RISE…and RISE again:

Was this tech start-up conference worth it?

After all, CoderCred had only launched its beta coding assessment product in January this year. I was the only full-timer in the company and precious capital was paying for product development. Paying the privilege of USD$2,000 to be accepted into and participate in the ALPHA (Start-up Exhibitor) program was a big price for a founder who was bootstrapping the company. I got mixed reviews when investigating the merits and reputation of the conference. I knew of a couple of other Aussie SaaS start-ups that had talked really highly of their experience from attending last year. Conversely, I had also been told that RISE was “a whole lot of hot air dominated by second class fin tech solutions commenced by a whole lot of laid-off investment bankers”…ouch.

I decided to make the investment and attend for a few reasons. Firstly, I wanted to ‘soft-launch’ CoderCred in an unknown, untested market and gauge the response. I also wanted to explore the Asian funding scene. Finally, having investor and strategic partnership meetings arranged separately to the RISE programme made it easier to justify the additional spend.

The mood on arrival resembled that of the world’s newest gold rush. The temperature was running at fever pitch levels. Everyone was out trying their luck prospecting: start-ups digging for illusive regional customers and Asian funders; investors scouring for the diamonds in the rough, that next nugget of gold.

Snooper-Ap’s Romain and Laurie, neighbours from TankStream Labs in Sydney

Connections were good, but was it the network to help me accelerate?

As the three days unfolded, I observed less and participated more. Connections were made easily, whether from pre-organised activities such as pub-crawls, waiting in food queues or chatting to neighbours on exhibition day. Participants were from all across ASEAN, India, China with a few from Eastern Europe. Everyone was eager to introduce themselves, and I began to feel part of the regional Asian community very quickly. In fact it was refreshing to be reminded of how small and distant Australia felt. It was only on the rare occasion that I met someone who was really connected to what we were doing evidenced by the insight and advice freely offered. I hope I reciprocated where possible. Most connections I made however were random and more social by nature.

The investor den where startups had 15 minutes to get their pitch over the line

Format and content relevancy.

The format was accessible and felt engaging. Prominent founders from Start-ups that had achieved meteoric status presented war stories. VC firms from the region and the US offered their recipes when selecting for success. Invitational round tables provided intimate access to insights on all fronts, although you had to book ahead and they were tough to get into.

When I registered for the conference I flagged that we were raising funds. This put CoderCred on the list to be cherry picked for 15 minute pitch sessions by interested investors. Being pre-revenue and looking for seed stage funding, we definitely bombed out. Judging from conversations with others, I was not alone and those at Series A stage seemed to be having more fruitful discussions.

It’s often said you can’t sell a secret, but I decided not to enter the pitching competition. This wasn’t from fear of rejection, but from fear of being replicated. In short I made the call we were too young and too vulnerable. I watched the pitch videos from 2015 RISE and felt affirmed by my choice. Previously winning participants were a couple of years in market with strong evidence of traction. I was also relieved when I saw how many random participants were videoing other people’s pitches throughout the event.

CoderCred’s exhibition day was better than expected. It was interesting to see the seething crowds halt at our stand when we performed product demos. Otherwise it was more of the soft-sell style conversation with those passing by. People were interested in our product, and we collected 70+ business cards. We also received positive feedback, and helpful insights from prospective customers. Whilst I think I achieved my objectives of testing market fit, it was good to go in with low expectations in relation to building an CoderCred’s pipeline of prospects.

Weirdest experience: We had drawn the short straw of exhibiting on day three, the last day of the conference. I needed to make a rushed exit at 5:00pm to make my 7:00pm return flight to Sydney. At 4:45pm a young Indian investor approached. He asked a stream of rapid fire questions, introduced me to the employees of his families empire and said that he’d invest USD$500k upfront for 40% equity and exclusive rights to India. It could have been the quickest half a million I was going to raise, but definitely not my way of doing business. I thought I was the one meant to be doing the hustling?

Best advice: Mentor Hours were 20 minute pre-scheduled power chats with CEOs who have been there and done that. I was lucky enough to connect with @michaellitt from @vidyard who broke down his first 3 month step by step plan of acquiring customers — invaluable.

Most amusing observation: Standing back on exhibition day and watching our most aligned but-not-quite competitor from Estonia hover ‘incognito’ whilst my Co-Founder was demonstrating our product to prospective customers.

Most random outcome: Bowling up Matt Barrie, CEO Freelancer on the exhibition floor and securing a follow up meeting after my 30 sec elevator pitch. This was significant because it was off the back of copious emails and several hour-long coffee meetings his HR director in the prior months which hadn’t progressed to any tangible outcome. If not now, when?

Most inspired by: Whilst I was speaking with prospective customers, an eight year old local boy stood patiently mesmerised by our home page on the big screen on exhibition day. “What is this? Can I practice my code with you guys?” he asked. “We let coders test their skills when they apply for jobs” I said, not really expecting he’d understand me. “Can I practice my code and get better with your tests? Do you have a business card?” He was not giving up. I should have offered him a job there and then. Espousing our meritocratic values, I bet his CoderCred Score would have been a knock-out and who cares if he hadn’t yet finished school? Code was in his blood, and he was out to show it off and get better.

All of the start-ups in attendance were pretty inspiring really. Each team were jumping off the proverbial cliff and were throwing caution to the wind. There were some genuinely big issues being tackled by some seriously creative solutions, and some were simply having a crack at it. Pacing the exhibition hall on each of the three days and seeing a new cohort of innovators presenting their wares epitomised start-up optimism and possibility.

Best quote: Two are in contention, both by the same legend: “You’re always going to be proven wrong and learn 101 new things a day as a start-up. Believe in your ‘WHY?’” v “If you’re looking for a quick buck, entrepreneurship is not the way to do it.” Tan Hooi Ling, Co-Founder @Grab

Grab’s Co-Founder Tan Ling espousing wisdom

And RISE again?

RISE offered a platform for CoderCred to soft launch in an entirely new market. Exhibition day offered rich customer research. Investor sessions offered interesting feedback but we were too early. Presenters offered unexpected insight and take away nuggets. Did I hit gold? Probably not, but there were unexpected gems that are still fuelling us on. As for next year, CoderCred will be that much more mature to take advantage of the investor community and presenters content…and yep, you’ll be seeing me on the pitch stage for sure.

The hustle and bustle on the outside

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