Group Therapy for the High-Tech Set

Group Therapy for the High-Tech Set

Nervous, a young man rises and strides to the front of the conference room, his eyes darting around. The perceptive observer notices a small lump in his throat, as he observes the eyes of those present boring into him. Thoughts race through his mind – Am I good enough? What if they laugh at me?

Well, there’s no turning back now; he’s here, and it’s his turn. So the presentation begins – and as he feared, he’s in for it. “Too loud,” shouts one, “no, not loud enough,” says another. “I don’t get it. How are you going to make money with this idea?” “Isn’t there already an application that does this?” “It sounds good, but what’s your selling point? Without an elevator pitch, you’ve got nothing!” And so on. He sweats as emotions churn inside him – anger, indignation, even hints of depression. Am I really that incompetent? But then our young man remembers where he is, and sighs with relief; better here, at “presentation practice,” than in front of the investors!

Call it the last revenge of capitalism over the hippy-dippy 60s and 70s: The techniques perfected back then by therapists doing group counseling are now a mainstay of Israeli hi-tech life. Instead of seeking to enhance the personalities if participants, today’s hi-tech “group therapy” sessions are dedicated to marshaling the power of “the we” to helping entrepreneurs improve their game and presentation, the better to attract investors to their startup idea.

“Today’s investment climate is tough, and any entrepreneur seeking funds had better be on top of their game,” says Sharon Weshler, a social media expert and sponsor of a series of roundtables dedicated to helping entrepreneurs improve their pitch. “The roundtables are a form of social networking where entrepreneurs can get together and help each other improve their presentations,” Weshler says, and the experience and input of the members of the group can go a long way towards making each one “the best that they can be,” he says. Once they work out the kinks in their presentation, says Weshler, companies have a much better chance of making the money connections they need to survive and grow – and some of those investors may just come from one of his many contacts in the VC and angel investment world, he says.

At a recent roundtable run by Weshler and Aviad Levy of the Termiks startup center, eight entrepreneurs showed off what they hoped would be their million-shekel ideas. One of them, Yubitech, definitely seemed quite ready for prime time – but then the company has already moved beyond being just an idea or an early beta, and has won a bunch of awards and contests with its cellphone platform development technology. Perhaps Yubitech CEO Danny Weissberg was attending as an example of just how far candidates can go with the right kind of guidance.

Most of the other ideas were pretty early stage, ranging from the practical (an innovative nursing home management) to trendy (an environmentally friendly business portal) to futuristic (genetic manipulation of grains) to downright mysterious (a home media device that the inventor would not disclose too much about). In each presentation, participants peppered presenters with questions about the how, what and why of their product – as in how easy it would be for investors to “grok” the idea, what problem or meet it was supposed to solve or supply, and why it was better than the competition (or, if there was no competition, why the world needed it).

Interestingly, not all the presenters were able to answer those questions satisfactorily, indicating that they had not given much thought to marketing. And that’s too bad, says Weshler. “Without the marketing, the greatest idea in the world will just sit on the shelf. The only way to get your idea across is to make it make sense to the people who can give it life, the investors.” That quality and saleability are divorced from each other is clear to anyone who has gone to a bad Hollywood blockbuster that got funded for tens of millions, or watched a z-grade TV show that keeps coming back, season after season – while the quality movies are relegated to the art-house cinemas, and the good shows get axed after half a season. After each presentation, Weshler and Levy gave participants their considered opinions on what the presenter needed to do to improve their presentation – so that their quality ideas get the funding they deserve.

Once an entrepreneur has the appropriate feedback from his or her peers, what comes next? Well, the smart ones will start working on their pitch – and for that, they can turn to Top Class, a Ramat Gan firm that runs various courses and classes in schools and companies to help participants improve their English. And for the hi-tech entrepreneur, Top Class runs business english courses, training participants to improve their “elevator pitches” – where you sum up what your business or product does in the two minutes you would have someone’s attention while you rode with them in an elevator – as well as how to handle a business lunch, with participants sitting down to a meal, complete with English language menus, learning how to handle deal-making over the dinner table.

“There are over 4,000 startups operating in Israel at any one time, and each year about 1,000 open and close, or get bought out or go public” says Weshler, “so every four years there is virtually a new set of startups.” That there are so many great ideas is testimony to the creativity of the Israeli mind, but that there is so much turnover (most of the thousand definitely do not get to the next stage, says Weshler) shows just how much work is needed on the marketing side. Folks like Weshler, Levy, and Top Class directors Shoshi Gal and Tali Treistman are doing what they can to improve things. “I am a strong believer in the power of the group to help,” Weshler says. “When people get together, there’s no limit to what they can do.”

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