At Demo, it's speed dating for products

Tech confab gives 65 companies a mere six minutes to tell investors and customers why they should care. Photos: Innovation on display

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif.--Think six minutes is enough time to explain a piece of technology? Ask the companies presenting at the Demo fall conference here.

They get 360 seconds--that's all--to attract the notice of the hundreds of reporters and venture capitalists on hand for this two-day conference on innovation. If they haven't made their point after six minutes, they're out of luck.

Yet for presenters, reporters and VCs here alike, Demofall is a rare breed of technology conference, one that distills a presentation to its essence and gives those on hand a unique chance to see dozens of companies' products and services in a very short period of time.


"I think it's great," said Walt Mossberg, a well-known Wall Street Journal technology columnist. "Demo is absolutely one of the best conferences (and) one of the most valuable uses of time if you're covering technology or investing in technology."

The idea behind Demo, which was started by in the early 1990s, is that companies are given a short period of time--their six minutes--in which to make their case to the audience of more than 1,000 people. Later, companies get a second chance to pitch reporters and investors one-to-one on the show floor, where each company has a small booth.

If a company's presentation isn't compelling, the theory goes, the reporters and VCs won't visit their booth.

"It's short-attention-span theater," said Chris Shipley, executive producer of the fall event. "If you're not liking what you see on stage, don't worry, it'll change in a minute."

Indeed, Shipley and her crew are tough taskmasters. If presenters go beyond six minutes, they're cut off. The schedule is rigidly followed and companies know that if they're supposed to be on stage at 11:22, they'd better be ready at 11:22. And they'd better be prepared to impart their message quickly and colorfully.

"It forces the companies to really think about their value proposition and focus on that," Shipley said, "and everything in this presentation should be focused on explaining and demonstrating that value."

Surprisingly, the presenters seem to appreciate the Demo format, despite the fact that it forces them to be 100 percent disciplined and leaves little room for error.

"I think it's a great format, because, frankly, it forces you to be compelling," said Kate Purmal, CEO of U3, whose presentation about a USB device that can port PC workspaces from computer to computer was the first demonstration of the show. "We ended up with a much more concise, compelling presentation we'll end up using all the time now."

One thing all presenters here share is having had to practice their demonstrations--which inevitably start at well over six minutes--over and over in order to shave them down to six strong, on-point minutes.

"We started out with a longer demo and then honed it down, eliminating any unnecessary words," Purmal said. "We got it down to five minutes and 15 seconds because, if anything went wrong or I talked slower, we wanted to have time to finish."

Dean Tucker, CEO of Light Crafts, a company here to present its LightZone photo editing software, said that preparing for Demo meant spending an almost endless amount of time practicing and being ready in case something goes wrong.

And that seems to happen constantly, especially since a particularly fierce rain and lightning storm hounded the conference from early Tuesday morning on into the afternoon.

The upshot of that, along with the fact that many presenters were depending on access to a public wireless access point, resulted in several companies discovering onstage that they didn't have the Internet access they needed to proceed with their full demonstrations.

Yet Demo has very little sympathy for such problems. Instead, presenters must grin and bear it. And keep going.

"I probably have been through this thing 40 or 50 times," said Tucker. "You just have to have plan B, C, D and E ready to go."

Still, like any polished presentation, a Demo demonstration can be a piece of theater, something some of the companies here leverage well, while others don't.

For example, one company, Feeva, opened its six minutes with a singer and a bassist playing the tune to "You Give Me Fever."

Ultimately, the point is to have the audience remember a company enough so that they later take the time to visit on the show floor.

And for those in the audience, Demo is an opportunity to see more technologies than they would see at multiple other conferences.

"The heart of Demo," said Mossberg," is just show me a zillion products."