How to run a successful inclusive online event – our Demo Day lessons

Demo Day… Our chance to showcase the culmination of the #SYD20 founders’ efforts, their hustle and their sheer grit over the past 16 weeks in our accelerator program. This cohort completed hundreds of hours of customer interviews; they’ve been building, testing, marketing and selling, and this was their chance to show off, catch eyes, turn heads, and gain traction.

This year the global pandemic meant an in-person showcase was impossible so we went totally online, and while the initial transition was difficult because it was so sudden, we now wonder if it should be the norm. The power of an online demo day is huge: it brings high quality, reduces barriers to entry, and most importantly, creates the broad accessibility which is core to our values.

We got a lot of positive feedback about this year’s online Remarkable Demo Day event, about the production quality, audience interaction, startup information and tools we used, so we thought it could help other remote accelerator managers if we took note of some of the things we’ve learned in delivering our Demo Day. This is our story.

If you were unlucky enough to miss Demo Day, we who heartedly recommend you catching up on the action before reading on.

How would we usually run a demo day, and what had to change because of the pandemic?

In previous years, Demo Days have been run as face-to-face events for a couple of hundred people, all lubricated with vino and canapes. While we would never contravene any fire codes for the number of people we squeeze into each square meter, we would get pretty close — as we aimed to get as many people physically at the event as we could. The event was also broadcast via Facebook Live, however, the focus was on those in the room, at the event, rather than the experience of our online viewers. 

Each startup would create their own startup booth, printing wobbly pull-up banners, cobbling together flyers and perhaps printing some t-shirts, attempting to get that professional trade show look on an extremely tight budget. 

The venue would be set up with staging, lighting, the expo zone and main stage with seating tightly packed in for our guests. Many of the features of the content of the night remain consistent, but the focus was squarely on nailing the ‘performance’ of the pitches — with coaching given by seasoned stage performers on how to best engage the in-person audience. 

The events had their own energy as many live performances do; founders nervously rehearsing their pitches in the wings, right up until that fateful moment when they step out into the spotlight on stage. Conversely, responses are felt in the moment as applause is heard, nods and smiles are seen, even if not remembered consciously. Celebration ensues, founders patting each other on the back for a job well done or (at the very least) for surviving the ordeal! 

These events are definitely a highlight of our year. So when you can’t pack people into a room like sardines, then what do you do to create that same atmosphere?

 

What were some of the options we considered but rejected and why?

To comply with lockdown regulations, trying to do our usual live event was probably impossible — we might have been able to host 20 guests rather than our usual 200, which would create a very empty vibe, we would be asking our founders to take a personal health risk to travel interstate (assuming interstate travel would be possible) and we’d be taking a considerable risk bringing our cohort founders together with our program team. 

Of course, coming up with the best solution wasn’t something we stumbled across overnight. It was born from lengthy discussions, platform testing and consultations with founders, partners, mentors, and people living with disability, to ensure our demo day would be aligned with our objectives.  

A few ideas we had for bringing Demo Day to life were:

  • Live, online – all subjects in the same studio (or multiple studios) beaming in live.
  • A mix of live and pre-recorded online – live MC throwing to pre-recorded pitch videos.
  • Why didn’t we just have founders pitch from home? Just straight-up Zoom live to camera.

Whilst lockdown restrictions but the breaks on some of these ideas, we still felt the element of community was missing and moreover, we still needed a platform to host the event on.

 

What adaptation did we finally decide on?

Our number one objective for Demo Day is to give each cohort the best possible platform to share their big ideas with the world. It was without question that their pitches would need to be produced at the highest quality especially if turning to a virtual demo day would take away the raw human interaction we are all so used to with in-person events.

We settled on a full pre-record but a live hosting service… more details on the technicalities of that later on.

 

The pre-record…

A GIF including the smiling faces of the Remarkable team and some of the #SYD20 Founders.

We had seen recent work by the fantastic team at Clothesline Content who despite the pandemic were continuing to find creative solutions to bring events to life. With their background in TV broadcasting, we were confident we were in the right hands.

The hosting service…

Next up we needed a platform to host Demo Day on. We had tried them all, Zoom, teams, webinars and many more but one platform stood out above the rest, Hopin. Hopin is a virtual event space that mimics the same core functions you may expect to find at an in-person event. A stage, the opportunity to network, live sessions and even expo booths. Yes, that’s right, picture a trade fair you have ever been to, a concert or even an expo, Hopin now gives you the opportunity to attend these virtually. To read more on how we came across Hopin, read a recent blog post on hosting virtual events here.

 

The tools we used and why we used them

No virtual event would be complete without a plethora of SAAS products. Airtable, Hopin, mmhmm are our most notable and whilst we may like to keep our secrets to making this demo day a cut above the rest, we also believe that sharing our learnings can only bring good to the ecosystem and best of all, ensure all events are accessible to everyone. Let’s dive into the tools we used.

 

Airtable

Screenshot of the header image of the airtable link used for the Demo Day RSVP landing page.

Since the beginning of the program, we’ve been using Airtable to manage a database of all the people connected to our accelerator program — staff, founders and their teams, mentors, corporate partners, investors, media and people in the ecosystem.

We used an Airtable form to allow people to RSVP to the event months in advance, connected to Zapier to send them an email with a .ics calendar attachment so they could add the event to their work calendar, which we think helped them remember the event and plan to attend it.

 

Hopin 

A screenshot of the Hopin landing page used for the virtual Demo Day event.What makes an event so appealing is often the freedom. To come and go when you please, to network with those you want to meet and to interact with the topics and individuals that matter to you. It was always our quest to find a platform that despite living in a new virtual world we could offer such freedom whilst also ensuring that our Demo Day was accessible.

Hopin certainly ticks all the boxes. It brings to life the same elements of a physical event environment in a virtual medium. We used the stage, networking and expo functions to bring our Demo Day to life. Our main stage was to host our pre-recorded live stream, networking for attendees to meet others at random and expo to allow founders and attendees to meet “face to face” to continue the conversation post pitching.

The live chat feature saw a record of 456 messages between the audience and our cohort and between each other. These messages brought the atmosphere to the main stage, it really did feel like we were all there together.

We believe this new way of hosting events despite lacking the human connection is a step in the right direction. It allowed us to showcase our cohort in a way that would not have been possible with the likes of Zoom, it was engaging, interactive and above all, giving complete freedom to the attendees.

We are not the only ones who believe in Hopin potential. George our Operations manager has conducted five personal demos to others looking to replicate the success of our biggest event to date, a testament to its success.

If you’re looking to try out Hopin for yourself, you can sign up here.

 

Hopin AV delivery

Screenshot of the video editing software used to create SYD20 pitch videos.

Within Hopin, there are many ways to live stream onto a stage. The built-in session function allows speakers to meet backstage where a moderator will control who goes on stage and at what time. You can use Vimeo, YouTube or Wistia to stream directly in from a third party or you can use RTMP streaming to push content to the stage as live.

The RTMP streaming was our choice on the night. Youtube and Vimeo would have meant the attendees would have needed to press play when they arrived at the main stage which not only takes away the element of ‘live’ but also would mean that all attendees would be watching the pitches at a different time meaning the live chat would have been out of sync for everyone.

We used Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) to stream to the main stage. This free application was very simple to use. It’s worth noting that you can’t stop, pause, rewind or fast forward using this so once you start the stream that’s it. Probably for the best.

 

Hopin booths

Screenshot of the grid view of the Hopin Booth landing page, which includes the logos of every #SYD20 startup.During the event, Hopin allowed attendees to join a video chat and a text chat with one startup at a time, in a ‘booth’ (an online equivalent of a booth or stand in a physical expo or conference). This was really helpful for attendees to ask follow-up questions of each startup’s founders and it was a great way for mentors to show their support for a founder by joining them in the booth. Founders could play a pre-recorded video or deck to show further details about their business or their product in their booth.  It allowed them to register their expressions of interest with each startup for a follow-up discussion. After Demo Day, Hopin allowed us to export a CSV file of the expressions of interest and share those with the startups, and also allowed us to export an HTML file of the entire text chat from the booth so founders could ‘playback’ and reflect on the questions and feedback they received.

 

Mmhmm

Screenshot of the instruction video including the face of George Miller who guides the audience through Hopin.Yep, that’s not a typo. mmhmm is arguably the best real-time video creation tool out there. It brings your Zooms to life and sets a completely new bar for engaging video streaming. mmhmm is not just useful for live video streaming, it’s also great for product demos. We wanted to give our attendees the best experience on Hopin so created a four-minute demo of how they can access the platform and how best to navigate it during Demo Day. Our ops manager George turned to mmhmm to create this content. We think you’ll agree, it’s way cooler than a picture in picture zoom recording.

If you’re keen to try it out, reach out to demoday@remarkable.org.au we have five invitations to access the mmhmm beta.

 

Marketing/communications that ensured we had an audience

In a world of saturated online events, how do you go about exciting people for another online event? The keyword is ‘people’. In technical terms, our Demo Day’s target audience is primarily investors and potential partners – but ultimately it is a celebration of the progress of the incredible people who make up our startup cohorts. For our first online Demo Day, we wanted to celebrate with as many people as possible, including friends and family, so we opened invites to the public. How did we do this on social media?

Pre-event…

Countdown: Our startups have been counting down the days until Demo Day since the very beginning. To bring our audience on this journey we started a countdown from four weeks away all the way day to the day of, which allowed us to start celebrating Demo Day well before it arrived.

Event pages: We listed Demo Day to all online event listings as well as hosted a Facebook event page where we posted information about our startups the weeks prior to the event.

Provide your friends with social posts: There’s nothing quite as lovely as having someone send you a prepared example of a social post including the tags, images, copy and image descriptions so that’s exactly what we did and it worked a treat! 

On the day…

A white tile with purple font including the quote "So far we've sold $28000 worth of product internationally through our online store. And we'e got 16 retailers throughout Australia and NZ who are ready to stock our products".
A quote from Gecko Traxx Demo Day pitch video.

Pre-made posts: As an online Demo Day doesn’t allow for real-time pictures we created a collection of graphics including quotes from the pitches that were shared throughout the evening in time with the pre-recorded pitches, (see an example below). The purpose of this was to encourage a discussion with our guests and to highlight the key takeouts from our startups’ pitches. It was also a great way to promote the event to a wider audience who weren’t able to attend.

Respond to your community: To bridge the gap between a virtual and in-person event we made sure to share our hashtag with our guests and respond to as many social posts throughout the evening so that our guests felt like they were really experiencing a connected event.

 

Auslan interpreter and closed captions, ensuring this Demo Day was inclusive.

Remarkable is a disability tech accelerator program so accessibility has always been a core value in the events we produce and we had to adapt our usual process to ensure we had closed captions and an Auslan interpreter signing the dialogue from all the pitch videos and guest speakers.

Expectation vs reality

There is no doubt about it, despite pre-recording demo day the event jitters and nerves were still felt by all. Would people show up, would our tech stack hold up, did we make the right decision to pre-record… The endless questions we were asking ourselves as the countdown clock ticked down.

It’s safe to say we may have even succeeded our own expectations for this Demo Day. This was uncharted territory but the praise, the thanks, and congratulations we received from those who attended proved that this just may have been the best Remarkable Demo Day yet.

With over 450 attendees tuning in live from 9 countries, from founders to investors, mentors to students, sharing over 500 individual messages on our event chat, and engaging in over 50 dynamic conversations with our founders, we are proud to look back with pride and accomplishment.

For our founders, we stood up to our objective to give them the best possible platform to showcase their business. Here are a few live chat comments which speak to this.

Speech Frog should connect to Coviu – could be hosted on their platform and get in front of speech pathologists”

“Great traction Gecko Traxx. And well done on the Dyson award.”

“Really interested to learn more about Maslow

“Great pitch Neurodiversity Media – fantastic opportunity to build economic participation & workplace diversity – accessible information benefits all.”

“How good is Handi. Simply brilliant!!!”

“Excellent pitch Brian Hoare and CPToy Swap sounds fantastic.”

“There is so much potential for ResusRight. Congratulations!!”

For our community, we stood up to our objective to provide accessibility, informative entertainment, and freedom. A few comments which make us believe we got this one right.

The awesome pitches combined with very slick MCing… setting the standard for inclusive demo days with subtitles and auslan. Great job others should follow.”

“Smooth and seamless technology, great pitches.”

“It was great to see the pitches, then go into the booths to hear the questions raised.”

“Everything about the Demo Day is memorable since that’s the best virtual event that I have ever participated…. if the first ever virtual Demo day is this good I cannot way to witness the future events…..”

“An exceptional event with incredible pitches. Well done to the startups and the Remarkable team!”

We get we are not perfect, two notes to self for next time

More accessibility

Here at Remarkable, we aim to create accessible environments where everyone is welcome and included. We believe our events are a safe and innovative space for people across every gender, race, ethnicity, religion, country of origin, sexual orientation, visible and invisible disability, and age. In our quest to make Demo day one of our most accessible events to date we do acknowledge that this event was lacking Audio Description for those with vision impairments, something we will be working hard to introduce to our events in the future.

As live studio

Pre-recording is great, it certainly takes the pressure off of us and our founders but does it cause a lack of reality? Whilst we believe having pitches pre-recorded brings the best outcome we would love to explore using an “As Live” studio for our next demo day. A studio where our MC, panelists and Remarkable team members can come together to create an engaging and dynamic live feel to our production.

That’s it for another year, who knows the state of the world in 12 months time, maybe we’ll be streaming demo day live from Mars, who knows? One thing’s for sure, sometimes you need to be thrown out of your comfort zone in order to reevaluate your ways of working.