I made a lot of mistakes when running my startup. I also meet hundreds of Polish entrepreneurs each year and listen to their stories. Based on those insights I wrote an article about why (Polish) startups fail.
“Sounds good, but… how are you going to make money?”
If you’ve ever pitched your business, asked for funding or applied to a startup contest, you’ve heard this question more than once. And unless you’re making millions in revenues there is a fair chance you don’t have a good answer to it.
Nothing to worry about! Startups are businesses in constant search of a business model, so take your time. However, it’s good that you realize it and plan for constant change from the very beginning. For my company, Filmaster, it took us 3.5 years to get to the working model followed by the first significant deal.
Conferences are tricky for a startup. Unless you are an AirBNB or Reddit founder, a hot chick or the organizer, no one is going to look for you there. This is because (hardly) no one knows you. Yeah, that’s sad, I know. Anyway, the point is that it’s your job to get to the people you want to get to and get the most of the event. Here is how to do it right.
Last weekend I was mentoring at Startup Weekend Szczecin, the first Polish-German meetup of this kind. It was my first Startup Weekend and also the first time I mentored on any startup event. Startup Weekends are events organized all over the globe where young people have 2 days to organize a team, analyze the market and implement a product prototype. Quite a challange!
The winner of StartupWeekend Szczecin was ScatchApp – both by jury, mentors and community vote. It’s an app coded by Michał Łyczek, that transforms hand-drawn diagrams into HTML diagrams (like flow charts or mockups). Michał managed to produce a working prototype just in 2 days and pitched his idea in such an energetic way it is obvious he’s set to succeed. And he already found a partner, a German company in the flow chart business! I recorded a live demo of his product, so you can see it for yourself here:
Another team that got recognition was Sportfolio, “Linkedin for sports”, a startup created by Anna Pietka, a just-graduated student with no experience with “the Internets”, but with a lot of passion, ideas and a very important feature: the ability to listen and change her idea based on feedback. You can listen to Anna pitching Sportfolio here:
Other startups included Vinestry, a wine discovery app (similar to Vivino), Dine_Alike, which helps people socialize around food, Festivity, a CMS for events, StreetAd which is set to revolutionize street ads, or Taskbeat, a task management tool for companies.
Here are some of my thoughts fresh after the event
– StartupWeekend is the best place to be if you want to become an Internet entrepreneur but don’t know know to start.
– If you want to get feedback: listen, don’t talk! Some people could not stop from blabbing about their ideas all the time, instead of listening to others and making these ideas better. The most successful were those who listened, like Michał and Anna.
– Show your passion for the idea. Come to StartupWeekend with a goal to get this idea going and do everything possible to get it going. Passion is contageous. People follow those with passion as they become the successful ones. If you want to be a leader, show your passion and show that you really want to achieve it.
– Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is showing up. Very true, especially in case of events like StartupWeekend. Show up, meet people, don’t sit at home!
You can follow some of the new startups on Twitter:
I’d like to share with you some of my observations after spending a week in Bay Area promoting my startup. Filmaster (http://filmaster.com) is a service that recommends movies available in your area that you are going to enjoy & allowing distributors to acquire potential fans of their upcoming releases.
The main event we took part in was EU Startup Demo Night organized by blackbox.vc (known for the Startup Genome project you might have heard of). Filmaster was invited there as one of the top 10 European internet companies (thanks to a GammaRebels recommendation) to pitch in front of some major Silicon Valley VCs like Silicon Valley Bank, DFJ, and others.
The event took place in pariSoma, a cool co-working space located in downtown San Francisco. It was especially interesting to visit the venue, as we only recently started a similar place in Warsaw, Poland: Reaktor.net.
And here are some of the hints that I think should be useful to you if you’re planning a similar trip to promote your startup.
1. Know your high-level pitch
This is one sentence that best describes what you do and that should convince people you’re doing something interesting and that it’s worth talking to you for 3 minutes more.
Make this as precise and interesting as possible.
If you have a platform that enables server owners to quickly sell their CPU resources by only using an USB stick (this is what Witsbits.com does), do not say that you are going to “bring cloud computing closer to companies” because that’s meaningless.
If you have an analytics company that works real-time, tracking any device (like Capptain.com), say that, as opposed to saying that you have a “business-enabling platform allowing companies to earn more money” as that could as well apply to a hosting service or a coffee vendor.
2. Know your elevator pitch
By heart. And I mean by heart. We practiced our pitch with Pawel for the whole previous day and we said it at least 25 times loudly before being sure it’s good. You should be talking in a natural way, not as if you were reading a prepared document. This way the person you’re pitching knows you did your homework and you’re serious about your business.
When they ask “that sounds interesting, could you tell me more?” this is what you should tell them. Ideally it should tell what problem your product solves, what the market size is, and what your traction is (if you have any). A cool example that sticks in their mind is good as well.
3. Know the investors
Ask who is coming to the event and do your research about each VC, angel or journalist that confirmed to arrive. This way you know who to talk to and what do you want from them.
It’s astonishing how few startupers do that!
4. Approach the people you want to talk to as soon as you can!
Contrary to common sense (as you know your startup is the most revolutionary idea on the planet), the VCs usually don’t run after you. They probably don’t even know you (and don’t really get how you’re “different than X” even if they heard your pitch already). It’s you who have to reach out to them, sell your idea and make them excited about it. This fight for attention is something that’s very different in Silicon Valley compared to Europe. In Poland everyone seems to have a lot of time to discuss your product with you. In SV, it’s a real fight and you need to make sure you win it by being one of the first to get the attention of your dream VC.
Even if they only gave you their business card out of courtesy, still thank them for your time, remind them what you wanted from them and offer to meet up later, e.g. via Skype if you’re going back soon.
You can do it via e-mail, LinkedIn or on Twitter, depending which of those channels the VCs use most.
You cannot lose anything by doing a follow-up! And most people still don’t do it for some bizare reason.
Allright, those were the 5 points that probably seem very obvious to you (and if so, good, you are well prepared!). The goal of our trip to SV was not to get Series A right away (as we just got seed-funded by HackFwd.com) but rather gain some good contacts that will be helpful in the future when we actually need more money or need to reach some people in the entertainment industry. Thus, I’m going to share with you in a couple of weeks what was the outcome of the trip based on these criteria.
If you have any questions to this article, ask them on Twitter. My handle is @michuk and I always reply to everyone.
PS. I’d like to thank Lufthanza for making this post possible. I actually wrote it in a plane, on my way back from San Francisco, mostly because the only other option seemed to be watching a sad Chinese romance screened on a small TV above my head.