From courting Hollywood’s A-list to navigating the Chinese New Year

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This is the 11th article in a continuing series chronicling the growth path of Screach, a startup based in Newcastle upon Tyne in England’s North East. Screach is an interactive digital media platform that allows users to create real-time, two-way interactive experiences between a smart device (through the Screach app) and any content, on any screen or just within the mobile device itself. We invite your feedback.

By Leo Valiquette and John Hill

Growing a startup is all about establishing and managing relationships. There are the relationships that open doors and create opportunity. And then there are the more pedestrian ones involved with the day-to-day processes that get product to customers.

Relationships in both categories gave the Screach team plenty of reason to lose sleep over the past couple of months. The first was a pitch opportunity for CEO Paul Rawlings that made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. The second was the potentially disruptive hiccup presented by the Chinese New Year.

The big pitch

Paul found himself part of a mission of U.K. business talent led by the Founders Forum that visited Los Angeles to meet executives from companies such as Universal Music Group, Sony Corp and DreamWorks Animation.

“It was an amazing experience,” he said. “The audience was a lot more influential than any I’d ever pitched to before.”

Paul got to spend a couple of days hearing from people such as Universal Music Group’s chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge and singer Will.I.Am. As we covered in the last post, Screach is currently rolling out in the U.S. market ScreachTV, a plug-and-play box which allows venues such as sports bars to create their own personalised branded TV channels featuring adverts, interactive games, news, and social media feeds and messages. The trip to L.A. provided Paul with a golden opportunity to pitch leading figures in entertainment, media and technology as potential partners and content sources.

But there was a catch. He had only two minutes to get their attention. Here’s what he learned:

1. A shorter pitch is much harder than a longer one

There’s an old quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, which says: “I’m sorry to write such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” That applies to pitches, too.

“You’d think it would be a lot easier to talk for two minutes than for 10 minutes,” said Paul. “But it takes a lot more effort. You’ve got to spend a lot more time boiling your pitch down to what’s really important, what’s exciting to your audience, and what your product actually does.”

That’s why it’s important to…

2. Practice

Paul has pitched to a lot of people. He’s pitched to investors, to potential partners, to press. But practice is still crucial, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. Go through the process each time.

Consider how you can express yourself better. Cut out unnecessary detail. Tailor what you’re saying to your audience. Practice makes you more confident, and makes you think about what you’re saying.

3. Don’t over-promise

You’re standing in front of the most influential audience you’ve ever faced. Surely it figures that you’d want to give them your best show. But that doesn’t mean you have to promise them the earth. Make your pitch crisp, intriguing and direct, but make it honest.

If you sign someone up by dangling a feature or a financial return that you can’t possibly deliver, you’re not closing a deal. You’re setting a time bomb that will affect your reputation.

The long wait

Keeping the product moving also posed a challenge for Screach over the past couple of months as it worked around the Chinese New Year.

ScreachTV is a combination of code and hardware and the plug-and-play set-top box that makes it happen has to be made somewhere. In this case, that somewhere is China.

While the Screach team knew what to expect and how to work around the new year holiday, the experience did highlight some considerations all startups must keep in mind when working with an offshore supplier or manufacturer.

1. Talk to your supplier

It helps to remember that offshore suppliers may observe different holidays than you, depending where you are in the world. If that’s the case, it’s best to know when they are, how long they’ll be enjoying the break, and to plan ahead.

“Chinese New Year was obviously on our radar, but we had to be aware of how long it was celebrated in China,” said Robyn Lingard, Screach’s head of operations. “Suppliers wouldn’t bring it up a lot because they didn’t want it to look like they were causing any disruption, but a lot of places do close for 15 days.

“When we made a major order in October we knew we were going to be looking to make another bigger order shortly afterwards, so we started talking about things like Christmas and Chinese New Year then.”

2. Explore your shipping options

Some manufacturers will handle the shipping of the product to you, but it’s worth at least exploring your options. Some companies might deliver the shipment to you and then ask for any customs charges, while others may store your order at the depot until they receive payment.

“We organised the shipping ourselves, because it turned out it would be more cost-efficient in this case,” said Robyn. “It’s worth exploring.”

3. Getting the right code

It’s also important to check whether your order has the correct tariff code for shipping, so that you’re paying the right duty rates for your order.

“It can determine how much you pay in customs charges, and the fee you pay to the company doing the shipping,” said Robyn. “We used a helpline which gave us advice on what we were looking for, and we got our chief technology officer involved as he could give a technical appraisal of exactly how our product works.”

4. Don’t cut it too fine

You want your product to be perfect, and you’re going to make changes to the design as you go. But if you need to get your product to customers at a certain date, keep in mind how long your manufacturers need to build and ship it. Otherwise you may need to explain delays to your clients.

“We knew we needed to leave about eight to 10 weeks, just to be safe,” said Robyn. “We kept discussions going throughout December, and kept updated with conversations between the shipping company and manufacturer, even if we needed to use Google Translate sometimes. Everyone was very helpful, but all the way through, communication was so important to us.”

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