Since 2014, the New York Fashion Tech Lab has served as a cutting-edge incubator for women-led companies at the intersection of technology, fashion, and retail. Co-founded by the nonprofit venture catalyst Springboard Enterprises, and supported by dozens of other industry stalwarts from Burberry to Tory Burch to Bloomingdales, the hallmark of NYFTL is its annual business development program. Six to ten women-led startups in fashion are selected for a three-month bootcamp built around startup workshops, mentorship, and rare access to the fashion industry’s top thinkers and investors; the program culminates with its annual Tech Runway Demo Day, where the entrepreneurs each get an opportunity to present their startup ideas to industry leaders, retail partners, and other potential investors. In the fashion start-up world, it’s the hottest ticket in town.
Before the pandemic, NYFTL held its annual demo days at a downtown New York City auditorium that felt both chic and exclusive, and was the perfect setting for fashion stalwarts, magazine editors, and tech entrepreneurs to mingle and spot the next great fashion-tech startup.
In 2020, just weeks into the lockdown—and with the program suddenly moved from in-person in NYC to remote for an audience around the globe—managing director Jackie Trebilcock moved fast, and put together a 45-minute video version of the demo. It got the job done, but it was missing a key factor: the introductions of each entrepreneur by many of the biggest names in the industry. Trebilcock didn’t feel comfortable asking industry titans to self-film themselves on their iPhones for the presentation.
With the 2021 Demo Day fast approaching, one of the Fashion Lab’s partners suggested Trebilcock look into using Touchcast for the hallmark event. Even though the event would still be virtual, she hoped it could retain its live energy, stylish and snappy feel, and that “can’t miss” vibe characteristic of its in-person counterpart. “It is the fashion industry,” Trebilcock says. “It’s not a runway show, but it does have to look a little sexier and cooler.”
Most importantly, as Trebilcock’s program attendees prepared for their big moment—a potential make or break for their young business—she wanted to create an event optimized for one thing: keeping the audience engaged.
In a world optimized for distraction, the organizing principle for the Fashion Lab’s Demo Day was simplicity. The sole focus had to be the entrepreneurs and their companies, which meant cutting out any features that could potentially distract the audience—say, an interactive schedule taking up part of the screen, or the ability to live chat. And to build suspense and exclusivity the Demo Day would be streamed live only once. Miss it, and miss out.
“Usually people want all the bells and whistles,” says Kelcie Des Jardins, events manager and partner lead at Touchcast. But Jackie was clear that she wanted to create a space where the entrepreneurs and their start-ups were the sole stars. Essentially, her direction was: “I want an experience where you're in the show, and for the next 45 minutes you do nothing else.’”
“I just wanted it to be really clean and easy to use. And then I wanted to make it really easy for the executives in the audience to contact those entrepreneurs, should they want to engage further."
As with anything, the simpler you go, the tighter the final product has to be, otherwise any imperfections are glaring. Or put another way: the presentations and introductions, which were pre-recorded, all had to look studio quality, even though they were self-filmed at homes and offices around the world.
To ensure consistency, Touchcast offered detailed instructions on how presenters should set up their lighting and position themselves, while Trebilcock expertly walked everyone through the process. “She was really good at coaching,” says Des Jardins.
And because Trebilcock had faith the final product would feel professional and polished, she excitedly invited the retailers to introduce each entrepreneur, once again, as they had pre-pandemic. “It just felt cooler and more legit,” she says. As the retailers and the entrepreneurs filmed their presentations, the next question was: How should the event balance the authenticity of a live presentation versus the perfectionism made possible by having an entire video prepared in advance?
Trebilcock had never done a virtual event like this before, so it took a little time for her to get comfortable with the production process. “I wanted it polished and perfect,” she says. But as Demo Day got closer and closer, her excitement grew. “The more we showed her, the more comfortable she felt,” says Des Jardins.
By the day of the event, everybody was excited and ready to roll!
As for that one metric that mattered most to Trebilcock: Nearly every attendee who logged in stayed for the entire show. “Everyone, when they joined, they watched until the end,” says Des Jardins. “People just stayed. They just watched. It was like a 45-minute movie for them.”
They were also incredibly engaged. Touchcast manually pushed small prompts at the end of each presentation with the founder’s contact information. This solution allowed the entrepreneurs to shine with minimal distraction, while enabling potential partners or funders to get in touch.
“People wrote to me and said, 'It was so seamless - it was so flawless.'"
The audience loved the sleek show and the entrepreneurs felt especially valued.
“For the lab companies, they were like, 'Oh, wow. I was part of a program that went above and beyond. I haven't seen anything better.'"
Though Trebilcock, as results-oriented as ever, has notes for making it even more successful next time. For instance, she’d like to explore ways to emphasize particular parts of the programming, essentially deciding which slides of a presentation should receive the biggest spotlight. And more, she may want to tweak the single-viewing format, by doing three showings so that people across the world could have easier access.
The choice echoes a quintessential fashion question, which remains the same whether the show is in-person or virtual: What’s the perfect balance between availability and exclusivity?