag about any goofy metric that’s at hand. If I were presenting, I’d want to talk about my product and how it’s different. But then, I’m a storyteller, not an entrepreneur.
Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.