Tough love for the young ones

Over the last few weeks, I have been involved in several meetings about start-ups, but on Tuesday last week I was pitched in at the deep end. I got to spend most of the day at Seedcamp. My visit was the idea of one of our new Governing Board members, Sara Murray. There are a few similar programmes around, but Seedcamp is now in its third year and has a good reputation.

The basic idea is disarmingly simple. They have some money to help really early stage companies. There is pre-selection, but in the final week 22 companies take part in a process that involves a variety of forms of mentoring and then pitch for funds to develop their ideas. I would imagine it is actually quite difficult to put it all together so I was very impressed with the overall package that greeted me at UCL.

Some of the input came in the form of presentations and panels. I was lucky enough to catch Eric Ries give his "lean start-up" presentation. That he has the insight he has is impressive enough, but the fact that he can convey a simple message that captures so much of the learning says a lot about his experience and sense of perspective.

This was followed by a panel discussion on marketing, orchestrated by Saul Klein. First, each panellist detailed their own experience of trying to convey a message to potential customers. Then Saul tried to extract the important learning points. There was a bit of a tendency to get sidetracked by the advantages and disadvantages of search engine optimisation, but I suspect many learned something of use.

However, this is just the warm-up. The main activity of the day was for the finalists to get direct mentoring from a succession of mentoring groups. My interregnum in the start-up and (amateur) venture capital world has given me some insight, and the fact that the Technology Strategy Board provides funding means that I get pitched to both formally and informally, but this was much more intense. Through the afternoon, it all came back to me, and the requirements for success became evident.

The most important thing is to make a good first impression. By that, I don't mean that you need to be well-dressed or smart, but that the first things you say about your company and its goals begin the process of impressing your target - be it a venture capitalist, angel, bank manager or potential client. Everywhere I went (not just in the formal mentoring part of the day) people wanted to explain what they were doing and why. The ones I remember did it quickly and efficiently - and piqued my interest in learning more.

Having got that far, the next thing that tended to impress was that they knew their intended market well. Markets are not simple. They are complex entities with lots of what-ifs and maybes. There are competitors and a supply chain. Those who demonstrated that they understood the world they were intending to enter made progress in the eyes of the mentors. Those who saw and communicated a way to change that world really made an impression!!

I realised (probably again) that mentoring is not a science. Some of the things mentors say reflect their own experience - or lack of it. In at least one case, one mentor had to be called down by the others after they had got into an disagreement with the company we were supposed to be helping over who was right. Each company saw many groups of mentors, and they were probably given contradictory advice and told things that were not actually true. The mentors were not there to tell them what to do, but to give them more options than they had at the beginning of the event. It was their company and what they extracted from all this input was up to them. It is a useful side-effect of being trained as a scientist, that I long ago knew the difference between a fact, an assumption and a hypothesis. Whether I can tell them apart in the heat of the moment is another matter, but there were times when I wondered how much we were actually helping these young entrepreneurs.

The companies we saw that afternoon were given both useful advice and a hard time about what they got wrong. When you have 40 minutes to appraise a company, its goals and progress and there are 4 or 5 bright, committed people all wanting to give their input, many of the usual interactive niceties get thrown out. This is important. If the basic idea is flawed, if the knowledge of the market is inadequate or wrong, if there is already an incumbent company with a strong position, then perhaps it is sensible to stop, regroup and attack another market. The goal of the mentors was to help the companies consider all the angles and make sure that they were as sure as they could be about their goal and route.

It may not have been pleasant to be in the receiving end of all this "help" but I am sure it was given with the best of intentions. I just hope it all worked!


Last updated on Thursday 01 October 2009 at 17:57

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