In a single word — it’s intensive.

Starta Ventures
Jun 26, 2018 · 7 min read

Anton Yakubenko from GeoCv about Starta Accelerator

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I managed to see the Statue of Liberty only after spending 4 weeks in New York. Recently I went to sleep at 4:30 am and usually sleep for 6 hours a day. My regular schedule looks as follows with one of the weekend days usually busy. And here are the details in ~1400 words on how Starta Accelerator program goes for GeoCV and me in NYC. In a single word — it’s intensive.

The goal of the program is helping startups with roots and back offices in Russia overcome cultural differences in business development approaches and start first sales in the US market. By completing this goal, the startups will be ready to hire truly local biz dev, sales, marketing and PR people as well as be well prepared for raising next round from the US investors.

This goal is being accomplished by providing coaching, mentorship, network and events. These activities have taken a large portion of time during the first weeks and will be a bit less saturated during the coming weeks, letting the teams focus on particular biz dev activities.

My mornings are usually devoted to interactions with our R&D office back in Moscow as well as going through dozens of overnight emails. Most of the day is split between accelerator activities and business meetings or calls. Evenings are spent in writing and answering introductory and follow-up emails and other writing jobs like this post ;)

The most important of the meetings are of course meetings with potential customers followed by pilot projects of 3D scanning some of their properties. Having in mind a forward-looking vision of letting everyone capture and share the world in the most truthful way — in 3D, after analyzing 120 different use-cases, we have made an educated choice to start with real estate as our beachhead market. Our initial understanding of the market processes and needs, based on online research and dozens of customer interviews, seems to be rather accurate and we learn many details from the new customers.

Starting from the third week in the accelerator I’ve started performing pilot projects. I go to a client’s property and scan it for them. We’ve made 5 pilots so far. New data “from the field” lets us tune our algorithms to real-life conditions, rather than experimenting on a small set of “laboratory” datasets. We learn such tips as Samsung Galaxy S6’s flashlight could be salvatory for scanning of low-light spaces like basements.

Even more important is getting the feedback from the customers on the results, the process and their expectations of values. We see a lot of genuine excitement about our technology and product. I really enjoy watching people in New York exploring the apartment, we scanned in San Francisco, in virtual reality headset. We’ll continue pilot projects for proving the usability of our product and validating our business hypothesis with real data and testimonials.

From my talks with VCs it’s the only thing left for us to complete to be ready for the next seed extension round. We’re not actively fundraising now, will start fundraising in May. But I try to follow Mike Rothenberg’s advice — be always fundraising in passive mode, especially when you don’t really need money. Meet investors, ask their feedback and expectations, keep them updated, spend 10%-20% of your time on building relationships with investors. And when you’re about to be ready to start a new round you will already have a pool of well prepared investors who had time to watch your company’s progress.

So with a pleasure I meet and talk to investors who reach out to me or whom I meet at venture events. I wish I had more time on preparing better follow-ups for them having more detailed info they are interested in. I wish I just had more time in the day :)

Starta has already managed to get the teams to 4 events to see how local startups pitch, what local investors say and ask. The two best events organized by TechBreakfast at Microsoft (VR & AR panel) and 500 Startups gave any startup a chance to pitch for 1 or 2 minutes in front of a panel of VCs. Dozens startups applied and I was lucky to be randomly selected both times. A partner from 500 Startups made me a compliment by asking “What accelerator have you been to before, because it seems you’ve pitched for many times” :) Thank you, Rothenberg Ventures River, Universe Ventures and top startup contests back in Moscow (Startup Village, Web Ready, GenerationS, Russian Startup Rating that is now tceh, HSE Startup {14k}).

Starta accelerator teams including myself were pretty disappointed with the level of pitches and the level of startups at these events, even venture backed. Some startups are cool small innovative businesses but not a venture company. We were expected to learn from them how we should pitch, instead we learnt how we should not pitch. I guess to learn from the best we need to visit really the best events like TechStars NYC Demo Day or TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2016. Founders should not underestimate the importance of what you say and how you say it, though the essentials of your company are more important.

So we are trained to develop both — the business essence and its package. The main focus of coaching is on sales and related topics such as customer development, early stage marketing and communication. Perhaps you can learn a lot of that stuff from books and from your own “learning experience”. But such sessions provide very concentrated information and you can then discuss your particular cases and questions during 1-on-1 meetings. My favorite sessions were on sales with Revzin brothers, on customer development with Danny Setiawan and on communication with Anastasia Onegina. I hope to continue the conversation with them during my biz dev progress as new questions arise from time to time.

There is also usual stuff that accelerators for companies not originally from US provide like consulting on legal, tax and accounting, and visas info. Because I’ve already heard them for a couple of times before they were not of as much value for me, though the talk about visas has truly involved everyone for a few hours :)

Starta Accelerator is not perfect. They make mistakes. Everyone does. The good thing they learn from their mistakes very fast. For example, some of the coaching sessions were of low usefulness so they cancelled such sessions for the future. Long sessions with all the teams seemed to be not very effective, so now almost all the sessions are 1-on-1 with an optional short introductory for everyone. Too many sessions with a too sparse schedule didn’t let the teams to focus on their particular biz dev tasks, so the activities in the accelerator are becoming more concentrated in a few days, some of them are now on demand.

The accelerator’s team Ekaterina Dorozhkina, Alexey Girin, Lena Kuznetsova really tries to help proactively. At each weekly tracking meeting they ask “How can we help you more?” They also listen to feedback from mentors. For example, for a couple of times it was said that teams need to improve their English skills (hope it was not about me, as I was studying English from the second grade :). So they hired an English tutor for an intensive daily course. It was not efficient so they switched to online lessons 90 minutes a week. By the way, this service Overcome the Barrier uses a very cool approach — they write down everything you said and then interactively correct your mistakes. My percentage of errors was 3%, natives usually do 1%-2%. There is a room for progress.

In addition to coaching and events the accelerator provides mentorship. You learn from experience of others and you leverage their connections. The growing network of the accelerator is its another value. It may not be as big as older established accelerators have, but it’s growing. All the customers and partners I talked to in the city were warmly introduced by the accelerator team or by mentors. Once there was an introduction by a mentor’s friend to a real estate agent who has introduced me to her ex-boss, and we ran a pilot with him, and today I go to his event with a dozen of other real estate people. So it’s 4-th or even 5-th circle connection.

Though many of our coaches and mentors are Americans, there is some gravity towards inviting people with Russian roots. It’s not bad though, because they can share something people born in US just do not notice, but what is extremely valuable for foreigners. Also Starta tries to hold a high level of mentors for GeoCV and other companies inviting entrepreneurs who’s companies have raised dozens of millions from top-tier VCs like Sequoia, have been acquired and even went public.

I wanted to finish my extremely long post with something very positive, but what could be better than seeing “GeoCV”, “dozens of millions from Sequoia” and “went public” in the same sentence :)

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