Stand up for Startups
Aleks the cat person; Photo credit: Goran Kovacevic
In the YouTube video of Aleks’s English stand-up routine, “I’m a cat person,” he bends the truth, like most comedians, to get a laugh line: “My cat really doesn’t like me. I’m a comedian, so I have gigs at night and do next to nothing during the day…. I sit in my room by my computer and the cat walks by and gives me this [judgemental] look, like ‘ah, you deadbeat. How do you pay for my food? I don’t get it. Just get out! I would if I could, but you’re not letting me. You make me sick!’” Though stand up is his main money gig, the truth is that Aleks’s days are pretty busy with an array of projects. He sums them all up with a self-invented title, “Professional Enthusiast.”
Comedians and Startups: what they have in common
Even before this Belgrade-born Croatian earned his bachelor’s degree in graphic design, Aleks was designing blogs since he was 14 and was working with creative agencies, doing guerrilla marketing and learning how simplestrategies often have the greatest impact.
Aleks (29) had lots of friends in Zagreb (his home for the last eight years), who were founding their own startups and who sought his advice on marketing and how to present themselves, particularly with English-speaking investors and customers. “It’s much harder to pitch when you’re not speaking your native language, so you also have to work harder at presenting an image of yourself.”
Aleks the comedian and as speaker at startup events; Photo credit: Aleks Curac-Saric
News of his witty, yet effective advice spread and before long he was asked to give trainings, presentations and lectures at various seminars and conferences. As a result of his participation in StartUp Weekend in Skopje, Macedonia, he landed a gig working with NewMan’s Business Academy, an American-Macedonian startup accelerator programme. He is a Lead Trainer for their “Cloud Academy” and mentor at their “Smart-up Center.” Doesn’t the different language pose a problem? “They understand everything I say, but I hardly understand them,” he half-jokes. Anyway, he is quite fluent in English, having received a Certificate of Proficiency from Cambridge University in England.
At the StartUp Weekend, he mentored some young gamers who are developing a first-person shooter game. Aleks recalls, “they were getting bombarded with marketing advice from the judges and coaches there, but they didn’t know what it meant. I was able to put it more simply. The big question is, I told them, are you selling yourselves or selling your product? If it’s the product, then look for an investor tohelp you finish it. If it’s yourselves, then find one who will ask you to work for them.”
Don’t you hate it when…
Aleks brings his out-of-the-box comedian’s perspective to the often narrow mindset of tech startups. “As a comedian, the main source of my material is encountering a problem and how I deal with it.” Aleks applies this same principle to giving advice to startups.
Entrepreneurs often fear that they can’t squeeze everything they need to say into 60 seconds.”
The problem he encounters most often among startups is difficulty with pitching. The problem, he believes, stems from their fear that they can’t squeeze everything they need to say into 60 seconds. He hates the standard advice, “’just be yourself,’ because no one knows what that means.” Instead, he advises people to first state the problem, then their proposed solution and finally, who/what/how much they need to solve it. Easier said than done, you say? Aleks offers an example, assuming the character of an entrepreneur pitching a parking-space finder app: “’In this city, you can’t find a parking space. My idea is to integrate Google Earth into a mobile parking app. To do this, I need programmers and designers.’ There! that’s only 10 seconds down, and 50 to go. But you’ve already got them intrigued!”
But his best advice, stemming from his stand-up experience, is counterintuitive to most people, but it’s “so simple it can be applied seconds before the actual pitch.” S-P-E-A-K S-L-O-W-L-Y, he urges, “as slow as you can. Trust me, you can never talk too slow as the adrenaline will prevent that.”
He explains his theory: “Talking slower gives you more time to think about what you are saying and it gives you more time to think of words that are more precise for the thing you are pitching. Also, it eliminates the pauses between sentences making your pitch more flowing and concise. The ones to whom you are pitching to will…see you as more confidant and thought-out, as opposed to some kid who thinks he will overthrow Google overnight.”
“If at any point you lose the focus of the crowd don’t be afraid to take it back.”
Another pitching tip he gives comes straight from his own experience with hecklers in the comedy clubs. “If at any point you lose the focus of the crowd don’t be afraid to take it back.” He tells a story from one of his own idea pitches to a group of investors: “As soon as I started, one of them took out his smartphone and ignored me. After giving him a couple of seconds, in case it really was some emergency he was attending to, I said: ‘Excuse me, sir, but you won’t find our app in the App Store, as it’s not live yet.’ At that point, the slightly embarrassed man put down his phone and once again I had the attention of the room, with the others having a laugh as their friend was called out by someone 20 years younger than him.”
Well, that’s all quite funny, but did the pitch work in the end? “After the pitch the man came to me and said: ‘I would apologise if that would make any difference, but after you made me feel like a school boy in such a gentlemanly way, all I can say is: how much funding do you need and when do you need it?’”
Practice what you preach
Aleks mentoring a young startup; Photo credit: Aleksandar Curac-Saric
It’s hard to tell if Aleks is being truthful or, as with his cat story, he’s just trying to get a laugh line and his point across. But he does practice what he preaches. Besides blogging with friend (and senior project manager at Google, Dublin), Nikola Stolnik, he develops marketing strategies and content for two Croatian startups: Entrio, a ticketing service; SnapTapIt, a service applying RFID technology for events, which was chosen to participate in Zagreb’s ZIP incubator.
“Personally, I am trying to market two of my own ideas to startups. One is an app which will allow the user to choose a sport, skill level and availability, and be connected with others who match your inputs.” The other is a media startup to be launched soon, involving stand up comedy, of course.