Grandmother judges an old-time hit at Startupfest

Startups learn to fear a panel of four opinion-makers at Montreal’s annual Startupfest.

They have a history of selecting greatness and they won’t be fooled. They’ve spent years in business and raised children on top of it.

These are the fabled grandmother judges: a quartet of women who decide the fate of startups who dare to pitch them. They are Sonia Hazan, Branda Flan, Doreen Croll and Pearl Cooper.

“I think the grandmothers make a lot of people nervous,” said Startupfest founder Phil Telio on Friday. “All the pitching judges scare people. Very few startups walk in and say ‘I’m totally comfortable.’ They’re all nervous to pitch.”

Over six years these grandmother judges have handed out the annual Grandmother’s Choice prize. As the idea goes, if one can’t explain their business idea to their grandmother, they’ll have a lot of trouble convincing others.

But there’s good news for the startups that pitched already on Thursday and Friday.

“Many of the ones that we’ve looked at over the years have had good histories and have done very well since we met them and this year we’re finding every company so innovative, so exciting. I think this is really the best year,” said Flan, a former real estate broker who specialized in properties in the west end and downtown core of Montreal.

While a few of the Grandmother’s have been substituted over the years, these are the women who have picked such winners as Onavo in 2012, the company that went on to be acquired by Facebook for a cool $150 million. Last year’s Grandmothers’ Choice award went to Revols, the custom-earphone maker that recently raised $2.5 million in Kickstarter preorders.

For many other pitchers it doesn’t go as well. As Startupfest says on its website so gracefully, “Blessed with the experience only decades of seeing right through BS can grant a person, Startupfest’s grandmother judges can destroy a bad pitch.”

The Grandmothers say they’ve never been treated like knitting-on-the-chair, out-of-touch elderly people. In fact, every pitcher has addressed them with respect.

But there are some things they haven’t liked over the years.

“Well, some have seemed almost repetitive or pitching things that have been done before,” said Flan.

“And sometimes its too rehearsed,” added Croll, who has served as an educator in England, California and Montreal. “It’s nice when they say something very brief and then we ask questions. That’s how it gets interesting.”

While the Grandmothers admit they’re not completely knowledgeable on today’s tech news, they try to keep afloat. Still, they all agreed that they seem to understand pitches much more easily than four years ago.

“Over the years they’ve honed and matured their own thinking when it comes to technology,” said Telio. “They can tell you what the trends are because they see so many startups. They’ve seen hundreds of pitches every year for six years.”

Make no mistake: these are perceptive women who put in decades of experience in business. They pointed out with clarity the changes in tech as shown by changing ideas pitched to them over the years.

“Every year has a different trend,” said Hazan, who owned and operated a special events company in Montreal for years. “One year it was geared around children. Then security. Other years have been around dating and this year there’s many new ideas, a lot of them based on the Uber model and using people in different cities with whatever skills they have on an ad hoc basis.”

Hazan added that “everything was bounced off Facebook as a platform a couple years ago. Now they’re using other platforms to get where they want to go, like Youtube. And then we’re also seeing some products that are new and inventive, meant for physical health or environmental product.”

“These are all people who we knew understood technology,” said Telio, “They all had a grasp of what social media was six years ago.”

So how does an entrepreneur wow the Grandmothers? Like all pitches, there’s many things that can sway these judges, including the product, the pitch and even the personality of the person explaining it. We’re all human.

“You can’t help but be affected by the charisma but you try to look through that to the real message,” said Croll.

The Grandmother Judges will continue to take pitches throughout Friday at Startupfest. The award will be announced Friday evening.


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