Demos should be considered an essential craft that founders and leaders hone as it has the power to influence many high impact moments. Rather than go through the motions, build a demo muscle that forms the cultural identity of your company.
8 Feb 2021 · 7 min read
Demos are the higher-order bit of story-telling for startups. It is a compass for authenticity and its value cannot be underestimated. A great demo is priceless
During my time at Atlassian we productised many of our operations or rituals. The result was the Atlassian Playbook. My contribution was co-creating the Project Poster and Demo Trust. We developed these plays (and many more) as scaffolding to scale during a period of hyper growth for the company.
The plays gave us a common language when working on feature proposals, new initiatives and offered a dedicated forum to refine and improve the product experience via demos. They served as guardrails for our freshly minted teams.
However these plays were not optimised for startups that are running fast and could benefit from a more streamlined approach. So I wanted to provide a guide that's a short and sweeter remix optimised for seed stage companies. It contains the essentials that will illuminate a path to a solid demo.
A great demo is priceless
The best part is there are opportunities to demo around every corner. Each moment is a chance to build this muscle and make it a part of your company culture.
One of my formative experiences as a founder was early on in my first startup. I showed a rough demo of a shortcut feature at a conference and I unexpectedly heard ooh's and ahh's from the crowd. Boy did it give me conviction about our direction. It was validation of how powerful a demo is for storytelling and we were acquired less than 3 years later. But what was it about that demo that cut through to make a difference?
In his book The Macintosh Way, Guy Kawasaki wrote a chapter called “How to Give Good Demo,” where Kawasaki suggests that good demos should be short, simple, sweet, swift, and substantial, and that starting with a script that satisfies these requirements is the foundation for success.
This advice is still valuable today, but I'm going to argue that above all it needs to be authentic. Why? Because often you are continually tuning different aspects of your demo and so it's okay to compromise on some of these points early on. But when you give an authentic demo you really:
Eliminate natural misunderstandings that may stem from verbal & written descriptions alone
I recently finished reading Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda about his takeaways as a software engineer and designer at Apple in the early years. One of the core concepts in the book is they often used demos, dog-fooding and continual refinement as tangible expressions of ideas from creators and stakeholders and let natural selection decide which would thrive or go extinct. While this book focuses on an insiders' experience at Apple, this culture was certainly not exclusive to Apple. I had similar experiences as a leader in prior companies.
Similarly you have opportunity to integrate the practice of demos neatly into your existing learn, build, measure cycles. The steps below are a guide in developing that muscle 💪
Conduct preliminary research: Clearly articulate why you are doing this.
What problem are we solving?
Impact of the problem?
What data to we have to support our thesis?
Explore your assumptions: Document what you know, don't know and must achieve.
What additional data do we need to obtain?
How do we judge success? Quantitative metrics & qualitative observations.
Synthesise the demo: Create a compelling narrative for your demo.
Defining & refining your demo
When developing your demo DNA ideally embody your product and customer facing teams such that there is a shared accountability of authenticity. In other words, call bullshit when a demo does not fulfil the promise of your mission or what you are setting out to do in your regular planning cycles. But always make sure you do it thoughtfully.
A demo can take many forms such as live presentation, video, or storyboard. They each have their purpose and can be useful, particularly as organisations accept flexible work arrangements. Practical examples I've adopted in the past:
Use the demo medium that suits best
But hold the fort! I hear you hark "I have an API or platform that does not have a traditional user interface". Fear not, all of this is still very much applicable. In fact you should be even more invested in a demo. But the difference is about expressing the possibilities and/or seeding with one or more examples to inspire your audience which is often a developer. In these cases I tend to lean on great documentation, live samples and lowering the barrier to getting started.
Here are some inspirational demos or experiences that invoke some or all of the ingredients we seek in a great demo and loosely follow the narrative flow above:
As founders and product leaders, you strive to tell meaningful stories that are authentic. This virtue must shine on in your demos too. If you are nailing all the points above you should be achieving the following outcomes:
Conviction = validation + excitement + alignment
The sum of these parts results in conviction for you and potential investors. In short it represents a path to unlock funding and provides a succinct and tangible communication tool.
Consider your demo an important company capability
Proactively developing your demo DNA will benefit you and your startup as it is a powerful mechanism to cut through so many things that often get lost in translation. Think of it as a vital part of your founder or leadership arsenal.
An authentic demo can be truly game-changing. After all, isn't that what we are all striving for?
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