The Startup Highway

Panorama of Vilnius downtown (Lithuania). Pols...

Panorama of Vilnius downtown (Lithuania). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last Friday I spent a day with the participants of Startup Highway – an accelerator programme in Vilnius, Lithuania run by Rokas Tamošiūnas. This year’s batch includes:

  1. Backstage TV – second screen gossip on your iPad
  2. Dragdis – smart storage of pictures for designers
  3. Kurgyvenu – data-as-a-service for real estate
  4. Responsell – lead management for digital agencies
  5. WithEvent – apps for festivals
  6. One other team that couldn’t be bothered to show up ;)

I must say that all teams were impressive – a lot of international exposure, either by studying or working abroad; very good level of skills, also on UX/Design and international focus from the start. Probably Dragdis and Kurgyvenu caught my attention the most for now – the first, because of it’s good scalability and solving of a permanent problem in a very specific niche; the latter because of the importance and also ‘unsexiness’ of it’s product and the determination of the founder to get it in the hands of the clients.

The most important takeaway for me though is the confirmation of the regional/global focus of the BalticMafia startups and thus one more reason to watch this space.

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Always Be Closing (v. 2.0)

I do a fair share of meetings. Some of them are necessary to get a deal done. Others are essential to build or maintain my network of contacts, which is probably the most valuable asset a business developer has. Finally there are those that, for various reasons, are an absolute waste of time. Funny thing, this last type – you never know this particular meeting will be useless – you just walk out of one, and figure out you just lost an hour of your life for nothing. What usually happens to me is I walk into a meeting with a clear goal, and often it turns out within 10 mins that it’s just not going to happen. If I manage to keep my head cool, I usually have another option of the positive outcome of the meeting – alternative form of commercial cooperation, a good referral or in a worst case scenario very meaningful (as in ‘actionable’ feedback). If I don’t, I spend an hour blabbing about ‘business’ and thinking that I’m ‘learning about clients/partners/potential investments’ needs’ just to realize in the end that the result is my high blood pressure and a very brief ‘good feeling’.

Always Be Closing is an old sales jargon describing an attitude of constant and smart sales mode – driving the prospect towards the sale or quickly cutting loose if a sale is unlikely. This ‘cutting loose’ approach was fine, when we were meeting large quantities of similar clients. When your job is meeting CEOs of Fortune500 companies, the game is slightly different – you’ve got to be closing at every meeting. I believe this is true about everything we do Today. The 1000 similar clients are served by automated systems, SaaS  applications or transactional platforms. Our job is only meeting important people, and we have to concentrate on effectively closing each and every one.

Just in case you are a technical/product person reading this and thinking ‘d’oh- of course those sales people should always be selling’, think about the code you are writing and whether all of it ‘closes’ the customer, or are you just making yourself feel better.

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East vs West – Slides and Video from Aulery 2012

My thoughts on how entrepreneurs and their environment differ between Poland (Eastern Europe) and UK (Western Europe). Not without some language hiccups.

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On all the advice you’re getting


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The Seedcamp Week took off Today. Smart entrepreneurs are getting plenty of advice – quite often from people that didn’t have the balls to start their own business. Often from real experts in their respective fields – rock star VCs, deadly marketers and colleagues entrepreneurs. Fresh Founders hear that their prices should be super low, and they should market their product via word of mouth and social networks. And go for scale. Next hour they hear that the price should be super high, sales done direct and service provided with high maintenance. The following day it’s about funding. So they hear they should raise a lot, as they’re in a competitive space, will need the budget to develop multiple countries and have to accelerate product development. Or they should raise very little, preserve equity, prove their model and then raise a big round with much better valuation. Not to mention all the advice on the product. That it should be changed, address completely different market, stay the same, is killing it.

All of it is not confusing – it’s completely contradictory.

What does it really tell a founder. Price is important. Pricing and sales model are very connected issues. It’s important how much you raise, you have to strategise it. People are passionate about your product, your market, your clients. All of this advice is just pointing your attention to areas of business you perhaps haven’t thought about yet. It’s asking: Did you really think about X, Y and Z? The more forcefully the advice is given – the more passion for your product and company the mentor shows – not necessarily that she is right.

So listen between the lines of all the advice you’re getting. It’s not what they hit that’s important – it’s the direction they’re shooting in.

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Better is the enemy of done

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Author Jim Collins once noted that ‘good is the enemy of great’ having in mind that companies that ‘do well’ rarely have the incentive to really innovate and push things to the limit. I however more often have in mind the phrase by Voltaire – The better is the enemy of the good. So often I struggle to make a sales document perfect, to take care of the layout, to explain everything in detail. I’m a perfectionist, with all the burdens of that word, and believe me – the final result is rarely perfect. My point is – in B2B no one really cares about the perfection of the sales pitch – people are too result and value driven to care about the bells and whistles. Even in startup/VC pitching you will get better results with a good product and black-and-white slides than with mediocre product all wrapped up in celofane.

I was really impressed by the marketing style of the guys from Automattic/Wordpress. One email, the offer (including the pricing) in bullet points, no formatting (plain text), no images. It was actually easier to digest, forward around and make comments because of all of this. Such style removes all of the reasons for procrastination, speeds up the work (you can keep offers like that in your ‘canned responses‘ in Gmail) and makes tracking everything easier (no files flying around). But most of all – it is faster to get it done. And sending 10 imperfect offers to prospective partners/clients beats the hell out of sending 2 that are polished – just because of natural conversion, only some of your prospects will be willing and able to purchase/sign at that particular moment. That is why you want to access as many of them as you can. That is why better is the enemy of done.

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We are not in a ‘let’s do it cheap’ business

Cheap & Cheerful
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Are you proud of using open-source software to leverage super smart and savvy community of developers, or do you live by ‘We don’t pay for nothing’ rule? It’s a fine line, but more and more I see startup teams falling into the second category. Leanstartup’s popularity, lack of financing and the growing appraisal of bootstrapping your business drove many teams to the ‘we will use it only if it’s free’ camp. Don’t get me wrong – watching your burn rate while you still don’t have your business figured out is all fine. But writing your own url shortener while you can easily integrate some 3rd party provider with analytics, API and all the bells and whistles you may ever need is another matter. Itamar Lesuisse of travel startup Kukunu once told me – ‘If I can save one day of my time because I don’t have to install and manage the (project management) software, I’m more than happy to pay $25 a month for the service’. All the services you will probably need for your startup will not cost you more than $100 or $200 a month, and together they will probably save you a week of your time. Startups are all about speed and time is your most scarce resource – remember about it the next time you’re analyzing whether the $15 you’re about to pay for the CRM is really worth it.

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Tips on building a (sales) team from Matt Blumberg

Today I had the luck to attend one of the unique meetings Seedcamp organizes for it’s winning teams, and (in my case) alumni. Over breakfast Matt Blumberg, the CEO of ReturnPath shared his tips on successful team-building in a startup environment. My takeout was obviously how to build a successful sales/bizdev team. Here are some points I caught from Matt’s brilliant talk:

  1. Hire the best people (for the job) – in the early days of the startup business development is more about evangelising and closing rather than a classic/numbers sales game. You need people that go out in the field and are ready to spend a lot of time and energy with few results to keep the spirit up.
  2. Hire in advance – by the time you decide that you need to hire help you probably needed it for a couple months already. Avoid that by setting up end executing a hiring strategy/plan.
  3. Don’t convince people to a startup career, find those that are looking for it. Otherwise you risk getting people that are not ready to ‘get their hands dirty’ and will expect an organisation that will support them (PAs anyone?)
  4. Hire in pairs – this was very new to me, but so obvious when you think about it – sales people working in a pair get to learn from each other, compare notes and share motivation. Programmers knew it for quite some time.
  5. Create transparent and fun environment. Think about yourself as a head of a family or a host of a great party – treating your employees as your best guests.
  6. Be an enabler – share responsibility and decision power; remove roadblocks; beware of becoming a bottle neck
  7. Bring tech people to the sales cycle to avoid team separation and communication issues – this is probably one of the most important, and still seriously overlooked points in most startups I know.

Big thanks to Matt for his time and knowledge and Seedcamp’s Philipp Moehring for organising this.

ReturnPath is the market leader in email deliverability currently employing 200 people and profitable. Investors include Union Square Ventures, Mobius Venture Capital, Sutter Hill Ventures and Western Technology Investment.

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The length of the bizdev cycle

Doing business development and early stage sales in a startup is often frustrating. Many of your actions like reaching out to potential customers and establishing a constant communication take week. That’s why until you find the product/market fit it is wise to stay lean and watch your burn rate very carefully. But it’s also very important not to let the slow progress discourage you. Many of the actions you undertake will bring results long after you wrote them off as losses.

A bouncing ball captured with a stroboscopic f...
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It is very important to schedule your energy, and most of all financing accordingly. The rough rule for a full bizdev cycle (from early customer contact to first closed sales) is 6 months. However, you often will hear about contracts signed after showing a powerpoint presentation. In other stories it takes 1 or 2 years and several pivots before first revenue hits the door. In B2B products, I’m pretty much sure the length of the cycle is strictly correlated with the weight and urgency of the problem you’re solving for the client. Sometimes you can have a brilliant product that will save the user millions of dollars annually, but unless someone there really cares about these savings (for instance it’s all in a budget of a single department) the progress may be slow, if at all.

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Call corporate people

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I don’t know how many emails corporate people receive, but judging by their response time and frequency they’re probably getting more regular mail then I’m receiving spam. Most of it is of course irrelevant CC and FYI information, but unfortunately my message get’s lot in the noise. The other part of day that takes most of those peoples time are meetings – I would say for some of them it must be over 50% of daily activities. That leaves them very little time to do actual work. Answering my email, which usually requires additional action or communicating with a colleague is just not going to fit into it. That’s why I call them. They usually can give me a straight answer in five minutes and we can push things forward for instance because I’ll do the job their colleague was supposed to deliver. More then that, since they’re so rarely at their desk, I’m also probably the only person they managed to talk to that day, which makes me stand out of the crowd of people that try to maintain communication with them.

The hard part is knowing when to call them – the general rule is early mornings and late afternoons, but individual schedules vary. Whenever possible, ask this question when you’re exchanging contact details with a person. Make sure to also establish a good relationship with their PAs, as often those angels will get you calls normally impossible to accomplish.

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Tips for attending trade shows (as a startup)

Expo Center
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A couple tips from me, fresh after visiting AdTech London Today. Hopefully this few points will help you get the most of your time an
d budget.
  1. Don’t pay for it. These events usually have two parts – the free trade show, and paid conference. Unless you see that the lineup of speakers can add some invaluable information to your stack (which I doubt it will) it’s just not worth shelling out few hundred Euros, Dollars or Pounds just for ‘mingling’
  2. Go there. You can see your competition, meet potential partners and see where the market is going. Most of all, you get the feeling of the climate in the industry. Listen to what people are saying in their conversations, which topics are discussed the most, what buzzwords are most commonly used. This is your best occasion to get industry wide spectrum of points of view – no time reading blogs, publications and reports will make up for listening to your peers and potential clients.
  3. Setup a base. You don’t want to, or can’t afford to rent a booth, but you can get yourself into nearest restaurant or bar to around the venue. Arrange with the manager a table that is privately located and reserved for you all day long. Then set up meetings with clients that will be visiting the show anyway. At the fraction of the cost you’ll be able to capture their attention for your product demo in a way that no booth will allow.
  4. Keep your tools handy. I don’t mean the business cards or collateral. Get an iPad or other way of demoing your product live. You have to be able to naturally flip any conversation into a product demo. Use a laptop if you have to, but always hold it in your hands and never switch it off.
  5. Be organized. It’s easy to go to a show and return one day later saying that ‘there was nothing interesting’ or ‘it wasn’t your target after all’. Have a look at the list of the exhibitors, pick the ones you have to talk to. Set up meeting with other visitors. Figure out which free-seminar speakers you have to listen to and establish a conversation with (that’s the only reason why I sit on those things). And summarise the event afterwords – try to capture the trends, the potential leads and lessons learned.

These things usually happen once or twice per year per industry per country. Make sure you squeeze all the value out of time you spend there.

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