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  • Published: Sep 27th, 2017
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Completely unofficial advice to Tech Trailblazers applicants

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So you have decided to apply for Tech Trailblazers and hope to impress judges.  What should be included in the applications, and what is the best approach to filling it out so that judges can make sense of it?  I have been a Tech Trailblazers judge for several years running, and there are a few tips and tricks I can impart.

I’m imparting this advice on my personal blog because in the wild woolly world of marketing telling the unvarnished truth is radical and edgy.  Fortunately, on a personal blog I can be a little bit more honest than when I have to pretend to be an adult.  Hopefully this translates into being a little bit more helpful.

The most important piece of advice I can provide is that the word limits in the application form are just that: limits.  They are not guidelines.  They are not suggested word amounts.  Use the fewest possible words to answer the question on the application form and move on.

One of the worst things you can possibly do is to fill up the application with meaningless babble that serves no purpose except to up the word count.  Don’t.  I would also highly recommend avoiding marketing buzzwords unless there is a really valid reason to add them.

If you click here you will be able to see a fake application I made for my favourite startup, Ninite.  Ninite have a fantastic product that’s impossible to hate, and it’s run by some of the best nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Ninite is simple.  They do one thing and they do it well.  They discovered a pain point, they addressed it, they built a business on top of it.  Short and sweet, and the fake application I’ve created for them reflects that.

You’ll note that I didn’t use anywhere near the word limits in the application.  This is because it simply wasn’t necessary in order to answer the question posed.  More words would simply have confused the matter.

If you can’t dazzle with brilliance, try honesty

Tech Trailblazer judges are not venture capitalists.  Nor are we junior tech news hacks for a local daily newspaper whose idea of science and technology writing is 6 solid weeks of back-to-back eclipse stories.  We are not impressed by your ability to cram software defined storage, hyperconverged infrastructure, cloud, public cloud, private cloud, hybrid cloud, hybrid storage, service providers, Bogo the storage clown and Jibbers knows what else into a single sentence.

Tech Trailblazer judges are hardened tech nerds who, given the chance, will hours on end in a pub arguing the exact boundaries on what should be considered software defined storage and what shouldn’t.  I should know: I’ve had those arguments with several of them.

This isn’t to say we’re all cynical, spiteful and misanthropic.  What it means is that we, all of us, encounter hundreds of companies a year that fall into the various categories that we judge.  The chances that you will show us something that we haven’t seen before or that truly wows us is pretty slim.

All of the above means that being candid with us is the best possible approach.  Maybe your startup is yet another software defined storage startup in a long line of similar startups.  That’s fine, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in treading familiar ground.

If you are putting the time and effort into your company then the chances are there is something you feel you’re doing differently.  Maybe your hook is that you do data geo-locality better than the next guy.  That’s great!  If you can articulate what you clearly enough to say “we’re very much like X, but we do Y better than they do” I promise you, you’ll have our attention.  That gives us a place to start analysis and comparison.

Pedigree doesn’t matter, goals do

Chances are pretty good that your Tech Target judge doesn’t care that you were founded by Storage veterans from Veritas with over fleventy-fleep years of experience.  So is every other startup that we encounter throughout the year, both as Tech Trailblazers judges and during the course of our day jobs.

Being perfectly honest about it, the pedigree of your executive team doesn’t matter.  It’s a sad game at conferences to try to name the year’s list of failed startups assembled by tech luminaries whose name cache should have assured a better result than ultimately occurred.

What we do like to hear about is what you plan to do with your product and/or company.  As discussed above, chances are pretty good that you can get our attention if you can describe the product in question succinctly enough that it’s “like X but Y”.  Obviously, the next question from any analyst with their salt will be “so what prevents X from adding Y”?  That’s the hard question.  That’s the one that, if you can answer properly, makes you a clear winner.

The real questions

Ultimately, what we as judges are trying to find out – though the application form is far more polite about it than I am – are the answers to the following questions:

1) What does your product do?
2) Who cares that it does that thing?
3) How many people do you think will care enough to pay for it to do that thing?
4) How do expect to leverage this thing you’re doing into something important enough that a larger competitor won’t simply make a feature that does exactly what you do and render you irrelevant?

Sometimes the answer will be that you have a patent.  Some companies do something boring and miserable that nobody wants to do, and are thusly happy to pay you to make the problem go away.

Maybe you do something that everyone else does, but you just do it better.  You have some secret sauce – intellectual property, a gaggle of supernerds, or otherwise – that makes your approach to a common problem something that will wow practitioners and IT decision makers alike.  That’s awesome.  But don’t end the story there.

Tell us how you plan to go to market.  Are you an acquisition target?  Do you plan to win hearts and minds with your market-shaking superfeature and then add all the more pedestrian functionality until you’re a competitor worthy of note?  We’re judging companies not only on the awesomeness of their technology, but on their likelihood of survival.

Honesty and self-awareness are the keys to success.  Good luck to all!

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