Startup mating rituals 101

Apr 15, 2011

FORTUNE -- As more people have fled to the startup community for the promise of wealth and freedom, a new tier of gatekeepers have emerged. They’re called “incubators,” and their imprimatur is tantamount to a college degree. It’s like getting a degree from Harvard or MIT, explains David Cohen, the co-founder of TechStars, one of the more successful incubators in the country.

By ceding 6% of their company, startups get an investor, credibility in the startup community, and communion with other founders who are going through the same masochistic slog as they are. The incubators, meanwhile, get a set number of entrepreneurs to mentor and perhaps turn into successful businesses. After a few months of grooming, mentor and founder can then summon hundreds of people to watch their company’s official introduction to society.

Techno-types have a name for this strange ritual: Demo Day. It’s a highly structured and ritualized tradition with a set form, language, and hierarchy. The routine is universal: After months of isolation, sleepless nights, and marathon coding sessions, the time finally arrives for the young startups to reemerge and show how they’ve matured.<!-- more -->

Each startup sends one founder to the stage to wild screams from his or her (and there are some hers!) fellow recruits. The audience applauds politely. And then, usually with a rushed voice, the performance begins. The founders have a set period of time, eight minutes in TechStars’ case, during which they will argue that they deserve a promotion to a higher status, that they deserve to be a startup that has raised a round of venture capital.

On Thursday the organizers at TechStarsNY allowed me to infiltrate a Demo Day and observe this ritual in the wild, along with 750 venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and members of the media. What I found was a community that is committed to a very defined script. Individuality, it seems, can only be expressed within agreed-upon parameters. My field notes indicate those parameters are as follows:

THE DECK: All presentations happen in front of a screen of slides and, in some cases, short videos. How a collection of slides came to be known as a “deck” is a story lost to history. Note, however, that playing cards come in a deck, too. It would not be unreasonable to note the latent parallels to gambling.

THE TECHSPEAK: Throughout, the community’s idiomatic language is on display. ToVieFor, an auction site for luxury fashion, has already “achieved significant industry buy-in.” “People are the best platform in the world,” says Friendslist, a startup that has built what Craigslist would be like if it were created in the Facebook era. And Nestio plans to “dramatically disrupt the real estate industry.” As though the housing bubble wasn’t enough.

THE TAGLINE: Apparently concerned that the elders in the audience won’t be able to remember more than a few words about each company, the startups come prepared with catchy slogans. Red Rover is a “Peer-to-peer learning platform” Having Migration Box means “You don’t have to leave your data behind.” OnSwipe, a design template and ad network for tablets, had more of a cri de coeur than a tagline: “Apps are bullshit.”

THE PROBLEM: Nearly all of the presentations begin with an argument that something needs to be fixed. Crowdtwist is concerned that brands can’t keep track of who’s engaging with the brands and on what “platforms.” Immersive Labs is distraught that digital billboards aren’t nearly good enough at adjusting their ads to the audience that’s looking at them. ThinkNearis frustrated on behalf of the retailers who can’t use group coupons to their full effect. Many of these laments are simply market inefficiencies that are perceived as problems. Whatever we refer to them as, they almost always try to solve definitively first-world issues

THE SOLUTION: The startup is the solution.

THE DEMO: The presenters do not expect you to simply accept that they are The Solution. They intend to prove it to you. They will do this not through an actual live demonstration -- this is reserved only for entrepreneurs who are known and beloved by all of society, like Steve Jobs. Instead they will show you recordings of the product in action as part of The Deck. It’s a cunning strategy -- it forces those in the audience to engage with the product on their own later on, and eliminates the chances of “oops, that wasn’t supposed to happen” glitches overshadowing their vision.

THE BUSINESS: For everyone in the room, currency is the currency. So as a gesture of respect to their audience, the presenters attempt to answer the question that they’ll all ultimately be judged by: how they plan to make money., which pulls all the videos your social network is sharing into one place, plans to let brands curate their own channels. Red Rover, for example, has already made $1.6 million, proof that its model -- charging companies to integrate their in-house social knowledge network -- works.

THE ASK: And now comes the supplication. The presenters, with equal parts humility and thrill, reveal how much money they’re seeking to raise. Nearly all of them have already raised part of it, the way baristas seed the tip jar to guilt others into ponying up. When investors hear the number -- hundreds of thousands of dollars for some, over a million for others -- their default reaction is to not react.

THE REMINDER: And now we’re back to where we began, with a slide that has the logo, The Tagline -- in case the audience has forgotten the snippet that was created for them not to forget -- and the founder’s email address.

With all of this completed, huzzahs from the balcony and reserved applause from the floor return to the auditorium. Now that the eleven startups have presented, they’ll soon have to find their own office space, kicked out of the liminal one inside TechStarsNY’s headquarters to make room for a new crop. But that’s later. For now, some founders are learning they are among the funded, while others are regrouping for a longer season of pitching. But all are off stage and downstairs, mingling with the investors who either spurned or favored them. There they are engaged in an entirely different ritual. They call it “biz dev.” But an anthropologist might recognize it as mating.

--This is Fortune’s column on startups and the tech bubble that may or may not exist. All anthropological critiques should be sent directly to my email. If you’d rather be passive-aggressive about it, there’s also a Twitter feed.

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