As a serial clean technology entrepreneur, I strive to offer my expertise to Boise-based startups. I’ve had many mentors in my life, so it’s an honor to save the next person some trouble as they navigate the all-consuming work of starting a company. Two of the challenges I hear most often from Idaho entrepreneurs is that their companies struggle to gain national exposure and to earn respect from the major players in Silicon Valley and larger tech hubs.
I know from my previous startup experience that it’s tough to get on the radar of the wider world from Boise. Making Boise a great place to start a business and also a viable place to scale your business is a problem the Boise tech community continues to face.
In September, I took a long shot chance and entered my smart lighting sales software company into a national pitch competition at Dreamforce, the largest tech conference in the world. More than 180,000 people convene in person at the Salesforce event in San Francisco, and more than 15 million join online. But, in true startup form, I submitted our application late one weekend night, just a couple hours shy of the deadline, figuring that would be the last we heard of it.
But unlike so many chances at national exposure we’ve taken so far, Dreampitch was different.
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Salesforce saw value in all that time my team has spent heads-down refining our software to better meet the needs of our customers and make it easier to retrofit commercial and industrial buildings using toxin-free and energy-efficient lighting. We advanced to the semifinals, scored an interview, and passed Salesforce’s legal due diligence. We made it to the top three finalists to pitch live on the main stage. I’d have five minutes to tell our story to a panel of judges that included Shark Tank’s Chris Sacca, will.i.am, Shahrzad Rafati, the CEO of Broadband TV and Guy Oseary of Maverick Records. Win or lose, this opportunity would skyrocket us — and Boise — onto the national stage in a whole new way.
With only three weeks to prepare, I drew on a great deal of support from Boise’s startup ecosystem. I hired local companies to overhaul our website, develop a public relations strategy, and honed our pitch with startup experts and mentors from Trailhead and the Boise Angel Alliance. Three Idaho cities even planned local livestream watch parties to cheer us on.
Salesforce’s team also provided coaching sessions with presentation experts to make sure I was camera-ready. When my CTO Brett Adler and I arrived in San Francisco, we immersed ourselves in the more than 3,000 sessions and speakers ranging from Michelle Obama, Ashton Kutcher, Natalie Portman, and of course Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. We also met potential partners and investors, and made valuable connections within the Salesforce ecosystem. After a good night’s sleep and a morning run, we convened for the pitch dress rehearsal, and then were whisked off to the green room.
I snuck out for a few more practice pitches in the hallway and did my best to calm my nerves. Then it was time for makeup, getting mic’d up, and to take my seat. When I heard my name called, I let all the practice take over and tried to live in the moment and make my home state proud.
Though we didn’t win the competition (or the $250,000 check), getting to this level was huge for our company — and Boise’s tech community. We’re now clearer on the many tools Salesforce offers and can help Idaho entrepreneurs plug into that company in new and exciting ways, and we’ve had investors approach us, asking about Boise’s tech scene and expressing interest in our company. New customers have found us as well.
We’ve inspired many folks in the startup community, thanks to local watch parties in the Idaho towns where I’ve spent my entire life, Boise, Ketchum and Coeur d’Alene. We may not have won the $250,000, but I’m confident that the dividends of the experience will pay well into the future for us and for other startups in our state.
Leif Elgethun is an Idaho native, University of Idaho graduate and serial entrepreneur in clean technologies. You can view his live pitch here. Email Leif@retrolux.com.