What I’ve Learned: 4YFN
4 Suggestions for Startups from 4YFN
Okay, so maybe this is a week or two overdue, but I thought I’d pound out a quick “What I’ve Learned” from 4YFN.
In case you aren’t familiar with it, 4YFN (4 Years From Now) is a startup conference held annually in Barcelona, Spain in conjunction with the Mobile World Congress “mega conference.” And, although 4YFN is billed as the biggest Spanish startup event, it is an incredibly international event — this year there were 44 countries represented, English was the official language, and out of 535 startups, only 264 were Spanish. Since this year’s 19,500+ attendees represented a 60% increase from last year, it’s only promising to get bigger!
So what did I come away with?
#1.) The number of extremely similar businesses that I saw was a fantastic reminder that:
Execution > Idea
Sometimes founders are extremely protective of their ideas, but you’ll hear plenty of other people say that ideas by themselves are worthless. At 4YFN, I spoke with many founders, sometimes even within the same row of startup booths, who were working on solving the same problem. It was a strong reminder that an idea isn’t exclusively one startup’s “property,” and that the team that wins will be the one that executes.
#2.) Know Why You are Participating
As I wandered the halls over three days, I was amazed to see the passivity of some startup representatives. I know it was a loooong, exhausting event and founders and their teams need to rest, eat, save their voices, etc., but so many people were just sitting back in their booths, talking among themselves, or playing games on their phones. I asked 10–15 founders who I knew personally (and probably another 10+ founders I didn’t know) why they were participating. Nearly half made some statement along the lines of them feeling like they “had to be there” or that they didn’t have a specific purpose for participating other than feeling like it was “expected” of them. Some even went so far as to say they didn’t really expect it to be that useful or valuable.
That was painful to hear. You have 19,500 potential customers in the room. You have 500+ other participating startups that could be potential partners, customers, or suppliers. The media is present, and en masse. As a founding team, the opportunity cost of participating in an event like this for three days is enormous. Make it count. Have a strategy, know what you want, know why you are there.
#3.) Don’t expect investors to just “show up” at your booth.
Most VCs don’t aimlessly wander through the exhibitors. They might selectively visit the booths of startups they know or are curious about, and a few VCs I spoke with at 4YFN had junior employees meeting with startups discreetly or even clandestinely to learn about new trends or understand the startup’s competitive positioning in order to help one of their own portfolio companies.
If you’re at a startup event like 4YFN to talk to potential investors, my recommendation is to use the oft-touted “warm intro” to let VCs know you’re going to be at the event, you are pitching at this time, or that you’d like to talk (and maybe not talk at the event itself but on an adjacent day, etc.). Or conversely, use the event to meet people who can give you that warm intro (but again, you probably won’t meet these people accidentally — be strategic!).
#4.) Founders solving real, personally-encountered problems seem much more engaged, urgent, and better-able-to-sell/“evangelical.” I saw a lot of startups that were copying startups in other geographies. Let me be clear — I don’t have a problem with copying. I think how the founder “owns” the problem is important though.
The quality of a startup’s “team” is always of utmost importance to potential investors. They are going to ask, “Why should I invest in this team to solve this problem?” The story you tell as to why you are engaged on this specific project (and will continue to be engaged even when it becomes desperately difficult) is critical. Because so-and-so did it and made a TON of money in another geography probably isn’t a good enough reason.
Finally, one bonus question:
Is the lack of later stage VC funding in Spain going to evolve away? Or is it a natural consequence of Spanish startups’ need to grow up and move out of their home market? With the need to grow up and move out of Spain, does it make more strategic sense for startups to take money from investors outside of Spain? (Yes, I think it evolves away.)
If I am ABC Spanish NewCo and I needed €25m in funding to take on the rest of Europe, even if my existing Spanish VCs had that kind of capital available, strategically would I want to add new investors to my cap table? And, if I’m a non-Spanish European startup, why would I strategically go to a Spanish VC for later stage funding?
These are some of the questions we need to be able to answer.
This all started as a series on what I learned or had reinforced as a VC Summer Associate with JME Venture Capital. You can also check out what JME “learned” from me, via “What We Learned from our Summer Associate” and read more “What I’ve Learned” posts here.
I’m graduating from IESE Business School with my MBA in May, and I’d love to stay in and around the startup investing space (VC, accelerator, incubator, venture builder, or a growing startup). I’m currently an EIR at SeedRocket + SeedRocket Capital (one of Spain’s leading accelerators and a Google for Entrepreneurs’ partner). Last summer, I analyzed 50+ startups as a VC Summer Associate with JME Venture Capital including identifying and “championing” a deal that led to a completed investment, and prior to my MBA I co-founded a small business in the U.S. that recently crossed $2.5m in cumulative revenue. You can find my full CV on LinkedIn, and I’d be delighted to talk if you are aware of an opportunity that might fit my profile.