Adventures of the All-Important Software Demo

Thomas Mullen
July 7, 2016

This spring, my wife and I scheduled a long weekend in New York City to do a blissfully unscheduled walking, eating & gawking tour of one of our favorite destinations.

A few days before we left, a potential SmartComment client requested a software web demo for a few hours after our flight was scheduled to arrive at JFK. Deciding I could make it all work, I stuck by my initial plan, figuring I could get to the hotel safely ahead of the demo and help put our company’s best foot forward for the potential new client.

The day of the trip, the flight was right on time. But once we landed I realized it was going to take longer than I thought to get to the hotel. The airport taxi line stretched roughly to Hoboken, and navigating traffic into the city was as choked and messy as taking down a Carnegie Deli pastrami.

By the time we made it to the tiny lobby of our Travelocity special of a hotel, I was mere minutes away from the scheduled demo time. I had half a mind to just haul out my laptop, demand the WiFi code from the desk attendant like a crazy person, and plop down at the cramped reception desk — which wouldn’t be the strangest place our team has given a demo (more on that later).

Deciding not to terrify the lone check-in guy, I opted instead for tapping my feet and double-checking the clock as he set about meticulously forging our access cards with the painstaking and deliberate precision of a medieval apprentice. When he finally finished our artisanally crafted key cards, I quickly snatched them as my wife and I hustled to the elevator, then proceeded to creak and bump our way up 15 stories to our floor.

Rushing into our room just as the demo was scheduled to start, I unsheathed my laptop and frantically logged into the hotel’s WiFi. Amazingly, I signed into the online meeting just seconds before our client and started the demo. We showed them how to digitally break multiple comments out of a single letter, how to view reports and see which comment topics are trending, and how to organize the escalating tiers of their comment management process. Did they like it? Hard to tell so far. And then our software guy exported a batch of project comments and their accompanying responses into a tidy Excel file, and the conference room on the other end erupted in cheers. Literal cheers! Dumbly, we both paused. “Did someone just kick a field goal?” our software director quipped. “No, it was the export thing!” the agency project manager on the other end said. “It usually takes us days to do that. Just keep going!”

Even over the internet, I remember all of this so vividly because, well, we remember these kinds of details about all of our demos. For us at least, a demo is a first date, a talent show, a senior dissertation, and the big game all wrapped into one — and carrying all the combined emotional stimulation and mental imprint of each.

Now just to be clear, not every demo gets cheers and applause. Because no matter how tight your demo, great your product or how right you think a client might be for it, some rooms just aren’t going to go for it. Indeed, building a software company sometimes feels like you’re the little girl in the bee costume in that Blind Melon video, relentlessly sharing your passion with people who sometimes might not be ready for what you do.

But guess what? Every once in a while you push open the door to an office full of people who get exactly why the world needs what you’ve made, and, well, then it’s all bee dances and fields of green. And that’s a feeling we’ll chase again and again through almost anything. We’ve done demos amid fire alarm testing, barking dogs, online meeting capacity limits, technical difficulties and in more strange locales and circumstances than I could name. Actually, that’s not true. I can name pretty much all of them:

1.     On a roadside in Orange County, getting WiFi from a nearby Starbucks

2.     At my kitchen table

3.     In an airport terminal in Phoenix

5.     In a high school gymnasium

5.     In a church

6.     Inside an imposing granite federal building in Washington, DC

8.     In a groomsman suit a few hours before a friend’s wedding

9.     At a table in a Starbucks stand in a Safeway in Montana

We carry all of these demos (good or bad) with us every workday — be they victories, reminders of how far we’ve come as a company, or simple interactions that taught us something new about our clients’ needs. After all, a demo is more than just a first step toward additional business. It is a connection that sometimes provides enough electricity to kickstart a new long-standing relationship.

We’re fortunate that we don’t just sell public comment software to our clients. We become their partner, and we see a lot of each other as our professional relationship blossoms. We team up with them at public hearings as we help citizens submit electronic comments on a bank of laptops. We interact with them over training sessions, attend their project meetings, mix with them at conferences. But we never forget that first time they smiled, nodded — or, yes, sometimes even cheered — at that first demo.