Thursday, March 18, 2010

Steve Case Is Back In The Garage

Steve Case, the former AOL Chairman, looks thin and fresh as he takes the podium. He’s here in Stanford’s Hewlett hall, taking a photo of the audience before launching into his speech. “You don’t look so great as a group,” he cracks.

Case is the co-architect of the biggest merger in history, the infamous AOL-Time Warner deal, which Vanity Fair journalist Nina Munk described in detail in her 2004 book, aptly titled “Fools Rush in.” The merger was a failure, with both part of the new company ignoring the other one, and posting a loss of $99 billion in 2002 - still the all-time record for a company. Former Time Warner Inc. CEO Gerald Levin recently apologized for the merger, calling it “the worst business deal ever.”

“We seem to be lacking entrepreneurship today. Old companies always play defense, and we need the new guys to play offense,” declares Steve Case at one point. The remark might have had more to do with soccer than football - his daughter Annie, a Stanford freshman, plays defense for the women’s soccer team. “She’s here somewhere, but I won’t embarrass her by asking to stand up,” says Case.

That one sentence seems to sum up Case’s explanation for why the merger failed. For him, Time Warner was the big, old company, playing defense, while AOL was the aggressive newcomer. “Vision without execution is hallucination,” he says at one point, “and we should all accept responsibility for not making it work.”

After being ousted as the Chairman of AOL Time Warner Inc. in 2003 - right before the company went back to its old name, “Time Warner Inc.” - Case focused on his non-profit, Case Foundation, which helps fund and promote new projects “that can change the world.”

“It feels like my early days - I’m in a garage, working on projects I like,” says Case as he concludes the speech.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Fishing for a Compelling Story

Theresa Lina Stevens and Forrest Glick of the Stanford Technology Venture Program (STVP) present a workshop on how to effectively pitch and present ideas to an audience of investors.

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design was a location befitting to the nature of the presentation and the diversity of the audience that attended. Adorning a blue foam tugboat sticker (my pass for the event) I walked to a back room and sat on a lime-colored plastic chair amidst the red retro couches, black foam cubes and various other unidentifiable seating furniture.

I watched as attendees trickled in with their yellow train, orange plane and green sports car passes, taking a foam cube or wooden crate to relax and wait as the café-style lounge music played in the background. The setting was, in essence, an art studio filled with ‘artists’ ready to workshop. Stanford alumni, students, entrepreneurs, international visitors, and interested locals alike brought enthusiastic energy, sharing their thoughts and ideas with others in the room.

Theresa Lina Stevens, a core member of the Stanford Technology Venture Program (STVP), opened the workshop by offering advice on how to structure the content of a presentation. “Don’t try to pitch your audience,” she stated, “Your number one goal is to get their attention and you lose it as soon as you start reciting a sales pitch.” According to Stevens, the biggest problem that presenters face is failure to hook the audience’s attention. Stevens explained how using a “Why/what/how framework” can solve the problem.

· Why is there a problem?

· What needs to be done about it?

· How have you uniquely solved the problem?

“Bait them, hook them, and reel them in!” became the theme for the day when declared by Stevens who threw on a yellow rain jacket and cast out a fishing rod with such speed and gusto that anyone who blinked missed the transition. Stevens proceeded to throw plastic eggs with examples of pitches inside into the audience and asked, “Now who here was not excited about me throwing things into the audience?” A simple yet effective tip, the idea of turning attention onto the audience grabs everyone’s interest.

“Enslave me!” echoed through the room as the first egg holder read her pitch aloud. Stevens explained the pitch was the subject line of an email from an intern looking for a job. The intern was hired.

As an interactive workshop, everyone in the room had the opportunity to break into groups and practice pitching while also providing feedback. One of the most difficult tasks was the “tweet test.” “Can you tweet your pitch?” Stevens asked. Cutting a one minute pitch into a twitter message with all elements intact constitutes a “tweet test.”

Forrest Glick, the Director for Educational Technology at STVP, took over the second half of the workshop dedicated to working on the visuals of a presentation.

“It’s like a sculptor carving stone,” Glick stated, “as you continue, you reveal the form of your presentation.” Glick prefers to start “in the analog,” looking for opportunities that are uniquely presented to the speaker rather than relying on a PowerPoint to structure the presentation.

“Think like a designer,” was Glick’s main advice, “We have so many tools at our disposal.”

A video of Guy Kawasaki offered pitch advice. Glick emphasized, “People can read faster than the presenter can talk,” so don’t get caught up on a bulleted presentation but rather “Simplify and amplify” using visuals.

Both Stevens and Glick concluded by reiterating their main points, “Be a student of the topic,” and don’t forget to “Bait them, hook them, and reel them in.”