All posts filed under “Entrepreneurial

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Accelerators and the focus on Demo Day

If you check out seed accelerators for long enough, you’ll come across one relatively consistent criticism.  (Particularly for the lower quality programs, I have to say.)  That criticism is that accelerators focus way too much on Demo Day.  I believe that founders that say this don’t understand the real “why” behind the preparation.

I joined Techstars at the beginning of June this year, and in that time have seen the preparations for the Demo Days of the Techstars London 2014 batch of companies, as well as the first Barclays Accelerator batch of companies.  So I’ve already seen, up-close-and-personal, two cycles of companies spending time and getting ready to pitch at Demo Day.  And Demo Day is important: there are hundreds of angels and institutional investors there and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most companies.  They need to work hard to make the most of the opportunity.

But the subtle secret about preparing for Demo Day is that it’s not just about one 5-minute pitch, it’s a month of deep critical-thinking about how to communicate a product, a company, a market, a team, and an opportunity.  Sure, the direct output is that 5-minute pitch, but founders learn how to give a one-line description of what they do, an elevator pitch about their company, and how to talk about the company in ways that really resonate with a particular audience.  This process, and particularly the feedback from experienced entrepreneurs and mentors, is critical to founders.  (And while it involves the whole team, it should only be the day-to-day job of the CEO, leaving everyone else to continue working on the company.)

Let me give two examples from the Barclays program:

ClauseMatch – Evgeny from ClauseMatch was not a natural speaker, and his company (a platform for contract negotiation) is in the legal world, which tends to make peoples’ eyes glaze over.  And at times, he struggled to communicate how revolutionary their product is.  But he cracked it with a simple (and amusing) anecdote to start his Demo Day pitch.  He took the audience back to 1995, when Microsoft Word introduced “Track changes” and e-mail started to become widely introduced.  For the first time, instead of faxing manually annotated contracts back-and-forth, lawyers could e-mail Word files back and forth… it was a revolution.  Then he made a simple statement: after twenty years of internet and cloud technology development, lawyers are still working the exact same way.  It was a massive “a-ha” moment for the audience that grabbed their attention for the rest of his pitch.

GustPay – Werner from GustPay actually spent a bit of time at the start of his pitch talking about Disney… specifically about the NFC wristbands that Disney has developed for their theme parks.  He talked about the “magic” of the experience, in that the wristband becomes their ticket and their wallet and their room key, and everything they need for their stay.  Then he told the audience that Disney spent >$1billion in developing this technology, but GustPay provides the same experience for venues and events for just $1/wristband.  Again, it was an “a-ha” moment that got people to recognise what they did, and why it was important.

Being able to communicate your startup to a wide variety of audiences (investors, early adopters, sales prospects, press) takes a lot of hard work.  And while it may seem all that hard work is just in service of a 5-minute pitch, the real benefit is far, far beyond that.

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Frustration with a taxonomy for startups

tax·on·o·my – noun – the branch of science concerned with classification, especially of organisms; systematics

I’m frustrated with the current lack of any standard taxonomy for early stage startups.  Chalk it up to a little bit of obsessive/compulsive behaviour, the desire to better compare like-for-like amongst startups, my years of experience in industries where these taxonomies existed, and also trying to make better connections between the corporate partners and friends of Techstars to the Techstars portfolio companies.  Startups are messy and change ridiculously fast, so a taxonomy will never be as rigorous as what exists in the world of biology.  But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!

Angellist probably has the best structure of markets that I’ve seen so far, but the way Angellist structures these markets behind the scenes is actually a fairly deep web of interconnected markets.  While that makes sense in that a graph represents how markets are related to each other, the way they’ve built the graph can make it difficult to analyse startups and markets more broadly.

Not only that, but I think startups are complex enough that there should really be multiple dimensions in building a taxonomy for them.  These are the dimensions I’ve been pondering recently:

  • Market (ie, FinTech, HealthTech, Advertising, Infrastructure, etc.)
    • This is where there needs to be multiple layers of “markets”
  • Revenue model (Advertising, commerce, subscription, etc.)
  • Platforms (desktop, mobile/iOS, mobile/Android, hardware)
  • Orientation (consumer, enterprise, marketplace)

Why am I posting this?  Frankly, I’d love any and all feedback.  I’d like to get to a point where there’s a taxonomy that helps people like me understand and directly compare and contrast startups that are doing similar things (in different markets), or different things (in similar markets), or any combination thereof.

If you’re interested in this project, or would like to help, please comment below or get in touch with me directly.

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Seed-DB – Reflections on 2 years after launching

Two years ago today, on Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 I published a blog post that officially launched Seed-DB. I had been working at it since March 2012, and though it wasn’t 100% ready to launch I was able to push it out the door.

Since launch, Seed-DB has grown from >1300 companies to >4000 companies, from >100 accelerators to >200 accelerators, and from >$1billion to >$5billion in funding tracked.

What does that mean for Seed-DB today?  I just checked Google Analytics to check the stats.  In the last six months Seed-DB saw:

  • >34,000 user sessions from:
  • >20,000 different users
  • >118k pageviews
  • >5minutes spent per session
  • 59% of users were new

I’ve spent the last two years constantly adding more data, more features, talking to founders of companies and accelerators, and even a reporter or two. It’s been an interesting journey and I wanted to share some reflections on what I’ve learned.

#1: You CAN teach yourself to code in your spare time

Seed-DB was the first web application I had ever built. It was the first time I’d:

  • used Python for something other than a simple script
  • really used a DVCS (specifically Mercurial/Bitbucket)
  • installed/customized a Bootstrap theme
  • implemented jQuery plugins
  • and many more similar new tools…

While I had an engineering background, it was in aerospace/nuclear and even the projects I coded for my classes (in Matlab!) were over ten years in my past.  I had picked up an O’Reilly book on Python and had created a few Python scripts the previous year, but without a project I didn’t really learn very much.  By following example code, carefully reading error codes, reading more documentation and asking questions on StackOverflow, I learned everything I needed to build Seed-DB.

Creating something new from scratch is fun, and can keep you motivated despite mountains of problems.  As long as you’re willing to do the hard work, it is possible to teach yourself to code.  Think of something that you really want to create and just start building it.

#2: You CAN thread the needle

I just looked up and found that my very first commit to the Seed-DB codebase happened on March 27, 2012, so I built Seed-DB in my nights/weekends over the course of just four months.  And I didn’t think it was really ready to launch.  (I had to keep reminding myself of Reid Hoffman’s famous advice.)

But I was rushing to complete Seed-DB in time for some fairly big deadlines. I live in London and the London 2012 Olympics started on July 27th, so I committed to myself that I would launch Seed-DB before then. (My wife and I had family in town for it and tickets to a bunch of events… I HAD to launch before the Olympics started.)  Launching on the 25th was literally the last day I wanted to launch, so I just made it in time.

Just after seeing Jess Ennis, Mo Farah, and Greg Rutherford all win gold for Team GB!

Just after seeing Jess Ennis, Mo Farah, and Greg Rutherford all win gold for Team GB! (My wife is just a few weeks away from giving birth.)

Another more important deadline is that my daughter was due in early September.  I had a ton of travel for work between the end of the Olympics and her due date, so there wasn’t a realistic option to launch later.  (She arrived a couple weeks early, so this was an even wiser choice in hindsight!)

Me and my daughter (at a few months old)

Me and my daughter (at a few months old)

Needless to say, launching created a lot of new non-coding work: responding to entrepreneurs and program founders, congratulations and criticism, and fixing bugs.  But somehow the launch was the biggest needle to thread, and once that was done everything else does seem easier.

I learned that it IS possible to thread the needle between what may seem like impossible obstacles.

#3: You CAN do more than you think

In the course of a month, I launched Seed-DB, had an amazing time at the 2012 Olympics, traveled all over Central/Eastern Europe for work, and watched my daughter being born.  After launching Seed-DB, I was getting… quite a lot of feedback.

What I tried to do was commit to spending 30-60 minutes a day (often while my daughter was sleeping and my wife was napping) responding to queries, implementing small features, and making progress on bigger features (like the Seed-DB Investor Graph).  I found that was absolutely key: I didn’t have to complete a feature or fully respond to e-mail each day: I just needed to make a little progress each day.

#4: Building useful things brings you opportunities

People respect people that build interesting things, particularly in the world of startups.  In my case, I started building Seed-DB out of frustration around a couple of job opportunities that had fallen through.  I realized that I needed to do much more work that I initially thought to drive my career to where I wanted it to go, and that I needed to build something.

By creating Seed-DB, I suddenly had lots of people approaching me… and interesting people that I wanted to know!  It led to lots of interesting job opportunities, too, and directly led to me getting hired by Techstars this summer.

One of the big principles at Techstars is to Give First.  At the time I built Seed-DB, I hated that founders were making important decisions based on anecdotal data and what programs the press chose to cover, instead of researching from data on a full directory of programs.  In hindsight I see that by building the site, I was doing my part to give first by giving entrepreneurs an honest, data-driven view into accelerators around the world.

Giving first generates goodwill; building something generates respect.  When I launched Seed-DB I had no idea how powerful these two forces were, but they have totally changed my career and life.

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Joining Techstars

After nearly five years at Google, Friday May 30th was my last day. I’m extremely happy to announce that I’ve accepted a role at Techstars as Director, Techstars Vision.

I first started speaking with David Cohen, the co-founder and Managing Partner of Techstars, in the summer of 2009 when I was doing my first research on seed accelerators. Over the past five years, he and several others of the Techstars team have given me valuable feedback that I’ve used in evolving Seed-DB. As I’ve gotten to know the Techstars team, I was constantly impressed with the quality of the people I met, and started in my new role at the beginning of June.

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What’s ahead – Techstars Vision
I’ve joined Techstars to build and lead Techstars Vision, a new Techstars product. One of the key aims of Techstars is to build a strong network to support startups, made up of founders, mentors, investors, and corporations. Techstars Vision fits into this by building a significantly deeper and broader network between corporations and Techstars companies.

There are two parts to Techstars vision. The first is helping our Vision partners truly understand the very early stage startup market, so they can best engage with it. We do that by doing deep analysis on early stage startups, examining trends in startups, and evaluating the overall seed market. The second is facilitating direct meetings, presentations, and engagements between corporate partners and Techstars startups. We hope that our Vision partners will turn into customers and BizDev partners of our Techstars companies, helping both sides succeed.

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What’s continuing – Seed-DB
Seed-DB will not be changing at all; I will continue to maintain it as a completely neutral database of all accelerators and companies from those accelerators. Techstars will not be treated any differently than any other accelerator, particularly since I will continue to get funding data solely from Crunchbase. If anything, some of my work with Techstars Vision will align with Seed-DB and I’ll likely have more time to follow-up with the many e-mails I get around Seed-DB!

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What’s behind – Google
It goes without saying that it was a very difficult decision to leave Google. I spent nearly 4.5 years on the same team, and in that time the team grew 8x and the revenue we managed grew 40x. (!) I’ve learned so much from my managers and Google’s leadership and culture and really value my time at Google. To this day, even with 50k employees, each week any employee can walk up to the mic at Google’s weekly TGIFs and ask Larry Page and his management team questions they really care about, no matter how hard-hitting they might be. That level of trust in employees and willingness to face reality will always inspire me. What I’ll miss most are my amazing colleagues; you know who you are.