What’s it Really Like?
The unabridged truth
I’ve been waiting to write this post for a while.
Now that there are 2 weeks left to demo day and a week left for all the pitchers in the cohort to tweak their speeches, I thought I would write a blog post about my experience for the last 2 and a bit months at Techstars in London.
The team at Weave.ai are looking forward to unveiling what’s in store for the product on demo day, and how we are looking to use AI and contextual search to improve the mobile experience. Look out for us on demo day!
What is Techstars?
Techstars is a program that started in Boulder, Colorado, and has since spread internationally to places like New York, Boston and Berlin.
The program is under one brand, but chapters appear across the world and are normally start as something totally different. It is when accelerators have a track record that they normally get to be under the Techstars brand.
Like YCombinator, the acceptance rate for Techstars is phenomenally low (1% of applications are accepted, supposedly). Some key successes globally include SendGrid, Buffer and Localytics. Among UK companies, notable companies include Bidvine, Mainframe, Knyttan, and Lystable.
Techstars is a 3 month intensive program in which you receive funding ($120k convertible note, $20k equity and $100k loan note). Techstars is an accelerator because it is an environment in which your business gets a bit of a push from all fronts, including sales, marketing, hiring and connections left right and centre, to try and get you to the next stage.
Techstars builds from start to finish to “demo day”, which is a showcase of tech startups for 5–7 minute pitches, normally 10–12 each demo day for each program. After demo day, there is an expectation that your pitch, product and traction is so good that you will be able to raise a seed round of investment in the 2–3 months after the program.
What support do you get for your business?
These types of posts can get outrageously long, so here’s some bullet points (not at all exhaustive) of everything that Techstars offers your startup. It is mind-blowing compared to the experience of other programmes I have heard about.
- “Mentor Madness” — a 2 week period at the start of the program where you sit with ~10 investors, industry experts and gurus for rapid-fire 20 minute sessions, every day. This means that you meet ~80 people criticising and advising your business over 2 weeks, and these people are some of the best respected entrepreneurial types in London. Not bad.
- Office space (Techstars London is based at 8 Warner Yard, the offices of Playfair Capital in London).
- Thursday pub nights and food nights (all around Clerkenwell, in our case — some great places as you are right in between Leather Lane and Exmouth Market). By the end of 3 months of daily eating around this area, generally all members of our cohort tend to know the best market stalls for the spiciest, tastiest meals. For me, probably Paesan if you are ever accepted into the London program :)
- Free professional team photos given by an Abercrombie and Fitch model lookalike, which are actually super useful at the early stage in getting your company a professional look.
- Credits. It gets better. There are countless credits you can pick up — at Weave.ai we’ve used a free Intercom 3 months subscription for our customer engagement, something similar for Mailchimp, $250,000 in free credits for AWS, $325,000 for MS Azure/Axure and Linux, free FB marketing credits, even a waterproof shower speaker. The final one was no less useful than the rest.
- Intros and Contacts. Literally anyone you want to reach out to, whether it is a company, or someone in corporate development at a tech company, or anything else, someone within the Techstars network will have a link they are willing to share. It is unbelievably helpful as a support channel.
- “Hacksociates”. There is a Slack channel at Techstars devoted to this, which stands for “Hackers” and “Associates”. I know about other accelerator programs, and know many don’t have this. Basically, this is a group of people selected by the Techstars directors, often with different skillsets (market research, website building, Mailchimp, UI design and so on) who you can call upon to help out with small or big tasks, as another resource. This can free up essential time on running your business. And they are fantastic people.
- “Mini-MBA” sessions. These are incredible sessions where, across the board, you get solid hours of advice on specific elements of your business from true experts. Some of the best things I had no idea about were picked up from David Cohen’s mind-bending session on fundraising and recursive listening, Joe Thornton of Playfair Capital’s amazing set of techniques for good hiring practice (important because literally all you have at this stage of a business are quality people) and Gabbi Cahane’s super session on branding (where he really explains the difference between a Motorola vs. Apple, and how one brand gets it right, the other really doesn’t, and why. The same comparisons can be made for how the Economist has really nailed their branding over the past 30 years, where everyone can say what they stand for in just a few words).
- Random other sessions. These tend to be breakout sessions, but I remember a 5 hour session from Fried Frank on “moving to the US” (all legal elements, all FAQs answered), a huge talk on available tax credits from MSC R&D, Taylor Wessing’s office hours for the legal elements of business, and, not to forget, a session on branding from the branding brains behind Beats by Dre.
- “Sales Breakfasts”, “CTO Breakfasts” and even “CEO Breakfasts”. These start at 8:30am and are basically an opportunity for members of specific parts of the team to voice any concerns, get advice on the best tools to use (for example, Streak, TrueUp or GoodAudience were tools I never knew about), and many others.
- “Office Hours”. These are optional, but inexplicably helpful. They are essentially sessions where experts in growth hacking, operational efficiency, product, pitching, AWS deployment, Angellist fundraising, SEIS/EIS, and even Venture Debt come in to tell you about how you can better at each element of your company. Some are useful, some aren’t, but the fact that the option is there is a real boon.
- Pitch coaching and other forms of support for demo day. For the past 2 weeks, we have had daily sessions, from 6–8pm, where each pitch from each company is given reams and reams of advice, from the words to the structure to the delivery. In these sessions, we’ve had investors like Russell Buckley and Chrysanthos Chrysanthou, even Bill Earner give cutting edge advice on how to best sell the strengths, or the “V8 Engine”, of your business. You even get the opportunity to learn breathing exercises and voice coaching from an expert a few weeks before demo day.
- “Founder Stories”. These are founders coming from all different sectors and backgrounds from previous cohorts, telling you about their stories over a cold beverage on a Thursday night. These are super enjoyable. Some notable favourites of mine (these are people whose speeches at Techstars really inspired me) include:
- Oussama Amar of the Family, who sold his luxury furniture business before 16, went to Ecuador to set up a business as it “was the cheapest place” aged 17, losing his fortune on the stock market and spending a week on the street , finding innovative ways to pretend to automate the book entry for the records of an accounting firm (do it manually, pay others to do it in Kowloon booth), among many others.
- Alex Depledge of Hassle giving a no bones account of how to succeed with real grit, from her beginnings as an Accenture accountant to then meeting some of the biggest VCs and flipping her company in around 2 years. I’ve never heard someone speak with such an honest narrative, and learnt a huge amount from this amazing entrepreneur speak. I believe her next gig is going to be rattling the bones of the porn industry, she claims…
- Tom Allason of Shutl telling us about being on a US most wanted international list for his fake ID business which almost prevented his company’s acquisition by eBay, getting MIT’s Logistics expert to be an advisor to his logistics business by sending a hamper basket while she was on holiday, and many more crazy stories. Great entrepeneur who happens to be from my school.
What’s the best part of the Techstars programme?
The best part of the Techstars programme for me were definitely what are called “Deep Dives”.
These are the 40 minute sessions every week where you speak about your progress on KPIs, generally joke around, tease each other, and get some key insights of “what should we achieve next week”. Most people would agree that they always look forward to these semi-therapeutic sessions, where people sit, listen and give views. They also can turn into basketball throwing, meowing, diving curfuffles if untended.
If I’ve learnt anything, these types of “all-hands” sessions for all startups are super useful within a team, because even if they don’t achieve anything concrete in terms of actionables, they give everyone a bit of a boost to kick the tyres along the road a bit more.
What does Techstars teach you?
If there is anything that you should take away from an experience like Techstars, it is that forming a business is really very very tough. As you can see from the above, there are a billion different routes and combinations you can take as you scale and grow. There isn’t a right answer. And people will always criticise as it is easy when you aren’t the one staying up late to sort things out.
But, you can optimise. People have done it before you. If there is anything I’ve learnt thus far, it is that company building involves learning all along the way, and you need a solid team who sticks together to do so.
The key thing is to examine every process you do and always strive to make it better, get more done, think better, come up with better ideas.
Company building is all about improvement, and if there is any fact I can take from this, it is that Techstars has improved not only our business, but us as people.