“There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch”

…I thought to myself, as I sat around a crowded table at the very first UK event introducing MassChallenge to a London audience roughly a year ago.

  • Free office space for 4 months
  • £500,000 in prize money given away to the winning startups
  • A two week-long boot camp of sessions and workshops delivered by top entrepreneurs, investors and experts
  • Industry showcases and networking events
  • Access to a range of cross-industry mentors

All this, and no equity taken?

“How can they possibly run this programme as a non-profit?”

“Can we see the budget?”

“What the hell’s in it for them?”

“How are they ripping us off?”

An hour into the session I still had more questions than answers, however after some further grilling, I eventually decided to take a leap of faith and actually fill out an application, primarily off the back of their 5 years of successful operation in Boston.

It turns out that was a pretty good decision — my experience of the MassChallenge UK accelerator has only been positive for a number of reasons I will explain in due course.

Maths Challenge

The numbers went like this: of the 800+ applicants, 150 were selected to go through to the second round, of which 90 made it onto the programme as finalists.

We first filled out an online application that asked all the standard questions about our business plan that you’d expect. A few weeks later, to our delight we were accepted to the second round — a 20 minute presentation to a panel of judges.

Despite a 7am roll call and some probing questions from the judges we managed to convince them that we were indeed worthy of a place on the accelerator.

Perhaps it’s because we were in the very early stages of the business, but getting in-depth feedback at each stage of the process was particularly helpful, and had we progressed no further, I still would have been satisfied with the experience to this point.

Boot Camp

Induction drinks down, we moved into our new home in the basement of Tobacco Dock, which only a few weeks earlier had worryingly resembled the Guy Fawkes exhibit at the London Dungeons.

Accel’s Fred Destin getting mobbed after his talk

Two weeks of talks then unfolded, ranging from a high level mission/strategy focus down to practical workshops on PR, product development and marketing. I found certain sessions far more valuable than others but they generally set a very high bar. A common theme was speakers being chased out of the room after each talk by budding entrepreneurs wanting to connect with them or learn more.

Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

As tends to happen in a startup, time flew by once boot camp was over. For me, the following weeks were a blur of constructing the MVP for Donative, punctuated by industry showcases, specialist workshops, office hours, mentor matchmaking and happy hours. All of these were valuable, but it’s certainly up to everyone to find their own balance between making connections and getting things done. I’d say if you do have the capacity to, engage with the programme as much as possible — there are unexpected serendipitous encounters to be found.

Table 5, the finest collection of teams at MassChallenge UK 2015 #table5

Reflecting a year on though, the most valuable part of the accelerator is undoubtedly the community. Firstly, as a solo founder it’s been incredibly valuable to move out of a coffee shop and sit amongst driven and passionate entrepreneurs going through the same journey. When you’ve had a disappointing meeting or missed out on an opportunity, there’s inevitably someone on your table who will make you get over it (because they probably experienced exactly the same feeling last week). I know that I’ve forged some lasting friendships here, and I expect I’ll also end up collaborating with some of the smart cookies in our cohort in future.

Secondly, the variety in backgrounds, sectors and experience represented by the teams makes for a dynamic and especially collaborative environment. Of our first 3 clients, 1 came through an intro from another team (another was actually through one of the showcase events). I highly recommend taking the effort to get to know your cohort — it couldn’t be easier than just saying introducing yourself in the kitchen, and could well help you find a new team member, get an intro to an investor or make a sale.

Finally, the MassChallenge team act like a startup themselves, often still at their desks later than some of the teams on the programme. They feel like an extension of your own team. They also truly care and evangelise the startups, with the mantra of helping startups succeed.

The MassChallenge staff feel like an extension of your own team

I Like Big Buts And I Cannot Lie

But what about the downsides?

Tobacco Dock is about 15 mins further away from the city than you’d ideally like, with not so many lunch spots around. There’s no certainty around winning a cash prize, nor any subsidies given during the programme. MassChallenge doesn’t yet have the prestige of a Techstars or Y Combinator. Working the button on the hot water dispenser is like trying to write a message on your phone while wearing boxing gloves.

However, at the least these flaws are noted through regular feedback, and improved upon where possible — for example the Dock now has its own cafe/bar to provide a convenient lunch option.

For us, MassChallenge came along at the right time. We didn’t have any office space. We hadn’t incorporated due to still deciding which legal structure to adopt, so weren’t forced into making a rushed decision just to join the programme. Being early stage, we could make the most of the boot camp sessions. It was an appropriate time for us to find mentors and make connections to explore different opportunities.

Whilst the programme is fairly light touch, it might not be the right time for your startup, and you have to evaluate the associated opportunity cost. But in the end, it turns out the lunch was indeed free — just not so nearby to begin with.

Thinking of applying to MassChallenge 2016? Applications opened on May 19 and close on 29 June. To get 50% off the £69 application fee, use the discount code MCUKnow50.

Laurie Ainley is the founder of MassChallenge 2015 Finalist Donative, a startup making giving to charity more engaging and rewarding.

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