My first time attending the LAUNCH festival was in 2012. I had just started working on the earliest iterations of CommitChange with my co-founder, Jay Bolton, and managed to score free festival passes from Jason Calacanis on Twitter. We never imagined that attending LAUNCH would lead to an investment from Mark Cuban, a radically improved business model, and an opportunity to disrupt one of the largest industries in the United States.
Last year, Jay and I were living on tiny stipends and building the earliest iterations of CommitChange. We were totally broke. We could only afford to attend the festival if we drove all the way down to San Francisco from Seattle, slept in the cheapest bunk bed at the seediest hostel, and scavenged food from the conference lunches. It wasn’t going to be a vacation, but we knew this would be a once in a lifetime learning experience. So we put our lives on hold and drove 16 straight hours in one very long day.
Arriving at LAUNCH was like stepping into a parallel universe. Robots whizzing around and talking to people, well-groomed geeks waiting nervously for the 10 minute pitch that could change their lives, and prominent investors wandering through the demo pit, talking to some of the more promising companies. By the end of 3 days, we were overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of LAUNCH. We absorbed as much as we could, arriving early, leaving late, and attending so many presentations that our brains were at critical capacity. After LAUNCH, the long drive home was a blur; we spent the entire trip talking through what we’d learned and figuring out how to apply these newfound insights to our fledgling business.
CommitChange was invited by Adam Draper to join Boost VC‘s 2nd class. We moved to Silicon Valley, Tim Draper made the first large investment in our company, we won the Warm Gun Design Unicorn Award, got an investment from 500 Startups, and then applied (2 weeks late) to demo our growing platform at the 2014 LAUNCH festival. I remember thinking, “I never thought we’d have a chance, but at least we’d be on the radar for next year.” To our amazement, they scheduled an interview the next week. We threw together a product demo, practiced like crazy, and then totally bombed the presentation during the interview. I was nervous, my hands were shaking, my dog was barking at the computer, and I lost any semblance of eloquence. The call ended. Damn. I assumed the worst and moved on to other work. A week later, I nearly fell out of my chair when Jade Tran offered us a table in the demo pit…
Jade had worked in the nonprofit world and, despite my botched presentation, she recognized the value our company was building. Although she couldn’t offer us a mainstage slot, she managed to get CommitChange a table in the infamous demo pit. For the uninitiated, LAUNCH’s demo pit is a chaotic free-for-all of startups hustling their companies, pitching investors, and working out partnerships over a frenzied 72-hour period. Everyone is trying to stand out from the crowd, catch the attention of a unicorn investor, and change the trajectory of their company. It’s a wonderful madhouse filled with a clamor of ambitious voices desperately vying to break through the noise. Our first day was fun, the second day was exhausting, and the third day changed our lives.
Day One: While setting up our booth, we realized that the first obstacle would be generating enough visual interest to pull people in. We were located across from the booth for a flashy holographic smoke-based projector, so I balanced the scales by bringing in a 42” flat-screen and demoing one of the most visually inspiring nonprofits on CommitChange. It was an effective tactic, and a steady stream of visitors began to stop by. We quickly realized that the majority of visitors were random attendees, and we were losing valuable opportunities to pitch investors because swarms of random people either wanted to pitch us on their new location-based, share-economy delivery app for ice cream cones or they wanted to sell us consulting services. Our team adapted by figuring out how to accurately identify notable people and how to speed up less valuable conversations (hint: “Awesome! Do you have a card?”). You have to make every second count or you lose valuable opportunities.
Day Two: At this point, we had 10+ hours of pitch practice and were starting to nail our hustle. We decided to split our team into designated roles: trawler, blocker, and closer. The trawler’s job is to move through the festival, identify important people, and get them to visit our booth. The blocker’s job is to deflect less valuable interactions. The closer’s job is to identify big fish, get them excited about CommitChange, and turn those interactions into tangible outcomes. This system proved very effective.
Pro Tip: Be genuinely nice to the LAUNCH staff. They work hard to make the event a success and they can be amazingly helpful if they like you. There’s no trick here, just be sincere, grateful, and try to make their days a little brighter. Shout-out to Luke Lightning for being a badass and giving us excellent advice.
Day Three: This day changed the trajectory of our lives. We spent the whole day pitching to a dwindling number of attendees and had some success with investors. Some companies started packing up early. We decided to stay and pitch until they physically forced us to stop. Then, at the last minute, I saw a familiar face walking through the demo pit: the legendary Mark Cuban. Nobody had spotted him yet. I quickly caught his eye, demoed our company, and got his email address. He was interested in investing. Holy. Crap. Mark Cuban. Over 30 hours of hustling had paid off. LAUNCH had gave us access to an opportunity that changed our lives.
Our startup is growing faster every day: we’re bringing on two new employees, and my dream advisor, Chris Sinton, joined our team. This is going to be an incredible year for CommitChange. Huge gratitude to the LAUNCH team, Jade Tran, Luke Lightning, Jason Calacanis and of course Mark Cuban. Thanks for reading our story! For more adventures, follow us at @CommitChange and follow me at @SiliconRoderick.