Phil Libin, Tristan Walker, Andy Dunn amongst the startup contest mentors at Southland

By Sarah Lacy , written on May 20, 2014

From The News Desk

Holy. Shit.

Southland is less than a month away.

We haven’t made many new announcements of late, but behind the scenes a lot is happening. I’ve done a decent job of hyping this conference up, but trust me when I say, it’s turning out even better than I expected. (Phew)

Paul Carr and I did a site visit in Nashville a few weeks ago and…. among other things, ate way too much fried food. At one such debaucherous brunch, Paul spent 45 minutes telling me there was no way the venue would live up to my hype, and then walked in and told me I had actually undersold it. (All the credit here goes to our on the ground partners at LaunchTN btw.)

We also spent some time with members of the local tech community, who have embraced the event as their own and are being great hosts. In fact, the South as a whole has embraced Southland. There’s even a group of VCs and entrepreneurs coming from Atlanta who’ve chartered a plane for the occasion. If you live in driving distance and haven’t gotten your ticket yet, what are you waiting for? This is your event too, and we want you there.

Meantime, we just finished weeding through hundreds and hundreds of applications to get our final ten companies who will compete in the startup competition. We’ve just given them the good news and they’re all sworn to secrecy, so I won’t tell you who they are now. But it’s a great cross section of industries, geographies, and there’s even-- shocking!-- some gender diversity in there.

There are no social media aggregators, no badge companies, nothing lame. Some of the ideas are strange, swing-for-the-fences, and may fail. But we optimized for potentially big ideas, over boring sure things.

Two aspects of the startup competition have been particularly fun for me to put together. The first was our syndicate of judges-- which we have finally rounded out and include judges outside the Valley & NYC to mix it up. They include: Tige Savage from Revolution; South Carolinian Peter Barth; Michael Goldstein from DC; Zach Ware from Vegas and Erik Moore from BaseVC. This is in addition to our already announced judges. (See my profile of the remarkable Kirsten Green here and our PandoMonthly with Josh Kopelman here.)

The judges are required to invest $10,000 each in the winner of Southland, with the terms negotiated live on stage. I put a lot of care into assembling a syndicate of investors that I would want to have, with diversity across experience, geographies, sector expertise, and personality. Any startup is going to be lucky to have this group.

But even more fun has been hand-picking mentors for these startups, and that’s what I’ve been working on the past week.

When I wrote before that the startups would have mentors, I think people thought I meant random Joe Schmoes or sponsors or pals of the organizers who talk a good game about building a company, but haven’t really built anything themselves. No way. As an entrepreneur myself, I take this shit seriously. There is nothing worse than someone lecturing you who has never walked in your shoes.

Indeed, people kept asking if they could be mentors for the past few months, and I’ve been stonewalling. I didn’t want to choose any mentors -- no matter how fantastic-- until we had our finalists, because I wanted to select people who could specifically help each startup.

Fortunately, we already had a lot of amazing names coming to Nashville, so I’ve asked some of them to do double duty. Phil Libin, Andy Dunn, Tristan Walker, and others jumped at the chance to stay longer and help a fledgling startup out. No matter how successful, everyone remembers what it was like to be giving that first terrifying pitch. That’s one thing I love about the startup world.

Without divulging too much about the finalists, imagine you are, say, a payments startup. Can you imagine a better mentor than Bill Ready, the guy who just sold Braintree for nearly $1 billion? If you are building a hardware company for the first time, can you imagine a better mentor than Liam Casey-- so called “Mr. China” who has helped the largest and most innovative American tech companies navigate the world of manufacturing and atoms?

To be clear: We’re making big asks of these mentors. They are required to do two Skype sessions before Southland, a 1:1 at the event before the pitch, and they’ll be on stage with the founders to help them defend against our panel of hard-ass judges.

That’s the way we’ve constructed this startup competition from start to finish: Everyone who comes near it has skin in the game, not just the entrepreneurs. And we do too. These ten companies are our rockstars, and we’re excited and proud to play a tiny role in making their dreams come true, live in front of everyone.

[Image by Hallie Bateman for Pando]