Innovation flourishes at the convergence of talent, capital, policy and culture. Although these days you can launch a startup from pretty much anywhere in the world, tech hubs from Silicon Valley to Silicon Fen promise proximity to relevant connections, access to spaces engineered for serendipity, and an overall ease of doing business and sharing knowhow.
Accelerators take a special place among these tech hubs. They come in many shapes and sizes to provide a sounding board and support network for entrepreneurs, creating a space – not necessarily physical – for fast growth. A ‘professional family’ if you like, they look to push you to grow up, achieve your potential and eventually leave home (but still visit).
Since not everyone has the chance to interact with these accelerators in person, SyndicateRoom is launching a series of spotlights with key people from top accelerators in the UK. The purpose of this series is to share/(open the door to) a condensed version of the lessons they’ve learned, their advice and vision.
Techstars is the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. Techstars founders and their teams connect with other entrepreneurs, experts, mentors, alumni, investors, community leaders and corporate partners who will help their companies grow. Each year, more than 300 companies join Techstars’ three-month mentorship-driven accelerator. Companies receive ~$120,000 in investment, hands-on mentorship and access to the Techstars Network for life.
Techstars London is a startup accelerator programme providing access to investment, mentorship and collaboration with other top entrepreneurs.
You’re used to being on the receiving end of startup pitches; let’s attempt a reverse elevator pitch of Techstars.
Techstars is a worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. We work with an incredible network of companies, mentors and partners around the world – all of whom want to work with great companies to help them grow and scale.
What do startups tend to value most about the Techstars London experience?
I think they really value the mentorship and the support they get during the programme, as well as the network they become part of through that process. We’ve had companies meet amazing investors, advisors, board members and team members; they’ve made friends for life and learned a huge amount from this incredible group of people – from Techstars staff, to mentors, associates and others.
It’s gratifying to have companies come up to you at the end of the demo day and say ‘I don’t want this to end’. The best part is that it doesn’t – we fully believe in the idea of Techstars for life – so the companies and people who go through the programme are part of our global network forever.
Having successfully led the Techstars London 2015, 2016 and 2017 cohorts, you got to observe a lot of patterns. What elements distinguish the most successful companies from the ones that struggle?
As not a lot of time passed since the 2015, 2016 and 2017 cohorts, it is hard to define what ‘success’ actually means. It’s still early days. If we really needed to define it, it would fall under the columns ‘they are still alive’, ‘they are selling and making revenue’ and ‘they raised a big round’ (which would allow them to sell, make revenue and survive). Usually companies that do best are the ones that are persistent, who take meetings with an open mind and feedback well, and are self-aware about what help is needed. These characteristics allow them to be easy and pleasant to work with, coachable, smart and able to take away the most from the programme that will benefit their entire entrepreneurial journey.
In your personal journey as a founder, what was the most unexpected challenge you had to face?
I think the biggest mistake I made as a founder was not talking to enough people. The one thing I realised over time is that everything, from companies to relationships, is successful as a result of communication, and I wasn’t always good at that early on. That’s why the mentoring process is so unbelievably valuable for companies.
In terms of my most unexpected challenge – I always assumed hiring would be way easier than it was. It’s really easy to hire bad people, and really hard to find the right ones.
Techstars gives its startups access to a stellar network of mentors. How do you structure and foster the startup–mentor relationships?
Techstars mentors come from all sides and sectors, and truly bring the value to our companies. They are the backbone of each programme and help the companies think through business, sales and marketing challenges as well as some more strategic thinking. Even though they initially come in only for one morning in the first month of the programme, they get dragged in and pulled into continuous interaction with the companies as CEOs and founders find ways to hustle in the mentors’ lives. As a result, mentors end up spending a couple dozen hours with the companies through the programme.
Pitches are central to demo days and often the first contact an investor has with a startup’s vision. What are some of the easily avoidable mistakes that startups tend to make when drafting the first pitch?
You need to clearly articulate the problem and the solution, and sell me on why you’re the company best placed to solve this. You need to show your unfair advantage. Most importantly, you’ve got to leave me wanting more. The goal of your pitch should be to get a meeting with an investor, so you’ve got to sell them on the product, solution, team and vision. Make it like a movie trailer!
Support with investment readiness is a key value-add of accelerators. What are your Top 3 fundraising tips?
Understand who you’re raising from and why they’ll care – don’t do mail merge or bulk mailouts to any investor.
Know how much you need to run your company for the next 18–24 months – that’s how much you’re raising. It will also give you your rough valuation, as most investors will want between 15% and 30% of your company (depending on the stage/traction etc).
Fundraise close to home – it’s a nice idea that you’ll go to SF and raise money at a BBQ, but most investment money tends to stay within 50 miles of where the investor is. The reality is that most people invest in companies that are in their own backyard, so if you’re starting up in London, then raising elsewhere is likely to be tricky, to say the least. Also, you’ll waste a lot of time, as everyone will take a meeting and no-one will say no.
What areas of innovation do you find to be the most exciting at the moment?
We’re really excited by food tech right now. There’s a real energy in the sector, some great companies and some amazing innovation that’s going to make a difference to (hopefully) billions of people around the world.
The Family nurtures entrepreneurs through education, unfair advantages and capital. Moving at startup speed, The Family is transforming a portfolio of non-linear companies, special projects and virtual infrastructures into a connected community of entrepreneurs, operators and fellow investors who inspire and support each other.
Pietro Invernizzi heads up dealflow at The Family.
You’re used to being on the receiving end of startup pitches, how would a reverse elevator pitch of The Family sound like?
Pietro: The Family is a long-term strategic minority investor that empowers startups through education, unrivalled networks and access to capital. As an entrepreneur, don’t expect an x-month programme packed with lessons and mentorship sessions, but rather see it as joining an infrastructure of more than 150 European companies that share your level of ambition, supported by our 30-person team dependent on your needs.
What you take from The Family depends on you: you ask and we help, making sure the best of the European ecosystem is available to you at any time for the long term. As one of our founders beautifully put it, The Family is a decentralised infrastructure for your next big thing in Europe.
From your experience, what do companies tend to value the most after they become part of The Family?
After several conversations with our founders, it seems that the real value of The Family lies in the mindset we are able to transfer to them. If we were to simply provide advice on what to do, the entrepreneurs we help would build average startups. Instead, we encourage founders to take their own decisions and then push them to pursue them as quickly as possible. If those decisions were wrong, at least they’ll realise quickly and adjust their path accordingly.
Information on best practices can be found everywhere – what we provide is the right means to get there.
You get to observe a lot of patterns by working with Europe’s most exciting startups. What elements distinguish the most successful companies from those that stagnate?
It’s funny you ask this – I spent the last month travelling around Europe with my teammates, Emilie and Lorenzo, meeting with the founders of our ten most successful startups, trying to find out exactly that. The aim was to be able to improve our initial startup screening. We all came to the same conclusion: you cannot retroactively figure out the unifying qualities of successful founders. Instead, this is what we noticed.
As long as you are friendly, your personality traits do not matter. It’s not about whether you are rather shy, overconfident or have your head in the clouds. Every personality can lead to a success story within The Family.
Incredible obsession over your field is a must, even when your field seems boring to most people. (Yes, even payroll, trucks and so on…) Whatever it was, these entrepreneurs were desperate for their solution to exist. We want to find geeks in all verticals.
And resilience. Hard to say if it’s innate or acquired, but we could easily imagine each founder meditating in a hurricane.
Accessing different markets is instrumental for scaling up European startups. What are some of the easily avoidable mistakes that young startups make when going international?
The mistakes we see the most at The Family are:
Founders managing too remotely or not moving/living in the newly launched country to better feel/see what’s happening and lead the business team – at least at an early expansion stage
Not assessing local specificities (i.e. market, regulations, hiring, unit economics, customer expectations) enough to be able to adapt and execute the original playbook locally
Not investing enough: being too shy to put whatever it takes – including budgets – to the test, fail and readjust along the way
Not testing local-based online acquisition enough to determine the best countries/opportunities before proceeding with expansion (if applicable)
Support with investment readiness is a key value-add of acceleration programmes. As you focus on dealflow and fundraising, what are your Top 3 fundraising tips?
I will give you one tip per fundraising stage (I also published my Top 10 fundraising tips in this Twitter thread):
During a pitch meeting: don’t rely excessively on your pitch deck. A meeting should be a relaxed conversation. Investors see hundreds of decks per week – once they meet a founder, they want them to be a human deck. Walking investors through a pdf they’ve already read is boring and portrays insecurity
After the first few meetings: if your meeting went well, great. Don’t celebrate – go meet even more investors than you were planning to. The higher the level of competition around your deal, the higher your optionality, and the higher the potential for a successful next round further down the line. Additionally, don’t weigh your efforts based on how badly you want an investor to be your partner. Until you have term sheets, their reactions shouldn’t mean much to you. Some may act super friendly but not like your project, while others might do the opposite. Read people post term sheet
After all stages of meetings: if you’ve been to many meetings and none went well, stop. You’d rather kill your current unsuccessful round now and find hacks to survive and raise stronger later than get the reputation of a startup incapable of raising or raising with bad investors out of despair
The Family works with founders over the long term. What is the secret to building long-lasting relationships?
This can easily be answered in one word: trust. In order for a founder to provide us with a small equity stake in their company, they need to be able to trust we’ll be there to support them over the long term. This is why we give founders a one-year cliff to decide whether our model fits with the way their company works and with their culture. If they don’t think so, they are free to take the equity stake back as if nothing happened within 12 months of working together.
Additionally, by not being a fixed three-month programme packed with mentorship sessions and a schedule to follow, we leave it in the hands of the entrepreneurs to come to us when they need to. For this to work, the level of affection and trust needs to be high on both sides. You can see it when our Co-founder Oussama lets a founder access his emails to send investor intros on his behalf, or when founders in legal trouble call our CEO Alice on her mobile on a Sunday
What areas of innovation do you find the most exciting at the moment?
Electric scooters!! Am I late? ;)
On a serious note, at the moment it’s the area of innovation around employee retention and engagement. Companies attempting to solve their issues do not seem to be succeeding yet: budgets for HR have grown constantly in recent years and hiring talent is always a top concern for CEOs/founders. Yet, employee engagement hasn’t moved in 20 years.
The main tendency to try and solve engagement issues is to put managers in charge of the problem. This does not seem to work: most disengaged employees leave companies because of their manager and not because of the job itself. I am excited by solutions like Sidekick that put the individual at the heart of the problem. I believe that, with the right amount of support, communication and feedback, employees can be coached to get the best out of their managers and make their life at work much easier.
Microsoft for Startups provides product, technical and go-to-market benefits to help accelerate the growth of startups, working with startups and partners of all sizes at all stages in their growth. Over the next two years, Microsoft has pledged $500m to support startups with access to technology, community spaces and sales opportunities.
Kevin Monserrat is VC Relations & Dealflow Manager at Microsoft ScaleUp, a branch aiming to accelerate the success of enterprise-ready companies.
Can you give us a reverse elevator pitch of Microsoft ScaleUp?
Kevin: The Microsoft ScaleUp programme (previously known as Microsoft Accelerator) is designed for Series A startups and offers access to sales, marketing and technical support. Eligible startups partake in the immersive programme at one of our eight global locations followed by ongoing support from a dedicated team of success managers.
From your experience, what do scale-ups tend to value the most after going through the Microsoft ScaleUp experience?
In general, they all value discovering what Microsoft Azure can offer to create more value to their customers. They find invaluable support from Co-sell partnerships, which give them access to meet one year’s worth of customer pipeline in one day.
You get to observe a lot of patterns by working with a significant number of promising high-growth companies. What elements distinguish the most successful companies from those that stagnate?
Successful companies have an incredible capacity to understand customers’ needs and learn quickly. They understand the partnership with Microsoft well and use it as a competitive advantage to outcompete their competitors.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to an early-stage startup looking to accelerate its growth?
I would strongly encourage startups to find extremely valuable investors and leverage partnerships for two main reasons. First, to decrease the customer acquisition costs, and second, to co-learn from more grounded organisations in order to stay on the top of the wave.
Pitches are central to Demo Days and often the first contact an investor has with a startup’s vision. What is the one part of the pitch that companies absolutely need to get right?
Talk about the story and not about the product.
Support with investment readiness is a key value-add of accelerators. What are your Top 3 fundraising tips?
Mind the gaps
Be honest and transparent with your investors – make them friends and not enemies
‘You go down, I go down.’ Most investors try to diversify their risks, but at the same time, they will suffer if you suffer. Startups must be able to find investors that commit beyond capital. Making introductions is simply not enough anymore. Startups must do their due diligence on their investors, find out what their reputations are, see their degree of market and technology expertise, the stage of their funds (investing, devesting), how active they are, what portfolio companies are close to yours so that they understand the challenges better than anyone else
Partnering or selling to corporates can be instrumental in the process of scaling up. What are some of the easily avoidable mistakes that young startups make when approaching corporates?
Selling to corporates is very difficult, but can’t be ignored by most B2B startups. The common mistake is to misunderstand the corporates and interlocutor legacy. I often ask the CEOs we mentor, how much skin in the game do your interlocutor(s) have?
The key challenge when selling to corporates is to find the person who can be fired for not finding a solution to the problem – in fact, it is often harder to find the CIO/CSO doing events here and there. Some CIOs have very strategic objectives, which sometimes do not correlate with what the startup wants to sell. In addition, some CIOs have very hard moments when they must convince a board of Fortune 500 companies. The best option is to find someone within the corporate ready to fight hard for the startup.
What areas of innovation do you find to be the most exciting at the moment?
Life sciences, cybersecurity, greentech and fintech.
You are very passionate about building a strong innovation ecosystem across Europe. What are some actionable insights that more people in the industry can take advantage of now to foster these relationships?
The most actionable insights are to go for meaningful and high-quality relations over quantity. People are extremely busy – if you can’t create value for them, there are very few chances they can create some for you. Creating real value for people takes patience and trust. CEOs must be able to spend lots of time building their reputations and creating intimacy with their network to understand where they can create value over time.
Would you like to highlight a startup (from Microsoft or otherwise) that more people should know about?
I personally think that everyone should know about Eagle Genomics. Led by Anthony Finbow, Eagle Genomics is a true pioneer in data-driven discovery. Our award-winning smart data platform has revolutionised data access and management in the life sciences industry. This has delivered widespread benefits to our range of blue-chip clients in the pharma, biotech, healthcare and personal care sectors, notably the rapid reduction in time to new insight.
Started by Brent Hoberman and Henry Lane Fox, Founders Factory has received investment from L’Oreal, easyJet, Guardian Media Group, Aviva, Holtzbrinck and CSC, and is partnered with Wunderman and Vodafone. Combined with its full-time team of 60 specialists, Founders Factory offers founders an enviable platform to launch or scale their startup.
Founders Factory runs both an incubator, which creates 12 new startups every year, and an accelerator, which invests in 30 startups every year. Through its accelerator, Founders Factory invests cash and six months of bespoke support from its team as well as providing commercial opportunities through its investors.
As Founders Factory both builds startups from scratch and accelerates promising ones, it has overseen the fundraising process from Seed to Series A.
Peony Li is Head of Investment at Founders Factory.
What do you see as the main differences between the fundraising process for Seed companies versus Series A ones?
Peony: Seed-stage investment is usually more emotional than Series A; it is about the passion, charisma, vision we ask founders to get across when it comes to fundraising. The story of how the co-founders met, their past experience and their ability to answer tricky questions during the process are what I find important. As simple as whether or not you are likeable does make a big difference as well.
For Series A investment, VCs start to think in a slightly different way: they are more numbers driven. Startups need to demonstrate a sustainable and repeatable revenue model as well as signals that they can gain a foothold among incumbents.
Support with investment readiness is a key value-add of accelerators. As Head of Investment, what are your Top 3 fundraising tips?
Fundraising is a full-time job on its own, when you need to juggle between product, sales and operations, it is very helpful to be raising for enough runway, usually 18–20 months. Founders can then have a good 14–16 months to actually run the business and have enough to prove for your next round
Fundraising ten years back was about engaging investors only when you need money; fundraising now is about constantly engaging, updating and building relationships with VCs
Never give up and don’t be disheartened by ‘no’! There are countless stories of billion-dollar businesses being told no in the early stages
What do startups tend to value most about the Founders Factory experience?
Founders Factory prides itself in creating an accelerator where we try to support startups in whichever way they need it. However, the two most common strengths from our alumni are fundraising leveraging our deep investor network, and business development due to our corporate investors and other stakeholders. For example, Slick (B2B salon software) are working with L’Oreal salons across the whole of Europe to accelerate growth on their BD front; they also received a large seed funding from L’Oreal.
Founders Factory is on a mission to build and accelerate 200 companies in five years. In your view, what are some of the building blocks that need to be in place for tech startups to grow, regardless of sector?
Team, team and team. Turning a pitch deck to a billion-dollar business, I am a big believer that only an exceptional team would be able to push through boundaries. Resilience, in my opinion, is also essential. With these two basic building blocks, others will come naturally.
Partnering or selling to corporates can be instrumental in the process of scaling up. When and how do you think it’s best for them to start approaching corporates?
Yes, you are right – one big commercial contract could change these early-stage startups. Many take the ‘spray and pray’ approach to business development. I would advise startups to be slightly more critical in allocating time resources on each account. Identifying that burning pain point within the right department in the right organisation can save the founder a lot of time.
You want to make sure your product is a ‘must-have’ rather than a ‘good-to-have’ for your clients. That is a big part of what Founders Factory deliver to our startups.
Founders Factory focuses on six verticals, each supported by a strategic corporate partner. What underlying technologies do you see as being most applied or highly applicable across sectors?
It is interesting we’ve set up AI/big data as a core vertical, when in fact we find this technology applies across the other verticals. AI signifies optimisation, so it’s understandable it can reduce friction in different models across the other sectors.
Would you like to highlight a startup (from Founders Factory or otherwise) you think more people should know about?
Sure! Peptone is one that I am recently passionate about. It uses AI and quantum computing to optimise protein design. Kamil, CEO of Peptone, used to study at Cambridge and ETH, and has a genuine passion for solving this trillion-dollar problem.
If you are a passionate, resilient startup founder that shares my views, please don’t hesitate to contact me at email@example.com. I’d love to get a coffee and chat more!
London & Partners MIBP
London & Partners’ Mayor’s International Business Programme (MIBP) is tailored to fit the international growth ambitions of startups. A relatively new programme, it provides a bespoke mentoring scheme delivered by leading entrepreneurs and business leaders; expert advice and workshops; targeted trade missions; and access to live leads and opportunities.
The programme is open to fast-growing companies in London operating in four broad sectors: technology, life sciences, urban and creative industries. Any business looking to enter the programme will need to demonstrate that it is already generating revenues.
Alban Remy is MIBP’s Head of Innovation and Life Science.
Can you give us a reverse elevator pitch of MIBP?
Alban: It is quite simple really. The programme we look after was created by the Mayor of London to support exciting London scale-ups (mature startups), who have had success in the UK to expand internationally. To do that, we have a series of activities in London, a team of very talented and connected people in markets, and we travel between 15 and 20 times a year with groups of companies (sometimes the Mayor even joins us!) to meet with potential business partners.
Last detail: we do not ask any fee or equity for companies to join the programme.
From your experience, what do high-growth companies tend to retrospectively value the most after having gone through the MIBP experience?
Definitely the connections. Most important are the connections to potential business partners: they can be private companies, big worldwide brands, but also public organisations for sectors such as edtech or healthtech.
Connections to peer innovators are another strength of the programme. We are very strict with our selection process, which means that companies participating are all past a certain stage, for most have raised a substantial amount of funding and signed major contracts, and discussions amongst them on how to approach this or that prospect are happening every time.
What elements distinguish the companies that end up being most successful from the ones that stagnate in their growth?
There are so many things you need to have in a business in order to be successful: you need to be organised, structured, ambitious, bold, informed, creative, clever – that list could go on for a long time.
The best way to be all of that is to find a team that brings you all the components your business needs to grow. This is why most of the time investors will pay as much attention to the team running a business as they will study the actual business plan.
Partnering or selling to large international clients can be instrumental in the process of scaling up. What are some of the easily avoidable mistakes that young startups do when going international?
The most important lesson learned on my previous jobs growing startups and SMEs internationally: make sure you are ready for it! If you go to a meeting with a product half-finished, reschedule. If you go to a meeting without studying the company or the people you will meet there, do your homework! If you go to a meeting via skype or telephone without having ever visited the country, get on a plane!
Most of the time, selling internationally means you will target big clients, and given that you are coming from a different country, nine times out of ten the first question they will ask you is ‘who are you doing business with in your home country?’. If your answer contains the words ‘trial’, ‘prospect’ or ‘soon’, you will certainly hear ‘let’s meet again in six months’, which means two years.
Through the trade missions you organise, businesses get access to key players across geographies. What are your Top 3 tips for high-growth companies looking to scale internationally?
This will be a summary of my previous answer: do your homework, get ready and please, please, do not think that because you are successful in your home country it will be exactly the same everywhere else.
What areas of innovation do you find to be the most exciting at the moment?
I have a big interest in education and healthtech. Both sectors will be or already are completely shaken by technology. In finance, online banking and apps have progressively made their ways into our lives, but if you are in your early 30s like me, there is a good chance you went to a very similar school your parents went to, and that the GP’s office hasn’t changed much either. So everything to come here is very exciting. And most of all, because this could have a huge impact on populations that had no access to education and health previously. Some of the solutions I am seeing are highly scalable, and paired with the current projects of getting everyone connected, here is some good hope for the future.
Would you like to highlight a high-growth company (from MIBP or otherwise) you think more people should know about?
The first one that comes to mind is School Space, which recently joined GoToGrow. Their idea (and now business) is to rent spaces not used in schools on evenings and weekends, which means event planners can find more spaces to use, and schools make some extra money to re-invest in their infrastructure. Everyone wins!
I love these ideas because they are so obvious you that you think they should have always existed. Plus, Jemma and James – the co-founders – are great people who recently travelled with me to Toronto and Chicago as part of the programme.
Looking for investment opportunities?
You can find all our available deals on the current investment opportunities page. The individual company pages will tell you what type of round it is, what tax relief the deal is eligible for and, of course, outline details about the company and lead investor. Ready?