The Start-up Shootout

Earlier this week, I was privileged to serve as one of three judges in the NFAIS session, "Start-up Shoot-out," in which four different young or start-up companies presented, were peppered with difficult questions from the judges and the audience, and then waited to hear who would win a free NFAIS webinar as the winner of the shoot-out.

Loosely based on formats like ABC's "Shark Tank" and TechCrunch's "Startup Battlefield," the event was as fun and interesting as I'd hoped. Eric Swenson from Elsevier/SCOPUS did a marvelous job as our drill sergeant/moderator, keeping what could have been an unwieldy session tight and on-time. The other judges -- Chris Wink and James Phimister -- were excellent, bringing a nice style and great questions to the proceedings.

Going in, we were encouraged to indulge a bit in the theatrical aspects of the motif, which involved being a little edgy, asking hard questions, not letting presenters or one another pontificate, and so forth. This helped make for a session that felt, by scholarly meeting standards, kind of bruising, but in what I thought was a good way. After all, these firms are vying for viability, so tough questions await them, whether we ask them or not.

Volleying questions to the participants, who deserve eternal thanks for tolerating our "tough guy" approach, was interesting. We were told to keep the questions pointed and short. That helped. So, we rarely got a rambling answer, and had full permission to cut off rambling answers, which we had to do once or twice.

There were some puzzling answers, as well. One I will never forget was the answer of "It's confidential" when one participant was asked how his product's business model worked. Given the motif, it was easy to not let that answer suffice. Since there are really only a few business models, this participant was interrogated again and again until we at least could sense a bit more of what was behind the screen. It did not engender confidence.

Determining a winner was surprisingly difficult. There are many factors to weigh when recommending investments, even mock investments, and the current economic climate, the payback period, and other dimensions all factored in.

Once we'd winnowed down the four entrants to the two strongest, it became a bit more of a coin toss. Ultimately, we unanimously felt that the earlier-stage company, which we felt an investor would get a bigger share of at a lower cost, with the strongest network effect potential and a viable freemium model, seemed like the better choice, but only if we were willing to accept a 3-5 year investment window and not a 1-3 term.

Sessions like this are a great idea, and one I hope other meetings consider. To me, this format is an improvement on the "flash session" model. However, a great moderator is key to making it work. Kudos to NFAIS and Eric Swenson for pulling it off.