The Emmys this past weekend were foreshadowed by the “Geekies” — otherwise known as TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield — the pitch pinnacle for launching your product. I don’t know of one Founder that I’ve coached over the years who hasn’t secretly dreamed of taking the stage at Battlefield.
This year, more than any of the companies competing, another company launching their startup was in the spotlight: Comma.ai — a company that claims that by the end of the year, for under $1000 your car (any car) will be able to drive you from “Mountain View to San Francisco (about an hour drive for all non-valleyers) without touching anything.” That’s a pretty ambitious and exciting promise! Sounds like they could have won Battlefield hands down had they been competing!
The buzz around comma.ai was as much about the product as as the presenter, George “Geohot” Hotz, the infamous Hacker who is best known for be the first person to “jailbreak” the iphone. I’ve seen many comments on his pitch and style, some saying they couldn’t stand it, some saying it was brilliant. Here’s my perspective:
Simple Solution — This is probably the best explanation I have heard anyone give on Machine Learning. If you put aside the bit of Geek Speak, what he’s basically saying is in order to get a machine to do something on it’s own, you have to use sensors to take in information and then “actuators” to translate it into “outputs” or actions. So basically you can teach a machine to do anything, like drive itself — if you put enough data in. “Let’s have the world teach us to drive.”
Lesson Learned — Simple is Smart! Take complex concepts and break them down so anyone can understand them. (He could have done without some of the jargon but it was done well)
Easy to Understand Demo — He goes on to show “chffr” — their Android app (and later the iPhone version dash) that basically is a dashcam app which has recorded a bit over 700 people (That’s not a big number…) driving hundreds of thousands of miles and teaches “their” self driving car to drive, from a phone — no expensive hardware. (And here’s his first company bashing — Uber — more on that later). Towards the end He also showed a prototype of their actual self-driving car device, the comma.ai, which basically replaces your rear view mirror (self installed) and drives instead of you. Though it was a rough mock up and sketch, it got the response he wanted. I will bet you that every geek in the room was salivating at the prospect of having a self driving car by the end of the year…
Lesson Learned — Show, don’t Tell — Let us see what a product looks like and imagine ourselves using it.
But somewhere in the middle it all started to go South…
What Didn’t Work?
Breathlessness — It might have been nerves, or it might have just been copious amounts of hot air but Mr. Hotz was not breathing enough, leaving him gasping for air. That makes the audience feel breathless as well and not in a good way. It almost made him seem like he was on something — in fact the host commented when he finished that she’ll have some of what he’s on — he said “I’m on boredom! I’m bored!”
Lesson Learned — BREATHE!!! If you’re nervous, your body automatically stops breathing which in turn makes you more breathless and you end up gasping and looking and feeling nervous. Deep, yoga-like breathes at the right moments keep you seemingly calm. And try not to spazz out.
Bashing the Competition — First Uber got bashed for using expensive hardware to teach their cars to drive, then it was Google who was “never going to ship,” then it was Otto who “was hungry but then got millions upon millions of dollars from Uber.” (Yes, they were recently acquired by Uber for a reported $680M — not bad for a young company…) then Tesla — well, he actually said he had the “utmost respect for that company because they actually shipped a self driving car” so Elon Musk emerged rather unscathed from the “Wrath of George.” He went on to say that there “wasn’t nearly enough trash talking in Silicon Valley” and proceeded to bask the “Jokers” — MobileEye, (Whoaaaaa he doesn’t like them!!! And he continues to bash them in the interview after!!!) Drive.ai, Zoox, and the worst bashing of all, Cruise who as he said promised to ship a self driving car but then were acquired by GM and he called them a “sellout.” What did he hope to achieve by this? Piss people off? I’m sure that happened — imagine how many investors sitting in the room were invested in these companies? Be memorable? Well, yeah, that worked. Have a bazillion people hear about the fuss and watch his pitch? Yup. Leverage his credibility by knocking the competition? Mmmm nope.
Lesson Learned — Don’t talk trash about your competition — or anyone for that fact. Not only do you run the risk of offending or pissing off people, it takes away a lot of your credibility because instead of thinking how confident you are, they’re probably thinking — “boy if he talks this must trash I wonder what he’s saying about me?”
What’s amazing to me is in the interview with Darrell Etherington after the pitch, he seems like a nice guy, a sweet, kinda shy kid that gives solid answers to questions — a bit more bashing done, but had I not seen the pitch I would have really liked this guy. Some people just do better in one on one conversations than in pitches and there are ways to overcome this and pitch with the ease that you convert. So Mr. Hotz, I have a feeling you will be in the public eye quite a bit in the next few months while you polish the UX of your product, I’m happy to help polish the UX of your pitch. :)