7 Marketing Secrets from 500 Startups Demo Days

Have Fun, Get Deals Done – The Future of Marketing is the Brand Experience

Pitching to top Silicon Valley investors like Tim Draper is nerve-racking. It helps when he’s dressed in a superhero costume.

From Valentine’s Day-Themed (Batch 19) to Summer of Love-Themed (Batch 20), 500 Startups Demo Day is more than a pitch day, it’s a festival where everyone has fun and gets deals done.

Here’s a look back at lessons we’ve learned from the last 7 Demo Days, and how 500 Startups stumbled upon creating the unique pitch day in Silicon Valley.

1. Listen to Your Audience

Back in the day, 500 Startups Demo Day was pretty basic (see Batch 8):

500 Startups Founding Partner, Dave McClure, speaking at 500 Batch 8 Demo Day (back when the most colorful thing at Demo Day was Dave’s language).

During Batch 13 Demo Day, things got a little bit more interesting.

It all started when I bought Dave a unicorn hoodie for his birthday, which happened to coincide with the Batch 13 Preview Day (an invite-only sneak peek to Demo Day). To our surprise, many investors and founders in the audience loved Dave’s unexpected fashion statement, talking and tweeting about it.

Dave noted the audience engagement and decided to wear the unicorn costume again on Demo Day. He also encouraged Founding Partner Christine Tsai, a former ballerina, to wear a rainbow tutu. Again, the response was extremely positive at Demo Day. Silicon Valley Business Journal even dedicated an article to Unicorn theme.

The lightbulb turned on, and we saw the potential marketing value in bringing creativity to our Demo Days. But it wasn’t a mere fluke — we listened to the audience feedback, saw the marketing value, and applied it.


2. Turn Challenges into Creative Advantage

When planning for Batch 14 Demo Day, we found out the only day the venue was available was the day before Halloween. We were not happy. Typically we tried to plan our events around major holidays, like Halloween, assuming people would be busy attending their own company parties. We were worried about not having enough investors attend our event, but we couldn’t change the date. So we decided to exploit the timing instead. Thus, Demo-Ween was born.

In our past Demo Days, we always focused on the pitches, not wanting to take away from the big day of our batch companies. However, the thematic timing forced us to look at the Demo Days from a different angle. We decided to make Demo Days more entertaining. We added the Halloween theme to our Demo Day, aka “Demo-ween” — presenting the content in a new form. The new form of Demo Day allowed startups and investors to dress up, have fun, and get deals done together.

As a result, the Demo-ween not only helped us maintain the previous demo day attendance, it also attracted more international investors than ever before (50% increase). By presenting the content in a more engaging format, we turned a challenge into our competitive advantage.

The first Demo-ween was so successful, we decided to make it an annual theme. 

3. Use Product-Launches to Rejuvenate Your Brand

In 2016, we started adding speciality tracks to our seed program, starting with a Fintech track in the Batch 16 program.

In order to highlight our new Fintech focus, we made the Batch 16 Demo Day poker themed. In order to create an authentic experience, the 500 events team hired a top poker player to give attendees poker lessons and play blackjack. Founding Partners Dave McClure and Christine Tsai also dressed up for the poker theme.

Partly in thanks to a successful Fintech-Themed Demo Day, we saw a 23% increase in Fintech applications to the following batch.

4. Embrace Company Culture

During the Batch 17 program in June 2016, the 500 team and batch companies attended the San Francisco Pride Parade. Pride inspired us to redefine the meaning of “unicorn” at 500. In tech, a unicorn company means a billion dollar company valuation. We decided that being a unicorn also brings about a sense of love and unity. We are not only about making profits and increasing portfolio company valuations but also about celebrating people and culture.

The momentum of the Pride Month continued into our Demo Day planning process. We wanted to use the upcoming Demo Day as a platform to promote 500’s company value of embracing diversity and inclusion. We chose the theme “Beauty & the Geek” based on our B17 tracks Fashion & B2B and decided to break down gender stereotypes by having Dave dress up as the “Beauty” and Christine the “Geek”.

After Demo Day, Microsoft offered to sponsor our efforts to advocate diversity in tech by supporting our Unity and Inclusion Summits. Our open and embracing culture has attracted a very diverse group of companies. In our latest batch, Batch 20, 36% of our batch companies were international (from 10 different countries), 20.5% of companies had at least one female founder, and 25% of companies had a black / Latinx founder.


5. Make It About Your People

At the end of the Batch 17 Demo Day, a flash mob of the 500 team appeared from the audience and started dancing on stage with Dave. The big screen started playing videos of venture capital investors and founders of successful 500 portfolio companies around the world wishing Dave a happy birthday. The B17 Demo Day happened to be Dave’s 50th birthday and our 500 family planned a surprise for Dave.

The Demo Day birthday surprise is just one example of the many things that we would do simply because we care about people. We build the 500 brand by connecting with people on a personal level.

6. Create Positive Emotion

From the previous Demo Days, we began to see that themes created a supportive environment for founders and investors to develop relationships. For Batch 19, we chose a Valentine’s Day theme because we wanted to bring more emotion into the experience.

We dressed up our founders as Cupid (Christine) and the Queen of Hearts (Dave) and decorated the stage with all shades of pink and hearts. Investors could give batch companies Valentine cards that said, “I have my eyes on you!”.


7. Leverage Culture & History

Our Batch 20 program was based in San Francisco around the same time as the city’s 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” – the 1967 summer event that drew nearly 100,000 young people to the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Starting from early spring 2017, streets in San Francisco were decorated with the “Summer of Love” theme. We decided to do the same theme for our Demo Day to pay tribute to the city’s history.

With flowers, rainbow-colored lighting and our emcee in a Grateful Dead bear costume, this Demo Day brought a sense of nostalgia to the city many 500 Startups team members call home.


Our Demo Days are instrumental in building the 500 brand. We strive to create an organic ecosystem of investors, founders, and corporate partners by providing meaningful and engaging content to our audience.

If your goal is to stand out from the crowd and flaunt your unique brand to the world, don’t forget to incorporate these 7 Marketing Lessons from 500 Startups Demo Days:

  1. Listen to the Audience: Gather feedback from your audience, catch the opportunity, and act on it
  2. Reframe the Challenge: Look at the problem from another perspective and turn challenges into advantages
  3. Inspire with your products: Rejuvenate your brand with new products
  4. Embrace Company Culture: Integrate the company values and culture to create a powerful marketing message
  5. Focus on People: Build a people-centric ecosystem to organically grow your business
  6. Engage your audience with Emotions: Create Positive emotions to Drive Connection and Awareness
  7. Integrate Art into Business: Leverage the power of culture and history in your marketing

500 Batch 22 begins July 24th, 2017 in San Francisco.

Click Here to apply for our the Batch 22 Seed Program.

More from Yiying Lu: 


Yiying Lu is award-winning bilingual (English & Chinese) artist and designer. Born in Shanghai China, Educated in Sydney Australia & London UK, now based in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, she currently is a Design Lecturer at the NYU Shanghai Program on Creativity & Innovation. She is also an individual creative consultant who provides talks & workshops for global startups and corporate innovation teams on design thinking, entrepreneurship & creativity. Her projects have been featured in many publications, including The New York Times, Forbes, NBC News, TIME, CNN, BBC, San Francisco Chronicle, TechCrunch, Mashable, and The Huffington Post. She was named a “Top 10 Emerging Leader in Innovation” in the Microsoft Next 100 series. For more from Yiying, you can follow her on TwitterLinkedin and Medium.


500 Startups Demo Day: Confessions From Batch 16 Founders

The green room at 500 Startups Demo Day is more like a pre-game locker room.

Startup founders with intense expressions pace back and forth while others sit alone, their heads slightly bowed as they focus like a laser on the next two minutes.

Clothing is adjusted, hair is combed. This is the culmination of 3+ months of startup pitch prep.

A boisterous group of founders crowds around a monitor blaring a live feed of the proceedings in the auditorium next door. There’s a tournament vibe in the air, but each participant will tell you that they aren’t competing with each other.

They’re competing against themselves.

Among the general public, people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death.

Startup founders, however, are a different breed of cat; out of twenty-two I spoke with, only two admitted to being nervous immediately before giving their pitch. Then again, “act as if” is the entrepreneur’s credo.

One man delivers a sincere pitch about his startup to a window overlooking a parking lot, complete with hand gestures and pauses. Another founder walks in small circles, occasionally stopping to bounce to the music streaming through his earbuds. A woman with a thousand-yard stare stands in a disused kitchen area and breathes deeply. High fives, daps and hugs are exchanged.

On the other side of the wall, in a room packed to capacity with investors, Silicon Valley notables, media, friends and family, each founder will have 120 seconds on stage to pitch their idea — to show why theirs is a worthy investment. Two minutes to persuade a room full of strangers that they’ve created something unique and valuable. Two minutes to explain what they’ve been doing with their lives.

Andrea Barrica & Kate Seledets
Startup Pitch Coach Andrea Barrica & Demo Day Producer Kate Seledets

Founders from around the world, but “Silicon Valley style” pitch

Batch 16 is 500’s largest Accelerator group ever, but its participants aren’t representative of Silicon Valley; they’re much more diverse. Of 51 companies, 25% are founded by women, 14% by African-Americans, and 8% by Latinos. International startups comprise 37% of the total.

Before taking the stage, each founder stands still long enough for Batch 16 staffers to attach wireless mics and transmitters. Next, the door to the auditorium swings open, classic rock power chords rush into the green room, and they’re off. Moments later, they rematerialize on the monitor in a corner, and everyone who’s not rehearsing their pitch gathers around to watch.

When they return, they’ll be greeted with deafening cheers and applause from their team members and other Batch 16 participants. (Due to the noise, I abandon plans to record a podcast and pivot to writing a blog post featuring interviews with several Demo Day participants.)

What It’s Like To Pitch At 500 Startups Demo Day

Jay Lipman, Ethic
Jay Lipman, Ethic

Ethic: Jay Lipman, Founder

Ethic is a sustainable asset manager, so we’re bringing sustainable investments to the mainstream. We were one of the first companies to start working on our pitch. We sat down with [500 Startups Entrepreneur-in-Residence and pitch coach] Andrea Barrica as soon as we could. She’s a godsend, and everyone who can work with her should. We spent about two months working on it, about once every two weeks for the first month, and then once a week for the last month.

Andrea got us very ready. She made sure that we had 10 practice pitches, 3 preview days. We were ready because Andrea got us ready.

Practice, read Talk Like TED, which is an amazing book, watch Obama talk, work with Andrea as much as you can, and just relax. It’s got to be natural and enthusiastic.

I just stared off into the abyss and hoped for the best. — Jay Lipman, Ethic.

Phillip Akhzar, Arka
Phillip Akhzar, Arka

Arka: Phillip Akhzar, Founder

We’re a pain-free way for companies to source packaging online. We started prepping our pitch probably too late, much later than most.

500 does a really great job on making sure that you’re prepared months in advance, having at least a day a week dedicated with mentors being there to support you. I held it off probably until three weeks before the day, and then from there just made it my Number One priority.

You need to know what you’re talking about in the sense that you go and study what it is that you want your company to do for as long as possible, but there’s a difference between executing and strategizing. When it comes down to it, the most important thing about your company are its users. My advice: start yesterday, and talk to your users as quickly as possible that doesn’t just mean, grow, grow, and make money. You need as much feedback as possible, so don’t think you know what your users need; they’ll tell you.

How’d I sleep last night? Not well. (laughs)  — James Norman, Pilotly

James Norman, Pilotly
Right: James Norman, Pilotly


Pilotly: James Norman, Founder

We enable people to make better decisions around their video through viewer data. We spent probably the past month on the pitch — it takes time to hone a message into two minutes and make sure that you not only explain how great your product is, but how big the opportunity is.

Normally, I black out while I’m pitching, because I’m in the zone, I’m feeling the crowd, and that’s where I’m at. Today, I somehow was able to impact the crowd and still be conscious, so I could be a little bit more impulsive but still direct with my movements, which pleased me.

On stage, I look at everybody. I try to catch people’s eye in the crowd, find people who are in between looking their phone and looking up at me, and speaking loudly so I can grab their attention.

I think that the best outcome is people come and join our seed round and help us achieve the change that we’re looking to make in entertainment.

Ticktate: Brian Canti, CEO, co-founder

We worked on it for the 16 weeks that we were in the 500 Startups program, but we really started to ramp up in the last three weeks; really getting down the pitch, cleaning up the jokes and making sure all the deliveries and punch lines were on point.

It came down to the fact that my co-founder and I felt that as CEO, I should be presenting. At first, I wasn’t that excited about it, but I got over my fear of speaking in public and really enjoyed myself. If I’m in a room with 20 people, I can hold the room and tell jokes. But there’s something about being the center of attention on stage. If I’m not prepared, I don’t like it, but in this case, I was so well prepared by the 500 folks that I really enjoyed it.

People spend a year plus working on these companies before joining these batches, so don’t be nervous about giving a two-minute speech about something you’ve spent years of your life on.

Rize Founder Justin Howell
Rize Co-founder Justin Howell

Rize: Justin Howell, CEO, cofounder

We are an automated savings platform built around behavioral design aimed for millenials, people in their 20s.

We started working on the demo probably about halfway through the batch and spent probably 20 – 30 hours over the last month and a half. I have a love/hate relationship with public speaking; sometimes I really enjoy it and being up on stage, but every time, there’s always those butterflies. It’s actually easier up there on stage with the lights in your eyes, because you can’t see people all that well.

We’ve all seen each others’ pitches so often that we know them by heart, and we’re all rooting for each other. We started out with a pitch that was pretty rough and I think we’ve come out with one that we’re really proud of through the combination of help from the 500 team and putting in the practice.

I’d like to come out with making some connections with potential investors.

BottlesTonight: John Rushworth, CEO

We’ve been in business for two years. We’re based in San Francisco, although we operate in 12 cities with 200 nightclubs using BottlesTonight to fill their unsold table inventory.

Two months in, we began startup pitching on a weekly basis. The last six weeks, it’s gone from once a week to twice a week, and in the last few weeks, every single day. The 500 program has really helped me get the pitch where it needed to be for today.

I was more nervous for Preview Day and our prior pitch sessions just amongst our batch. Today was just all excitement, and I think part of that is the trade show floor outside with all the companies, investors coming up to us being genuinely enthusiastic about what we’re doing. Everyone here has great camaraderie, everyone’s rooting for one another. It feels like playing sports with your friends.

Scott Lee, FoxType
Scott Lee, FoxType

FoxType: Scott Lee, CEO

If I’m ever not nervous, that’s when I’m going to do poorly. The nervous energy gets you to an optimum state of stress where you can think quickly and react to the audience.

Float: Max Klein, CEO, co-founder

I’m the CEO, so I’m usually unlucky enough to be called on stage. As you go up you essentially black out for 2 to 3 minutes, then you walk off stage and ask yourself what the hell happened.

I think I did OK. I’m hoping to impress some people, generate some buzz and have a good time with my team. I started working on today’s demo about two to three weeks ago. The ability to distill a message into two minutes is an extremely difficult thing, but it definitely helps with solidifying the core value proposition.

Worthix: Gui Cerqueira, CEO

Worthix is a software that combines econometric algorithms and cognitive systems to uncover what’s behind customer decisions. Basically, we explain why people buy.

I’m the guy that usually talks. The geeks, they don’t like to talk that much. — Gui Cerqueira, CEO Worthix

We always have that feeling of butterflies in your stomach before a presentation as important as Demo Day because it’s something that happens once in a lifetime as an entrepreneur. Basically, I try to concentrate, with very strong breathing before, but the problem is, they called me sooner than was expected. There were three more companies before me, but somehow it was good because I wasn’t expecting it to be my time to go on the stage.

Bond with your batch mates as soon as possible. A lot of entrepreneurs when they consider joining 500, they think about the opportunity to meet investors, but once you’re in the program, you realize that your batch mates are the strongest resource you have.

Next time, see the action for yourself. Sign up in advance for Batch 17 Demo Day here.