11 Ways to Practice for a Pitch Competition

Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

What’s the best way to practice for a pitch competition?

1. Record Yourself on Video and Watch It Back

Brittany HodakWhile practicing for “Shark Tank,” one of the most intimidating pitch competitions on the planet, I found it very helpful to video my pitch and watch it back until I was satisfied with my performance. Watching on video with another person for objective feedback, if possible, is a great way torecognize and correct any flaws in your speech, hand movements, posture and more.

– Brittany HodakZinePak

2. Practice With a Time Limit

Andrew ThomasThe hardest part of pitch competitions is the short time you have to make the pitch. Plan for success by timing yourself while youpractice. There are two benefits. First, you can alter the length to ensure you‘re as concise as possible. Second, you can create mental “markers” so you know where you are in your pitch for each minute of the pitch. This helps keep pace when you feel nervous.

– Andrew ThomasSkyBell Video Doorbell

3. Write and Rehearse

Corey BlakeAs a frequent presenter, I set up time blocks in my calendar — one hour per day, four days a week for two weeks. During that time, I rewrite my presentation from scratch each time. Writing it over and over helps solidify the key points in my mind. Then I set up time blocks to actually go through it out loud and I’m ready to rock. The key to this formula is keeping those appointments with yourself!

– Corey BlakeRound Table Companies

4. Don’t Have Too Many Notes

Kofi KankamMost slide presentations have too many notes. Try practicing your presentation with an increasingly fewer set of words each time untilyou can whittle it down to seven words or so and give a consistent presentation. Then, you are ready.

– Kofi KankamAdmit.me


5. Practice in Front of the Meanest Friends You Have

dave-nevogtGet people from your circle of friends who have the most difficult personalities and tell them you want them to be really mean to youwhile you present. Tell them that if they make you lose your cool, you‘ll buy them coffee or something similar. Then don’t stop practicing until you can get all the way through without losing focus. You‘ll go into the pitch competition with total confidence.

– Dave NevogtHubstaff.com

6. Practice Using a Microphone

David CiccarelliSo many entrepreneurs obsess over their slides but fail to grasp the basics of a good performance. Project your voice by speaking louder than you think is necessary. If you can, practice with a microphone. Hold the microphone right up to your chin, literally against your face. And never point the microphone at the speakers. That’s what causes that screeching feedback.

– David CiccarelliVoices.com

7. Forget That It’s a Competition

Blair ThomasRather than trying to “beat out” your competitor, remember that the point is to win the pitch for your business. If your pitch is off, it doesn’t matter who you‘re competing against, you will have lost an opportunity without any intervention from anyone else. Refine your language and messaging; be passionate about what it is you‘re trying to communicate. Lastly, be clear, concise and confident.

– Blair ThomasEMerchantBroker

8. Learn From Others

Cody McLainIn order to make it less intimidating for yourself, watch how someone else presents a pitch — there are plenty of TV shows dedicatedto this (“Dragon’s Den,” “Shark Tank”). If you can see what went wrong (or right) in someone else’s pitch, you can just as well incorporate those properties into your own.

– Cody McLainSupportNinja

9. Practice With Distractions

Afif KhouryHave your kids run in front of your screen, have your Internet go out — create imperfect scenarios. You know your pitch, and if everything runs smoothly, you’re fine. But this is the real world. It’s not going to go smoothly. Every time I help an entrepreneur practice for a pitch competition, I close his or her computer halfway through and say, “Your computer just died, but please continue.”

– Afif KhourySOCi, Inc

10. Make Your Own Slides

Andy KaruzaYou will be much more well-versed with your presentation if you actually make it. Surprisingly, some people have others make portions or even all of the presentation deck. Spend the time to make the content yourself, but have somebody else make it look nice if you need it. Your memory retention is higher for something you actually write or create.

– Andy Karuzabrandbuddee

11. Practice Like You Play

Eric MathewsDavid Cohen of TechStars fame said it best: “Practice Like You Play.” Put yourself into the same context and setup as you will find at the competition. That means standing up without notes, do-overs or looking at the screen. You stand and deliver a pitch in practice as if the judges and investors were standing right in front of you. Otherwise, you risk practicing in mistakes and crutches.

– Eric MathewsStart Co.


Diversity in the Triangle – a list of women and minority entrepreneurs

As our community continues to grow, more and more women and minority entrepreneurs are launching, leading, and growing amazing companies. Take Tatiana Birgisson of Mati Energy Tea, she went out and crushed the Google for Entrepreneurs Demo Day and Anil Chawla, the founder of Archive Social, took home the $100K from Steve Case’s Rise of The Rest tour. These are just two of the many great examples of awesome people we have right here in the triangle.

With the help from folks like Derrick Minor and Ellie Gamache of American Underground (much thanks!), I started to comprise a list of females and minorities in the entrepreneur scene along with business resources / mentor-ship available to both females and minorities

Woman led companies, entrepreneurs and investors in the Triangle:

Food and Beverage:

Slingshot Coffee Company
Mati Energy Tea
Raleigh Raw
Videri Chocolate Factory
Raleigh Brewing
Simply B Gluten Free
Gadabout Food
Bombshell Brewing
AC Restaurants (Ashley Christensen)
Fiction Kitchen
The Cupcake Shoppe
ORO Restaurant
Bida Manda
Pie Bird
Cast Iron Group (The Cookery/ Dashi)
SweetPea Bakery
YAWP bars
Escazu Chocolate
Nighthouse Kitchen & Bakery
Yellow Dog Bread Co.
Empress Room
C. Grace
Sweets By Alexandria

Clothing / Retail:

Vital Plan
Edge of Urge
Scout and Molly’s
Raleigh Denim
High Cotton
Nora & Nicky’s
Moon & Lola
Martian Creations
Lyf Shoes
Impress Coffee
Lisa Stewart Designs
Kenda Kist Designs
Dear Hearts
Clique Publique
UVO Luxury
Ramble Supply Company
Arrow + Sage
Textile Scents


Hostel Rocket
Sprout Pharmaceuticals
Imangi Studios
Wiser Systems
ArtHive Online
Albright Digital
Akili Software
MedPro Rx
Remedy Health
Axial Exchange
Thrive 47
Task Torch
Clave BIOdesign
Mlinzi Vaccines
Intelligent Campus Solutions
Nine Oak Media

Marketing / Professional Services:

Brooks Bell
Greenroom Communications
One Woman Shop
TJA Accountant
The Paystub People
WunderBar Translations
MMI Public Relations
Crossroads PR & Marketing
Sepi Engineering
Carolyn Scott Photography
Mulkey Engineering
Phreckles Photography
Simply Photography
Esther Campi (Campi & Co)
HeskethOak City Labs
Abby Nardo Photography
BWPW Photography
Glenwood Agency


Innovate Raleigh
Leadership Exchange
Headbands for Hope
Redress Raleigh
Activate Good
Umstead Hotel & Spa
NC Theatre
Visual Art Exchange
SOAR Triangle
e51 Community
Raleigh Arts Collective
Nicole Wicker Consulting
Change The Triangle
Shannon Andrews Consulting
Art of Cool Project
HEAT Studios
Turn Me Loose
Live Work Play

Women doing awesome things and involved in the scene:

Mayor Nancy McFarlane
Christina Motley
Delisa Alexander
Noreen Allen
Sheryll Waddell
Heather Allen
Jan Davis
Jennifer Meeks
Carter Worthy
Liz Tracy
Allyson Sutton
Samantha Attard
Molly Demarest
Ellie Gamache
Jennifer Stanigar
Jes Averhart
Laura Baverman
Melissa Kennedy
Amy Huffman
Lizzy Hazeltine
Reagan Reynolds
Dana Calder
Jessica Mitsch
Cicely Mitchell
Kelly Sexton

Minority Led companies, entrepreneurs and investors:

Food and Beverage:

J Anthony’s BBQ Sauce
Lonerider Brewing
Eschelon Experiences
Nickelpoint Brewing
Bida Manda

Clothing / Retail:

Martian Creations
Nyla Elise


Global Data Consortium
Archive Social
BioPharma Advisors
Singh Development
Remedy Health
ELXR Health
Global Market Resources
Maintec Technologies

Marketing / Professional Services:

Sepi Engineering


Parks Hospitality


Office Hours – HQRaleigh, American Underground, The Startup Factory, Groundworks Labs, and many more local organizations widely publicize that they hold free office hours with local professionals. To my knowledge, no one has ever been turned down based on gender or race.

Structured programming – Organizations like CED, SCORE, and Entredot have structured programs to help small (and established) businesses get off the ground. Most of their programming is free, but some events and programs do have a small cost.

Soar Triangle – Backed by Google, the yearlong program offers tailor-made mentoring and investment opportunities for four female-led startups. Soartriangle.com

Black Girls Code – Based out of American Underground @Main, BGC focuses on girls aged 7-17 in hopes to help fuel the passion for a STEM focused career path. http://www.blackgirlscode.com/

E51 Coffee Connections – Peer mentoring groups, which are part of the new Entrepreneurial Ecosystem powered by women. Contact HQRaleigh.com for more info.

Derrick Minor’s email – The most comprehensive entrepreneur and startup focused event list delivered right to your inbox every few weeks. To sign up visit derrickslist.com

American Underground has launched an initiative to have its membership be comprised of at least 50% females and minorities. To back this up they’ve hosted events and organizations such as Black Girls Code, partnered with CODE2040 to launch an Entrepreneur in Residence program to support minority led firms and launched Soar Triangle to close the funding gap for female led firms.

Of course I couldn’t possibly cover everyone and every resource. If I’ve missed something, please feel free to either comment on the blog or email me will@vergestartups.com

Entrepreneurial Tips from a CPA CEO: Neil Berman on Founding, Leaving, Returning to and Growing Delivra

When the stereotypical entrepreneur is a 20-something with a sales or marketing background shooting for the moon, Neil Berman stands apart. He had a career in accounting before founding Delivra, an email marketing service provider that’s a “unicorn” in its own way.
The company itself is a rarity in the software world: it’s profitable. I spoke with the CEO about the advantages his accounting background gave him and what’s in store for Delivra.

Watch the full interview with Neil Berman here:

Dot-com Boom Beginnings

The year was 1999. Adoption of the Internet was rising rapidly, and Berman wanted in on “what I felt was a really big thing.” A former employer had once told him that if he could find a business that met three criteria – faster, better, and cheaper – he should go for it. Berman’s wife was working for the postal service at that time, and when he compared email communication to regular mail, Berman felt it met all three: “I stuck my stake in the ground and went from there.”

Entrepreneurship, CPA-Style.

Until then, Berman was an accountant: “I still belong to the Indiana CPA Society.” Working on the public side of accounting, he gained an inner look at many companies and what made them successful… or not. When starting his own company, Berman just didn’t buy into the classic entrepreneurial model of raising money, growing as fast as possible, and selling out. Between his conservative mindset and desire for independence, he opted to not seek investors and instead grew organically, initially starting Delivra out of his own home.

“I’ve seen entrepreneurs with great ideas, but the faster they grow, the more money they lose. Then their business collapses, and they don’t really understand why.”

-Neil Berman, Founder and CEO of Delivra

To this day, the company is opening a new regional office every three months without having to raise money or get a bank loan. When mentoring others about entrepreneurial finances, Berman said, “I find that either their eyes glaze over or they’re afraid to ask questions because they don’t want to appear stupid.” He emphasized that it’s vital to understand your business’s key performance indicators, especially what you have to do to break even. “If you’re in school today, take some of those accounting classes that you hate,” he advised wryly. “I didn’t like them either, but it’ll be useful information someday.”

On Walking Away…

NeilBermanLike fellow CEOs Steve Jobs and Howard Schultz, Berman left his own company and returned, but for a very different reason. Six years ago, Berman’s wife became ill and passed away very suddenly. Devastated, he hired a team of five to run the company’s functional departments in his stead and traveled the world: “I didn’t know if Delivra was going to be my future. I had to get grounded again.”

…And Coming Back.

Two years ago, Berman did return: “Coming back home to email software felt comfortable for me. I loved the software business and wanted to take it to the next level.” However, while the company was still profitable, competition had considerably heated up during his absence, and sales had flattened: “What we were doing previously had stopped working.” Berman jumped back into the saddle and set about determining Delivra’s future.

On Consultants and Dirty Laundry.

Since he knew the business, the market, and the competition, Berman had a vision for Delivra’s path forward but hired consultants to help him make a more informed decision. After “doing what consultants do” – surveying and interviewing customers, staff, and people both inside and outside of the industry – they presented a recommendation that aligned with Berman’s hunch but was better defined and more actionable. When working with consultants, Berman stressed transparency: “You need to be communicative about everything. Air the dirty laundry.”

“The Magic Differentiator.”

DelivraToday’s email marketing industry is competitive, but Delivra is investing a lot of money in product development to offer clients a robust marketing solution. But perhaps its biggest differentiator is its focus on building relationships with clients via its expanding network of regional offices and offering them product enablement help up front: “We find that to be a magic differentiator. Although it costs more, we’re going to close more sales, and that’s how we’re going to grow the business.”

A Crash Course on Email Deliverability.

Delivra takes pride in helping its customers’ emails reach inboxes the right way: “Today, delivering email with the blizzard of spam that’s out there is challenging. It’s part science and it’s part art.” Watch Berman’s crash course on email deliverability and list hygiene →

How do you try to apply a financial mindset to your entrepreneurial venture? Comment below!

See Delivra for Yourself on May 14th!

It’s pretty awesome to see what Delivra has built in Indianapolis, Indiana. We use Delivra at Verge and I’m blown away by the people at this company. Come meet them for yourself at Delivra’s open house on May 14th. Hope to see you there! Click here to RSVP →

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Using Data to Change an Industry: The felix + iris Story

felix-and-irisWe live in an era where “big data” is more of a buzzword than a business tool, especially for a small or medium-sized team. Solving problems with data is a noble, if cumbersome, task and many teams just aren’t up for it.

The team at One Click Ventures, however, isn’t built like most teams.

As the founders of the online retailer, Randy and Angie Stocklin saw a problem. They were providing world-class eye wear to their customers, but their customers weren’t nearly as satisfied as Randy and Angie wanted. It was extremely difficult to ensure that customers were getting the exact right fit. They were providing a world-class product, but they weren’t providing a world-class experience.

Data to the rescue.

Introducing The felix + iris Brand

The problem that Randy and Angie were really observing is a lack of specificity. If I, a 20-something kid with great vision and impeccable sense of style, went to their product page, I’d see the exact same results that my sister, aunt, or mom would see. Sure, you can have customers self-select their product page based on a number of criteria, including gender and product type, but how can you get them to self-select their product page based on face shape or lifestyle?

felix + iris was introduced to solve this problem.

Their team built an online “Fit Profile.” This short quiz uses customer-specific data to create a customized online store for each individual user. So when I go to shop at felix + iris, I’d see a product page filled with glasses like this:


If Hunckler went to shop at felix + iris, however, he’d probably see a product page filled with glasses like this:


This is the future of E-Commerce. A lot of E-Commerce sites already use browsing, search, or social data to market, but few are customizing the entire customer view. This is a solution.

Using Data to Solve Customer Problems

This really fits under a general theme. How do you use data to solve customer problems? What can your startup learn from felix + iris? Here are a few tips on how any business can replicate this approach:

Collect a Lot of Data

You can’t know solve problems with data unless you’re willing to collect it first. Whether it’s a survey, buying patterns, website flow, or demographic data, make sure you’re collecting as much data as you can get your hands on. The more systematic the approach is, the better.

Take an Objective Look at Your Customer’s Process

Randy and Angie had a world-class product. A bad ownership team would stop there. Randy and Angie didn’t settle for this, however. For them, they wanted a world-class buying experience, and that can be much more difficult to achieve. Don’t get blinded by your own biases. Make sure you understand the weaknesses in your offerings inside and out.

Start Small if Necessary

Not everyone needs a customized web store for each individual customers. Don’t think that you need to build something great and extravagant on day one. Use the lean startup approach and build something with what you have, even if it isn’t Earth shattering.

This Sounds Interesting, I Want To Learn More!

What a coincidence, you’re in luck!

We’ve already announced our big September event with Connections. What we haven’t announced is our big October event and what makes it so special.

As a premier brand for fashion eye wear, felix + iris is going to be launching in New York City for Fashion Week, but after talking to Randy and Angie, they want to take that magic and bring it back home to Indy. This October, One Click Ventures is going to be rolling out felix + iris on the Verge stage and teaching the community about solving consumer problems with data.  Between all the data nerds, fashionistas, and the awesome, secret downtown location this party is going to be bumping and you won’t want to miss it!

Mark your calendars for Wednesday, October 29th. More info to come.

In the meantime, tickets are going live for our September event this week! Keep an eye on your inbox. You won’t want to miss your Verge Connections Experience!

Step Back to Move Forward

It’s a difficult notion to comprehend, and an even harder realization to experience at a personal level: sometimes, the path to progress requires us to pause, assess the path we’re on, and decide that the best move forward might be an entirely new one. StepBackMoveForward

And when we’re pushing in multiple directions at once, the knowledge gained from stepping back for a second can prove invaluable.

I have some exciting news for you today, Verge nation!

After 9 months as your executive director, I and the Verge team have learned a lot. After adding a few key contributors, and once Matt jumped back into Verge activities more extensively a few months ago, we’ve seen tons of forward progress. It’s shown us that the most exciting path forward is a wide one, and will require many hands.

I’m thrilled to announce that Verge will continue to move forward by growing our team, and that I’m taking on a new role with the team.

Matt Hunckler will focus on some exciting new initiatives and supporting our Verge Hubs in other cities. Tim Hickle will continue to help us create online content (and will be on stage more, too). And several other members of our community are stepping into new Verge roles.

And we’re hiring! If you know of a Project Manager-type who would be interested in joining the Verge team as our full-time Operations lead, drop me or Matt a line.

Ohanian Synnestvedt HuncklerStepping back and finding new ways to approach opportunities has yielded improved strategies and tools for the Verge team to provide the most value we can to you, the community we care so deeply about. And, by stepping back, I’ve found something of a new path of my own, too.

In addition to continuing my work with Verge in an editor and volunteer capacity, I’m:

  • Building a solution for autism therapy I hope to tell you more about from the Verge stage soon
  • Working with awesome clients to launch products and market online
  • Looking for my next adventure in marketing and sales

So, it’s with immense gratitude that I would like to thank you for being a member of our amazing community, and for allowing me to serve as your executive director for this past year. You’ll continue to see posts and updates from me here, I’ll continue to help you and Verge however I can, and together, we’ll keep moving forward!

Synnestvedt Verge Team

Two Companies to Watch: DCODIA and Social Sweepster

2 Companies to watchCamera and image-based technologies are at the core of two Verge startup companies. And, while their businesses couldn’t be more different, both founders draw from close personal experiences to focus on a problem they know well. Both are pitching at Verge on April 24th.

These startups approach interesting problems with novel solutions that are well worth keeping your eye on.

Picture This: Two Image-based Startups to Watch

DCODIA Decodes Dyslexia

Co-founder and CEO Kris Parmelee recently said, “Necessity is the mother of invention and I’m the mother of a dyslexic child.”

Kris at DCODIA


Frustrated with the lack of assistive technology for her son’s needs, Parmelee decided to solve the problem herself.

DCODIA is a discreet mobile solution designed to help dyslexic students read without the assistance of a parent, teacher or tutor. With it, readers who get stuck on a tricky word can un-stick themselves—which means greater freedom and independence for dyslexic students everywhere.

And, thanks to the unique data tracking features baked into DCODIA, dyslexic students will soon have better insight into precisely where their challenges are and how to overcome them.

Social Sweepster Cleans up Your Act

As a recent college graduate, Tom McGrath wanted to make sure that he continued to carry the lessons he picked up at Indiana University with him. He didn’t so much want to carry every beer he’d had at school with him, though. But with the proliferation of social media into so many aspects of our lives, Tom (and countless grads like

Tom at Social Sweepster

him) discovered that it’s not so easy to leave your digital footprints behind.

Enter Social Sweepster, the image recognition platform that promises to simplify putting your best foot forward online. The tool scans users’ social profiles and flags unbecoming photos (how many solo cup photos do you have on Facebook?) so graduates can be confident stepping into the “real world.”

Social Sweepster isn’t alone in the image recognition market—but as Facebook, Google and Apple are already snatching their competitors up, the future looks bright for this young company.

Continue reading

The Music Marketing and Technology Festival that isn’t for Jerks

If you’re familiar with the Indiana technology and marketing crowd,  you may already know Douglas Karr. He’s worked for over a decade in  Indianapolis to drive innovation and growth through the doors of some of Indy’s most exciting startups.

For those who haven’t met Doug, well, he’s outspoken. And his voice carries. He’s been called arrogant and a jerk before, especially the occasional target of one of Doug’s spectacularly sarcastic tweets or Facebook debates.

But for those of us that do know him, he’s humorous, kind-hearted and has helped many individuals find employment, many companies find customers, many technologists find solutions and he continues to open his door to anyone in need.

Case in point is the upcoming Music Marketing Tech Midwest (MTMW) event that Doug is leading.


Musicians, Marketers and Technologists Rally for Blood Cancers

What is #MTMW? Well, in a nutshell – it’s a music and technology festival with a charitable twist.

This musical and tech jamboree will mesh together live music performed by today’s hottest local bands, duets and singers (Kaleidostars, Bleedingkeys and The Whipstitch Sallies), while showcasing the city’s most promising marketing and technology companies.

It’s even rallied support from PERQ, Right On Interactive, Digital Relevance,  TechPoint,  Angies List and Tinder Box. Packed with all the essentials every memorable party requires, hundreds of Hoosiers will drink, eat and dance to the groovin’ musical styles of small town favorite bands. And it’s all happening on Sunday, April 27 at The Rathskeller.

And every dollar raised from ticketing, sponsorships, sales and donations will go directly to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Indiana to support blood cancer research.Leukemia Lymphonma Society

You see, our city possesses this amazing relentless ability to create change in society. Sometimes it takes just one man (maybe Doug Karr) to put a little plan into action. And since Doug has spent years examining the drive and potential Indianapolis possesses, he wanted to create a city-wide movement towards forever impacting the way blood cancer is viewed.

He doesn’t seem like a jerk now, right?

So, unless you’ve worked or partied with Douglas, you probably don’t know him. It’s time to party with Douglas. And there’s no better place to do that than at #MTMW.

Because when you support MTMW, you’re not just supporting Doug. And you’re not just supporting the Indianapolis Music, Technology and Marketing communities, too. When you support MTMW, you support Hoosiers in need – which means you’re not a jerk, either.

Eager to get involved with #MTMW? For up-to-the-minute updates on MTinMW, like the event on Facebook and follow it on Twitter.


12 of the Most Powerful Questions You Can Ask a Mentor

We all need mentors in order to be successful, but how can you make the most of that relationship and make sure the setup is fulfilling for your mentor as well? Today, we invited in our friends from the Young Entrepreneur Council to answer one question:

What’s the most valuable question you could ask a mentor?

Reid Carr1. How Would You Like Me to Follow Up?

A lot of mentors want to know they made a difference. They want to know what you did as a result of the conversation you had with them — even if you didn’t take their advice. They want to know that their time was well-spent and they are making a difference.
Reid Carr, Red Door Interactive


Kristopher Jones2. Why Do You Do What You Do?

Ask your mentor why he does what he does. Successful people often have very strong reasons for why they do what they do. If you can identify why you want to do something, the “what to do” and “how to get there” will often come much more naturally.
Kristopher Jones, ReferLocal.com


David Ehrenberg3. What Mistakes Have You Made?

Everyone makes mistakes. The mentor who willingly owns up to these mistakes and helps you to avoid making the same ones, is a valuable resource and ally. The openness to share mistakes is a good sign that your mentor is candid, will look out for your best interests, and is invested in your future success.
David Ehrenberg, Early Growth Financial Services


Emily Eldridge4. What Factors Do You Consider Most Often When Planning for the Future?

This can be situated as a short- or long-term question, but it gives you the opportunity to discuss everything from his core beliefs to problems that need solving to what to learn. While your mentor isn’t a fortune teller, this discussion serves as a catalyst for many ways for you to develop.
Emily Eldridge Holdman, PeopleKit


Divya Dhar5. How Do You Spend Your Time?

Time is — in a way — the most precious commodity. Understanding how to make the most effective use of time is crucial. Often, the most successful people have figured this out, and it’s worth asking them where they spend their time and how they feel it benefits them.
Divya Dhar, Seratis


Parker Powers6. What One Thing Do You Still Struggle With?

What is the one mistake, habit or pattern that you still haven’t overcome after years of business?
Parker Powers, Millionaire Network



Natalie McNeil7. What’s One Thing You Would’ve Done Differently?

I think most people say, “I have no regrets,” but really, there are things they would certainly do differently if they had a time machine. I like hearing what my mentors wish they did differently and what mistakes held them back so that I can learn from those.
Natalie MacNeil, She Takes on the World


Derek Flanzraich8. What Do You Mean?

Mentors usually don’t want to be revered; they want to help. So, pretending you know everything they’re talking about is a big mistake. Often, you genuinely don’t, so don’t be afraid to ask. They’ll respect you more, and, of course, you’ll probably learn something, too.
Derek Flanzraich, Greatist


Mary Ray9. What Are You Trying to Accomplish This Quarter?

This question invites a wealth of short-term and long-term opportunities for you to learn and do a few things. It helps you understand how your mentor tends to problem solve, enables your mentor to see you in a new light as a resource to help and gives you a chance to deepen your experience in an industry of interest. Consider any question you ask your mentor a two-way street of opportunity.
Mary Ray, MyHealthTeams

Robert de Los Santos10. What Would You Do if You Were Me?

The biggest question to ask is what they think you should do. Explain what position you are in, and leave out all the fluff about how awesome you are. Make sure they have a true understanding of your business and look them dead in the eyes with open ears. If they think you’re serious and actually looking to act on their advice, they will usually give you the best advice.
Robert De Los Santos, Sky High Party Rentals

Charles Gaudet11. What’s One Question You Wish You Asked Earlier?

Peak Performance coach Tony Robbins once told me that the difference between success and failure is much smaller than most people think. The key is to uncover the subtle distinctions that separate those who have from those who don’t. So, I’d ask the question, “What’s one question you wish you asked someone but didn’t?” This may help expose what your mentor felt was most important to him.
Charles Gaudet, Predictable Profits

Aron Schoenfeld12. What Can I Do Better?

Too often, people rely on their mentors for specific situations or how to handle a particular issue. Mentors are there to help guide you as a person and help you grow bigger and better than you currently are. Ask the hard questions such as, “How can I improve?” or “What do I do now that I can and should do better?” Use them to guide you all the time — not simply when an issue arises.
Aron Schoenfeld, Do It In Person LLC

Case Study: Relevance on Navigating Startup Acquisitions

Digital Relevance Startup StoryWhen an entrepreneur takes to the stage or the web to tell their story, it’s often because they have achieved a major milestone or recently had a big win. This is, of course, fitting–we can learn a lot about what it takes to succeed by studying each other’s successes. By sharing what works at conferences, online and in communities like Verge, we both enable others to reach for higher goals and inspire others to achieve them.

But as they say, the best lessons are often the hardest ones learned. And as entrepreneurs, it’s often difficult for us to share our most significant insights because they are our hardest earned–and are the most humbling to talk about. So when Jeremy Dearringer and Kevin Bailey, two of the co-founders of Relevance, joined me on stage to share some of their most significant insights, I knew we were in for a special night.

Case Study: Relevance Founders on Navigating Startup Acquisition Offers

Passion and Youthful Enthusiasm Fuel Growth

Digital Relevance Post

Jeremy Dearringer and Kevin Bailey, Co-Founders of Relevance, share their insights on how to navigate startup acquisition offers.

Bailey and Dearringer developed interests in the internet and marketing from an early age. They loved learning about it simply for the sake of learning, and pursued SEO as a passion and hobby throughout high school. They split paths for college, but Derringer’s early experience helping his dad’s company with SEO led the friends to realize that their shared interests could turn into a business.

The business plan was born out of their passion, and as they say, was created with the kind of unbridled optimism that so often comes with youth.

Dearringer and Bailey owe much of their early success to a few key things:

  • Their mantra: “Make clients successful, make clients successful, and never forget to make clients successful.”
  • An excellent partnership program
  • Tried to ensure that every client referred them three new clients

They grew fast, hitting the Inc 500 list for three consecutive years.

“In a nutshell,” said Bailey, their recipe for success “Was a lot of passion and confidence. Granted, it was our first time doing any of this. We didn’t know what an acquisition process was like, we didn’t understand a lot of the stuff the wiser business people knew.”

“We were just really passionate and enthusiastic. You need that to keep you going in the beginning,” said Dearringer.

How to Navigate an Acquisition Offer: What to do When Someone Wants to Buy Your Baby

“We ran into some challenges in the last year and a half. Some people may have associated those challenges with changes in the [SEO] market and space–but something else was going on that people may not know about,” said Dearringer.

“FedEx was one of our enterprise clients, and I was invited to speak on a panel in front of 300 global marketers at FedEx. I didn’t even feel like I belonged there, to be honest,” Dearringer chuckled. “I was sitting there with executives from Facebook and Omnicom, and it went really well. And afterwards, people kept coming up to talk to me.”

Those panelists Jeremy spoke with at the event continued to speak with him afterwards.

“I think they were surprised that [Relevance] had worked our own way in with FedEx. He kept following us and talking to us for weeks after that, and it ended up leading to a $30 million offer for our business,” he said.

Suddenly, that youthful enthusiasm that fueled Dearringer and Bailey’s startup had propelled them into completely foreign territory.

“I think some of the people that are working on startups think about it a lot–it’s a big decision to sell your baby,” Dearringer said. “You have employees, it’s like a family you’ve built up, and it’s a big decision to think about what [an acquisition] means for everybody.”

“We immediately started going into what I would call ‘Cover Your Ass’ mode: how do we not let this slip through our hands, and capitalize on this?”

Founder Lessons Learned

Here are a few key decisions and milestones Dearringer, Bailey, and the Relevance (then Slingshot SEO) executive team reached while working on the acquisition that didn’t end up coming together:

Reward the people that helped you get there.

They couldn’t tell everybody what was going on as negotiations were ongoing, but they gave 16 employees phantom shares anyway.

Follow the advice of mentors, but don’t take your eyes off the prize.

They worked with an investment banker, and then decided to hire a CEO, then a COO. In foreign territory, they thought, best to have people that have been there before on your team.

There is a lot of risk to taking on acquisition offers as a founder. It takes a lot of time, effort, and attention away from the machine the business runs on. Though the Relevance executive team tried valiantly to divvy up responsibilities, with some working on the business and others working on the sale, the process affected a starkly different day-to-day from the youthful, optimistic culture they had started with.

The acquisition process is private, they pointed out. You can’t talk to a lot of people about it. You have to work through that process relatively alone. The buyer wants to watch you for six months, maybe more, to ensure that you and your sales projections and maintain EBITDA profitability.

“They were putting a lot of pressure on our sales team to hit our numbers, and at the same time couldn’t make hires the way we wanted to–we weren’t as agile as we wanted to be with the business at that time,” said Dearringer. “We introduced a lot of change to the business during that time, so the cover your ass mode–as opposed to being optimistic and excited and focusing on our business–was one of the biggest changes that occurred.”

“We learned a lot from them. We honestly did, even when we were in CYA mode,” said Dearringer.

Don’t let big numbers get under your skin.


Their hard work had paid off. Big time. Relevance had competing offers to buy the business, and they wound up with a top offer for $60 million.

“So that was even more material and more significant–which sent us into even more of a C.Y.A. mode,” Dearringer said.

There is a strong possibility that your business can get in a really bad spot if the acquisition doesn’t happen. I thought, ‘How do we manage that risk?’ So we hired a CEO and hired a COO.

Key Insight: The real lesson there is this: If you ever get to that goal, get to that spot, make sure that you stay fixated and positive and optimistic–the same stuff you built the business on must continue through the acquisition process. Don’t take on the protectionist mentality. Your energy needs to be focused.

And as Kevin said, “It means you will work 24/7, but that’s just part of the deal.”

Watch Jeremy Dearringer at Verge when the negotiations were ongoing:

How it turned out

After a year of over 100% growth, Relevance projected 50% growth for the year as they entered the acquisition process.

“We thought that was conservative,” Bailey chuckled. “We started coming in a little short of that–but the whole point of a long process is so that you don’t it your forecasts so they can keep negotiating with you.”

The process kept getting delayed, and ended up lasting almost a year. And that, my friends, is a lesson to learn from.

Key Insight: “If you ever get in a competitive bid process, get it done in a quarter, and take the second best bid. It’s still a lot of money, you know?” -Kevin Bailey

Bailey elaborated, “If you take your eye off your business for that long, you can really put a hurt on your clients, your team, and your own sanity.”

On Hiring C-Level Executives.

“Another thing: Kevin and I just had kids during this time, too,” Said Dearringer. “This will change your life. It changes everything. You need to figure out how to manage your workload and balance your personal and professional life.”

Kevin added, “Another lesson to think about: some entrepreneurs talk about the concept of ‘Working your way out of your job.’ That can happen on an exit, but I think as a founder, you bring something key and very important. It’s actually VERY hard to work yoruself out of your job.

In a lot of ways, it’s harder to watch someone else run your business than to run it yourself.

Relevance Today

Relevance still has clients like Qualcom, Sears, and more. They still do what most would think of as traditional SEO services, but today, their sites are laser-focused on content promotion.

“What happens when your content marketing efforts aren’t doing enough for you? What happens when your content falls in the woods?” Dearringer asked. “We create badass content and then we promote it.”

As Relevance VP of Marketing Chad Pollitt recently pointed out, “Content is King, but Promotion is Queen…and she wears the pants.”

So how did the Relevance team weather the storm? See for yourself. (hint: they’re still on the INC 500)

As Jeremy Dearringer and Kevin Bailey said:

If you have questions about the acquisition process, if you think something like their situation is coming up for you, if you’re working on balancing your startup baby with your new baby, or something else, please get in touch. As straight-talking, active contributors to the entrepreneurial community, they’re happy to share even more of what they’ve learned from experience with you.

Go ahead and leave your questions or comments below and we’ll monitor them for response.

Why Launch a Tech Company in Indianapolis? Verge Does it #WithGusto

The question has been asked of Shawn Schwegman too many times. The founder of Gusto, an email app about to launch, had entertained the idea of launching at South by Southwest (SXSW), but declined. Instead, he decided to launch his company from the Verge stage here in Indianapolis. The result? The largest launch in Verge history.

So if you were a tech startup, why would you want to launch in Indy? Keep your eye on these three trends in Indy that set it apart from other tech scenes throughout the nation.

1. Community


Personally, I have been involved with Verge for about 8 months and I’ve heard this community receive high praise from everyone who comes to know us–from IEDC President Eric Doden last night, to reddit.com co-founder & best-selling author Alexis Ohanian just a few weeks ago. And what we have in Indianapolis is special for many reasons beyond our tech talent. Yes, Indianapolis is the Marketing Technology Capital of the World. Yes, Indiana is second in the nation at attracting out-of-state talent to our Universities. Yes, Indianapolis is positioned to launch some of the nation’s coolest tech startups, but that alone isn’t what makes Indy great.

Our community came out in a big way last night. 500 techies joined to help launch a new brand that is in a position to revolutionize the way we view email and personal storage, and that’s what this community is best at. Supporting one another and lifting each other up.


2. Access to Talent

A common refrain for Shawn throughout the process of building Gusto was “Go Big or Go Home.” He wasn’t going to half ass this app, so he found five of the best developers in the state, grabbed the best branding agency and PR firms he could find, and shelled out some serious dough.

Well, one of those is a lie.

Shawn talked last night about how the talent we have here in Indianapolis is as good as anyone in the world, but here you don’t have to pay the premium. You can get world class work done for half the price of Silicon Valley or New York.

3. Analytic and Marketing Capacity

Indianapolis is uniquely positioned as the Marketing Tech Capital of the World, and Shawn used every bit of that capacity he could find. As an analytically-driven person, he’s running thousands of marketing campaigns with this launch, micro-targeting every single one with the ultimate goal of making the advertising as personalized as possible.

This highly-analytic, yet creative, approach is a quintessential Indianapolis move that takes advantage of technologies that didn’t exist until recently. While this is definitely the more difficult path, Shawn doesn’t flinch at the task. He understands that this is what you have to do if you want to tango with big data.

I was extremely proud of the Verge community last night. It was incredible to see such a large group of people come out and support Shawn and the Gusto team. This community is why people like Shawn are choosing to launch in Indy as opposed to at SXSW, and it’s why so many new Indy-made companies have so much forward momentum right now.

And we aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.

What else makes Indy a great place to build and launch tech? What opportunities do we have to step our game up to the next level? Drop your thoughts in the comments below!