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Demo Day Focuses a First-Timer

By Nushin Rashidian

When I applied for Demo Day, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I’d decided sometime earlier this year to say “yes” more often to situations outside of my comfort zone that might be ultimately beneficial. Live radio interviews, packed panels, appearing in a History Channel documentary–I lost sleep but went through with them all. But as a writer and journalist, standing in front of a room of media stars to explain my vision for a news site with the hope that they might want to partner with, or support us, is certainly most nerve-wracking.

I knew what my vision (see, now I’m using words like “vision”) for the site was long ago, in a very zoomed out way. Cannabis Wire was born in the summer of 2012 after two years of reporting on cannabis across America. The site wasn’t up and running for long before my co-reporter and now co-author and I got a book deal from The New Press to write A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition, which was published in February 2014. Despite being on the back burner while we wrote the book, Cannabis Wire never left our minds. So we applied for and received a grant for Cannabis Wire from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and the Stanford School of Engineering. And we are reimagining and re-launching the site while working out of the Made in NY Media Center.

I remember first meeting the demo day mentors in the center cafe; there were a lot of questions. (One of our mentors is a design pro, and the other a former founding editor of a successful news startup–a great combination for a site like Cannabis Wire.) They had dozens, and I couldn’t answer many, if not most. The questions were something along the lines of: Who is your audience? What is special about what you’re doing and why is this important? Who are your competitors? What’s the market? Are you for or not for profit? Are you looking for grants or funding? How will you make money? And so on. I rambled; they looked confused. I became confused. But in retrospect, the experience was necessary. Our mentors wrote down a series of questions for my co-founder and me to answer over a couple of weeks before we began work on the deck (another one of those words that didn’t exist in my vocabulary just months ago).

In those weeks, I confronted my assumptions and did the research necessary to back up my arguments for why a site like Cannabis Wire should exist. It was particularly satisfying that the numbers and examples I found were greater and more powerful than I expected, and only increased my passion for the site.

My ideas were more focused, and my reasoning stronger. The idea of talking about Cannabis Wire to others and fielding their questions became more comfortable–and exciting. The mentors didn’t tell us what to do or what Cannabis Wire should be, but they asked all of the questions necessary to force introspection and exploration. And once the deep dive was done, I had what I needed to condense my pitch into a series of slides containing only the creme.

The mentors said to begin with text on the slides and focus on the major points and the story arc. We worked together to ensure my co-founder and I covered all of our bases in anticipation of audience questions. The Media Center held a series of practices with all of the teams and their mentors, which was also helpful. This way, as the mentors became close to our project, the other demo teams with some distance could challenge our blind spots. After many text-only versions, the mentors chimed in on design, pointing out which figures could be turned into charts or maps, or how to use text size and font to create a “visual hierarchy.” I know more about fonts–for example, that our initial use of Calibri elicited an “oof”–than I’ll likely need again soon, but can wholly appreciate what good design can do for absorption of information on slides.

After a series of technical rehearsals in the theater, which helped me feel at ease in the space before the Demo Day, I was ready. And not just for the day, but to begin Cannabis Wire fully aware of what I want the site to be, how I plan to keep it sustainable, and the contributors and partnerships that will help it come to life and grow. My goal is that as this country moves toward legalization, Cannabis Wire will be there to engage and inform voters before they make it to the ballot box.