Lessons From Winning the SXSW Interactive Accelerator Competition

By Phone2Action Co-founder Ximena Hartsock

This week, three years ago, my Phone2Action co-founders and I celebrated our win at the 2013 SXSW Accelerator competition. It had been only three months since the launch of Phone2Action when we made the trip to Austin to compete.

During that time, I’d just recently transitioned from a career in government and education advocacy to technology. So this was not only my first pitch competition, but also my first time at SXSW. This week, as SXSW 2016 draws to a close, I’m sharing my experience and takeaways from the 2013 competition.

1. “In labouring to be concise, I become obscure.” — Horace

There are two major challenges a SXSW Accelerator competitor has to skillfully overcome:

1. You only have two-minutes to pitch.

2. And if you’re the presenter, you aren’t allowed to advance the slides.

As if a two-minute pitch isn’t challenging enough, couple it with the fact that you’re pitching a company in start-up phase where many aspects of product development and the business model are still being fleshed out. If your startup has revenue, make sure to highlight it. In our case having revenue helped us immensely, and it separated us from the pack.

Even though I’d just begun a career in tech, I instinctively knew my accent- I’m originally from Chile- would distract the judges, and with only two minutes to pitch we, could not afford any distractions. Leaving nothing to chance, I decided that my co-founder Jeb Ory should pitch and I would run the slides.

When we arrived to Austin, we spent all the time we could to prepare for the initial two-minute pitch. We skipped the parties and practiced until we achieved perfect sync between the pitch and the slides. Then, we spent hours running through questions and answers. This prep was invaluable to win the competition but ultimately helped us see our product concept in a different light. It allowed us to think with rigor about the business we were building. Because startup founders have a tendency to get caught up in the day-to-day, a start-up pitch is a great exercise that forces you think with more clarity about your product. The discipline and focus it takes to be concise are great skills to develop and use in the long run. As Pascal puts it, “If I had time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

2. “There are no menial jobs, only menial attitudes.” — William J. Brennan, Jr.

Ok, so moving the presentation slides may appear to be menial work. It’s not. The coordination and rhythm we achieved between the pitch and the slides were key to impressing the judges. In pitch competitions it’s not enough to have a good company idea. You must show traction and convey how your product works.

With that in mind, we added a call-to-action demo at the end of the pitch. Since we couldn’t add a live demo to the slides, during the pitch I unexpectedly walked to the judges table and showed my computer screen to them. It was certainly a risk, but it gave a better illustration of how the platform works. I made the decision to pass on the opportunity to present, because it felt like the right thing to do for the company. However, this didn’t stop me from thinking outside-the-box from my role in showing the slides. The judges’ reception was very positive, and the move proved to be worth the risk.

My advice: Never let your ego get in the way of greatness. If you are a woman you will get lots of advice about how to make yourself relevant in the technology world, but my inclination has always been to do what is best for the company. If you have any doubt about your decisions ask yourself, “Is this good for the company or good for me?” Your answer should always put the company first.

3. “To do more for the world than the world does for you, that is success.”– Henry Ford

Just a week before we went to SXSW, we joined the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). CTA did introductions for us and cheered us on during the competition. When we learned that we had won the competition, CTA’s Laura Hubbard and Michael Brown were the first people we told. Today, we continue to be proud members of CTA. Our relationship with CTA has grown, and their genuine desire to support companies, regardless of size, has remained consistent. Startups can expand resources by associating with organizations that care.

4. “I’m not in competition with anybody but myself. My goal is to beat my last performance.” — Celine Dion

While this may not apply across the board for start-up competitions, at SXSW participating is winning. This year, more than 500 companies applied to compete and only about 10 percent actually qualified to pitch. This includes companies from all corners of the world. SXSW history has proven that not only winners like Siri (2010) and Pinterest (2012) achieve great success after the competition, but also companies like Klout (2009), who didn’t win, can still become household names. If you’re launching a start-up, apply to the SXSW Accelerator competition. The prestige of the contest paired with the vast media exposure creates a great opportunity to get noticed by customers and investors. More than 50 percent of the companies who competed have gone on to receive funding in excess of $1.7 billion, and 12 percent have been acquired.

5. “Innovation doesn’t have a Zip Code.” — Ximena Hartsock

I first got the idea for Phone2Action while living in Sacramento. We could have easily moved to San Francisco, but instead we joined the Think Big Partners accelerator in Kansas City, which proved to be exactly what we needed at the time. They offered workspace, seed funding, guidance, and an opportunity to collaborate with other innovators.

The notion that Silicon Valley is the best place for technology can be misleading for companies in startup stage. There are plenty of cities, like Kansas City, where startups flourish. These ecosystems where foundations and VCs come together to support entrepreneurs are not rare, and startups should make a point to explore as many as possible.

In 2013, the Kauffman Foundation, which is based in Kansas City, rented a bus for Think Big Accelerator members and entrepreneurs in the area to travel to SXSW. At the time Phone2Action didn’t have any employees or a big following, but we did have lots of Kansas City friends and supporters wearing Phone2Action t-shirts cheering us on.

Today, Think Big Partners remain one of our biggest supporters, which just goes to show that innovation has no frontiers.

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