The art of the demo is an essential craft that needs to be honed in start-ups as its used in so many high impact moments. It could be a founder pitch, planning a new feature, creating a new product horizon or (re)defining your vision to stakeholders. But there is a big difference between going through the motions of demoing your product versus developing a demo muscle that is part of the cultural identity of your company.
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.
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:
- Focus on what matters to your audience and in turn your company. We talked about drift in the Connected Roadmap. An authentic demo is validated by your users, stakeholders and teams and is a practical tool in finding and retaining product-market fit.
- Expedite how you communicate value through a shared understanding. How many times have your users or stakeholders had a different thought bubble about how they interpreted your explanation or email? A demo is a tangible way to share an idea, reduce ambiguity and get alignment.
- Fast-track team velocity as you cut to the essence of intent. If you are doing the first two things well, in my experience it also unblocks the typical hurdles in reaching stakeholder alignment and decision-making. While this may not be as big a deal as a seed stage company, it sure as hell gets more difficult as you scale up. It empowers the team to make difficult trade off decisions whilst holding true to the core idea.
How to get started
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 💪.
Define your hypothesis
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.
- List all approaches in very briefs paragraphs.
- Select best approach and build a prototyped demo (ideally code, but early stages can be as scrappy as you need to convey the ingredients below).
Validate your hypothesis
Synthesise the demo: Create a compelling narrative for your demo.
- Scene setting: target audience, context & motivation which could be framed as a Job To Be Done (JTBD), epic level user story etc.
- Problem / complication: describe the pain points that eventually translate to some form of better, faster, cheaper; always make it familiar and relatable.
- Intro solution: talk about the why; if it's faster, make it about how you'll save time, if it's cheaper, talk about how you'll save money (this is ok, but hopefully not your only benefit), if it's better, show me how I'll enjoy doing it, at least more than compared to today.
- How it works: this is the core part of the demo and communicates the workflow, interaction or journey the user is likely to experience.
- Highlight and delight: touch on the key aspects of the flow, and between each highlight drop-in a delighter ✨ that is an aha moment or better yet, mind-blowing 🤯
- End scene (optional): close with summary with respect to their Return on Investment (ROI), or likely outcomes by the numbers.
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:
- Live: when you want an active way to develop your shared accountability of your demo authenticity, there is nothing like presenting live. This is generally face to face for workshops, design sparring, but perfectly fine over video screen-sharing.
- Video: this provide a passive way to develop a culture of demos and sharing with teams to assist distributed teams where timezone or async check-ins helps flexibility. Videos are easy to create and really force you to consider the script, flow and delivery. Silent demos (no talk track) can also work if the flow is self-explanatory. I would suggest titles and spotlights to assist the viewer.
- Storyboard: for teasing out conviction of early stage concepts, you can't beat a storyboard. The key frames help you structure their thoughts into bite-sized ideas before investing any engineering or other effort. Yes, anyone is capable of drawing shapes and stick figures!
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.
- Stripe: probably the most referenced example and for good reason. The simplicity, quality and comprehensive coverage for their developer audience is incredible and it all started with helping developers quickly transact using their recognisable checkout experience.
- Sajari: how do you demo a search engine that specialises in e-commerce? Well you provide a complete "kitchen sink visual demo, to a fictitious store where a dev can kick the tyres.
- FrankieOne: KYC and AML got a little more exciting by allowing an institution to understand how they might incorporate RegTech into their existing apps, backend, workflows.
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:
- Superhuman: well known for their white-glove onboarding demo via their customer success that truly make you wonder where has this email client been all my life. Best to actually do the 1:1 onboarding to experience it for yourself.
- MmHmm: Phil Libin makes a really personable video that is just down to earth and really expresses all the frustrations we've been having with video calls while in lockdown or potentially as the new norm. So why should we settle?
- Descript: this may be a meta example. While it is a very orchestrated marketing video, it still hits all key points in a great demo with some really next level experiences for making video editing easier. Descript could even be your next tool for making awesome demos.
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:
- Validation: you are always experimenting, so every learn, build, measure iteration is a chance to validate your thesis and assumptions.
- Excitement: acknowledging user pain points and motivations in every story you tell creates an emotional connection to your audience.
- Alignment: each time you share your story, you refine through validation, replace scepticism for excitement and tie back to your purpose and vision.
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.
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?