3 tricks to better public speaking

Hello, my name is Neil Joglekar and I am the co-founder of ReelSurfer (YC S12). Last week, Christian and I were invited to give a guest lecture at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon. We talked about 3 things we have done right as a startup and 3 things we did wrong as a startup.   

Having given a few lectures now, I want to share 3 tricks that can make anyone a more effective speaker. In my eyes, the ultimate goal of a lecture is to make sure that your audience leaves with ideas that they can actually use:

1.     Don’t give a presentation – have a conversation 

I don’t like the word ‘presentation’. It reminds me of waking up at 7am, riding my bike across campus, and being crammed into a small desk in an auditorium. Then comes the worst part – watching the clock, wiggling around in my chair, and trying to pay attention. For me, it’s really hard to sit and listen to something for an hour and a half without losing focus.

This puts the burden on the speaker to be engaging so that he or she doesn’t lose the audience and keeps the cell phones away. The solution is to not give a presentation, but to make it a conversation. So, how can you do it?

·      Open by explaining that everyone should feel free to interrupt you (respectfully, of course) at any time. Don’t the most interesting anecdotes always come from answers to questions? Speakers can’t prepare for all possible questions so answers are more likely to be off the cuff and real.

·      Repeatedly ask if anyone has questions. Even if you offer the opportunity to be interrupted, few people will take it. It’s a bit intimidating as an audience member to raise your hand and ask a question that interrupts the speaker’s flow. As Jerry Maguire said, help them help you by asking for questions.

2.     Speak in your voice and style 

This one is pretty simple – play to your personality. Back in college, I played a lot of poker and to help improve my game I read almost every poker book ever written. The best advice I got, besides learning the odds, was to “play like your personality.” When I first started playing, I was extremely conservative and would only play with the strongest hands. It made me nervous and honestly made playing pretty boring; I would sit for hours and not say a word.

I like to talk, so a more aggressive, playful style fit me better. This was backed by results as this strategy led to more winning sessions and ultimately more enjoyment from the game.

I think the same goes for speaking. You don’t need to be stiff to look professional and prepared. This is easy for both Christian and me because we generally have a pretty casual style. Speaking in your natural style makes you more comfortable, which makes you more confident and trust me, your audience can tell.  Find what fits you and own it.

3.     Tell personal stories 

The best way to make a connection with your audience is to be genuine. I’m 26 years old and don’t really have the experience to spout clichés like “stay the course” and “fight the good fight.” Someday I hope to, but I’m not quite there yet. All I have to back up my credibility is personal experience.

But wait, why would you want to tell your embarrassing stories to a group of complete strangers? Aren’t you supposed to be some sort of expert who makes no mistakes? For me the answer is simple I’m not an expert yet. The reason I am speaking to anyone is to help others learn from my mistakes.

Luckily for me, I do not get embarrassed easily. Countless sales rejections have given me a tough skin. If you are speaking to entrepreneurs then chances are they have a tough skin too. People in Silicon Valley fail all the time. I’ve learned the mistake you make is not nearly as important as your reaction to it. The key is to make sure it never happens again. In fact as a personal goal, I try to make a mistake every single day.

Some of my favorite stories to tell are about how we built (and painfully removed) features, and how we (almost) reached an agreement with a key customer. Personal stories elicit an emotional response from the audience, your real goal as a presenter. To avoid awkwardness you can remove specific names and some of the more sensitive details (that is what a journal is for).

Emotional reactions lead to discussions both during your lecture and after. I have learned that it is the discussion after the lecture that is sometimes the most illuminating. I hope that some of my experiences with public speaking will be helpful to you next time you get up on stage.

So, good luck with your next conversation – and let me know how it goes!

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3 things we did wrong

Hello, my name is Neil Joglekar and I started ReelSurfer (YC S12) with Christian Yang. Last Thursday, Christian and I were asked to give a guest lecture at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon. We were asked to describe 3 things we have done right for our startup and three things we did very wrong. (Why is it always easier to come up with the list of things we did wrong?) I thought it might be helpful to share what we presented. 

Welcome to part two, where I want to share some advice based on what we have done wrong. If you missed it, here is part one where I described what we have done right as a startup.


1.     Build the team carefully 

The quality of the team is probably the number one reason a startup will succeed or fail and that starts with your co-founder. I got lucky here – Christian and I were friends in college and had worked on a few class projects together. We knew we had complementary skills and also could perform under pressure. 

The next step is hiring non-founders.  Luckily for you, I think we made just about every mistake possible. I have these pieces of advice for you:

  • Don’t hire friends or family: This is hit or miss because in some cases we hired friends and it worked out great. The other times it didn’t but it was hard to fire them since there were implications outside of just the workplace. “You can’t fire me I thought we were friends.” The best way to avoid that is to set clear expectations beforehand and then have objective conversations about their performance. Gray areas are a problem.
  • Attitude matters: People say you should hire the smartest people you know. While that is mostly true, you have to make sure that their attitude matches their intelligence. For example, if you hire someone who is the most brilliant AI programmer alive but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty and make a rounded rectangle a different shade of blue you are going to have a problem. Screen for culture fit / hunger and take it very seriously.


 2.     Don’t raise money too early

Right after we graduated from college, Christian and I decided that we needed to raise money. We didn’t have a (fully-baked) product, a plan or any sales but thought that for a “company” at our stage we should have some investors. Looking back, it seems as ridiculous as it sounds writing it. We probably sounded like this.

Though we had the approximately $500k committed, we ended up backing out of the deal. I could not be happier that we did, looking back here were the problems:

  • We didn’t know what we were doing. Back then we were committed to the idea of building a consumer website for helping movie lovers find their favorite quotes – licensing and copyright be damned. If we had taken the $500k we would have blown through it for the wrong idea and be working elsewhere right now.
  • The terms were not favorable. Investors saw us as fresh-faced college kids who may develop something interesting and they preyed on that. When you start to give up significant control of the company at the seed stage it puts a strain on a company forever. To be fair we did not know how to really negotiate with investors or which terms really mattered.

The truth is raising money is sexy. TechCrunch and other blogs cover funding stories and it’s something that you can send to your mom. But try and hold off – raising money when you are not ready can effectively destroy your opportunity to run a startup at all.


3.     Listen to feedback 

Make something people want is the Y Combinator motto for a reason – I don’t think anything is more important for a startup. At the end of the day, nobody really cares about your startup except for you, your team and your family. You are constantly fighting other companies of all shapes and sizes for people’s time and attention. Winning this battle is hard once you have product / market fit, but if you are not starting by building something people want you are definitely going to lose.

When we first started ReelSurfer we thought we knew what people wanted but quickly realized that people will tell you what they really want. You need to constantly ask people for feedback on the product. It’s actually pretty simple – people love to give their opinions. If you are building something they are pretty open about telling you what is right and wrong. Here are a few things we do to try and build what people want:

  • Run usability studies. Invite someone into a room for 30 minutes and watch them use your product. Ask them what their background is, why they would use your product, and what would make them come back every day. All of their answers may not be helpful but you will start to see trends.
  •  Run A/B tests. If people won’t give you feedback in person remember that data never lies. What people are clicking on is the clearest indicator of what is working and what is not.
  •  Build something that a few people really love. Even if this is not a scalable action remember that each person represents a group of people like them. So as YC says, if you can get 100 people to LOVE your product then you have a chance at tapping into a larger audience.

I would love to hear what things you are doing wrong in the comments and maybe I’ll be able to help.

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3 things we have done right

Last Thursday, Christian and I were asked to give a guest lecture at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon. We were asked to describe 3 things we have done right for our startup and three things we did very wrong. (Why is it always easier to come up with the list of things we did wrong?) I thought it might be helpful to share what we presented.  


In this post, I am going to start with 3 things we did right:


1. Never give up

Running a startup is hard, harder than anything you have ever had to do. Your relationships suffer, your emotions ride a never-ending roller coaster, and you pretty much never stop working. I’d like to tell you it will all work out in the end, but the truth is nobody really knows. 

I think Paul Graham did a great job describing a key philosophy of any successful startup – just don’t die. We first started ReelSurfer in 2008 as a consumer web site to let anyone find his or her favorite movie quote. Then, we pivoted into the enterprise and sold end-to-end video solutions to universities and conferences. We were bootstrapping the company at the time we made the shift and followed the revenue. Without moving into the enterprise, we would have never been able to turn our focus back to the consumer space and launch the ReelSurfer that exists today.

The truth is, I don’t think Christian and I ever really wanted to build an enterprise company, but we were both willing to do what was necessary. If we hadn’t, Christian would be working for Microsoft and I would be in New York buying and selling oil futures. I think we are both pretty glad we stuck with it.

After this point, we were asked a question so interesting I had to include it here: how do you stay motivated when things are looking bleak? The truth is it’s very difficult. For the first couple years, I was working at home and doing sales calls from my apartment. When you are doing sales for an early-stage startup you live and die with each customer. Some days were filled with elation and some were pretty dark. It really made me learn two things, first to try not to believe the hype when things are going well and don’t panic when things seem to be falling apart. The second is just to enjoy the ride. Successes and failures that seem so important at the time are fleeting. If you can, stop and enjoy going to meetings with people that few have the opportunity to, and working with a team of your friends all day – things will never seem so bad.


2. Go out of your way to be helpful to people 

I just saw the movie Pay it Forward (I know it’s famous). It was worth the wait and I think I saw it at the perfect time in my life. For those that have not seen it, Kevin Spacey is a teacher who challenges his students to change the world. One of his students devises a scheme to randomly help 3 people with the hope that they will go on and help 3 others, which will spread to everyone in the world: http://reelsurfer.com/watch/share/21986. Cool, right? 

Our startup journey is full of people that have gone out of their way to help us. I have to thank our advisors, investors and all others who have taken time out of their schedules to further our careers not only as a company but also personally. I feel like it is an obligation for everyone to help those “with something big, something they can’t do by themselves.” You never really know how it will work out.

When we were running our enterprise company, I got a phone call from a professor that was working on her syllabus for an upcoming class. Since the class incorporated video she felt like I would be a great person to consult with. Even though it was not our business exactly, I was happy to help and didn’t ask for anything in return. It turned out that she later became the Dean of her school and ended up being one of our early customers at ReelSurfer.

You really don’t know how helping others may come back to you. Pay it forward.


3. Never stop learning 

Christian and I both believe that no matter what you are doing it is important to keep improving your skills. Out of Stanford, Christian took a full-time job at Microsoft. As we build our team, he tells me that his time there was invaluable. In addition to learning new languages, he was able to learn procedure and how to make a large-scale product for millions of users. As he starts to manage our development team, what he learned there could not be more useful.

This form of structured learning is another reason why I always shudder a bit when people drop out of college to pursue building a company. I am the first to admit there are exceptions that have achieved wild success, but I worry that leaving early forces you to skip foundational knowledge. To take a sports analogy, for every Lebron James and Kobe Bryant there are also hundreds of basketball players that never made it to the NBA.

I definitely understand the allure. In fact, after college instead of taking a traditional job I started a tutoring company to help pay rent and get my feet wet running a business. Some things I learned on the fly, sure, but I feel like what I learned at school (both in the classroom and also outside just learning to be an adult) helped the business succeed. I am talking about simple things like how to deal with people, how to manage stress, and how to relate to someone on different levels. I can almost say for a fact that if I started the company while in school it would not have gone well.


Would love to hear things that you have done right with your startup in the comments below. Stay tuned, in part two of this post I’ll describe the 3 things that we have done wrong.

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