Fewer companies, more mentoring, real investments: Announcing Pando's $100k startup competition

By Sarah Lacy , written on March 3, 2014

From The News Desk

I've been thinking about startup competitions well before we decided to co-produce Southland this year. I've been thinking about startup competitions for decades.

Jason Calacanis and Michael Arrington took them to a new level with the original, excellent concept for a TechCrunch20 conference which grew into two existing franchises: Launch and Disrupt. The key was killing the payola scheme that existed before and leveling up the benefits that startups would get for participating. Namely, press and intros to investors.

Those conferences are still ongoing, and I know that Launch at least is still discovering great companies-- I was a judge there last week and am a huge supporter of it.

But we think there's room for a different, new approach-- particularly one held outside San Francisco. A way to give even more value to the companies launching, and to make the whole thing a lot more fun to watch for the audience. And so, at our Southland conference later this year we're hosting our very first Startup Competition, with a grand prize of $100,000. Applications open right now.

I'll get in to more details about the companies we're looking for in a moment. But first a few words on how we hope to make the format more interesting, for both the participants and the audience...

I love watching startup competitions, but even I start to glaze over after about six pitches. These competitions just have too many finalists. And there are always some obvious cuts that could have been made. At Disrupt, we all knew who the top ten favorites were before the thing even started.

So why not just focus on those top ten? We are only going to have ten entrants in our startup competition, the ten best companies we can find from anywhere in the world. We don't have an age limit-- every once in a while there is a bootstrapped beauty out there that's been in business for years but is about to release a new killer product. That said, eligible companies can only have raised a maximum of $1.5 million in funding, and the more undiscovered you are, the better. Those ten companies are going get all our press attention that other contests have to spread across forty or more companies. Those ten are going to hog all the attention from judges and investors backstage. Those ten are going get 4x the resources and attention and help they'd get anywhere else. Our whole team will know them all by name.

And, because we'll only be featuring 10 companies, no one will have to pitch as the 15th company of the day. No one will present before glazed over eyes. We are going to work hard to make sure they all get almost the same enthusiasm and attention as if they were the first pitch of the day.

Another reason startup competitions aren't more interesting for the audience is that all the most interesting stuff happens off stage. The fears leading up to the pitch. Practicing the pitch. The meltdown back stage when the demo doesn't work. The intense arguments between judges and staff about who should win. Trust me having put these on before: The five minute demo on stage is the least interesting part, comparatively.

So for our startup competition we're going to have a video crew documenting these ten finalists the entire week of Southland, and we'll bring some of that backstage drama to the stage (and You will get to see how the sausage is made and why the winners were picked.

So much for the entertainment. How can we make sure entrepreneurs get more out of it? Generally there are three benefits from startup competitions: Media attention, coaching, and cash. As described above, our startups will get a flood more media attention, at least from us, and hopefully from all the other members of the press we invite.

Coaching: I don't know how other startup competitions do it, but I know both pre-AOL Disrupt and Launch spend a lot of time coaching entrepreneurs on how to pitch. They've always had a great respect for how scary it is and wanted to set them up to do the best they could on stage. The problem is having Heather Harde or Jason Calacanis personally coaching every company only scales so much, and can only imparts the same (admittedly deep) wisdom.

And so we had an idea: What if, instead, we paired each company we select with an awesome industry vet who has real world expertise in the same area and could help the startup get ready for launch day? We will handpick a mentor just for each company. That mentor will work on the presentation with them, battle test them for the hard questions the judges will ask and in the process, hopefully, give them guidance on their business as much as their pitch. I could coach these companies all day long. But I know entrepreneurs and investors in the Valley who can do a way better job at it than me.

Even better: Their coaches will be there at Southland on stage with them. That awkward moment where a powerful judge rips into a startup, and the startup doesn't know how to respond without seeming rude? Yeah, their coach will be there to have their back. And this coach knows the business beyond a five minute pitch.

And then there's the cash: First off, we're giving more of it than many startup competitions. The prize is $100,000. But the exciting part is that oversized check is not coming from Pando's pool of sponsor money. Each of our ten judges are required to put up $10,000 of their own money as an investment in the winning company. Wanna be there to help new startups get off the ground? Great. Put your own money where your intention is.

We're handpicking that angel syndicate to be thoughtful, tough, and distributed by geography and industry. Today's we're announcing the first five: Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital, Shervin Pishevar of Sherpa Ventures, Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures, Kevin Colleran of General Catalyst, and Nashville's own Vic Gatto from Jumpstart Foundry. (Disclosure: Both Kopelman and Gatto are Pando investors. Shervin's previous firm Menlo Ventures was an investor in our seed round as well.) Between them, these five investors have stakes in many of the hottest mobile, content, and commerce companies of the last decade, but to our knowledge they've never all been in the same syndicate before. We'll announce the second five very soon.

And one more thing: The terms of that $100,000 investment will be negotiated on stage, moderated by our hosts for this startup competition, our own Paul Carr and Thrillist and Lerer Ventures' Ben Lerer. (Disclosure: Lerer is an investor in Pando, through Lerer Ventures, and Paul Carr... well... works here.)

Add in the whiskey and this is pretty much a mad lib of everything I've ever wanted to see in a startup competition for the last ten years. It's going to be almost as good for the audience as it will be for the startups.

The application form is open now. You'll need to include some basic info about your company (and the specific product you want to launch, if that's different). Plus we're asking all entrants to include a short video of their pitch (existing demo videos are ok, but the more effort you put in to your entry, the better) so you should probably have that ready before you click the link.  Any questions, ask them in the comments and we'll do our best to help.

Come on, y'all.

[Image adapted from Thinkstock]