One Month in London — The Techstars Experience

Before coming to London to join Techstars program, I told myself that I would try to blog as often as possible, but I could not find the time.

The plan to write every single day is no longer possible. The plan B to write every single week is gone too, leaving plan C to summarize each month. Yes, I barely made either plan.

What have I learned during my first month in Techstars?

Mentor Madness — Get feedback and iterate

Techstars, a mentor-driven acceleration program, obviously cannot run without the mentors and the interactions between mentors and startups. We had two weeks mentor madness organized like “speed dating” sessions. Yes, you read that right. Startups met the mentors and explained to them about business. Both parties do a bit of feeling each other out, develop “chemistry”, and later rate/pick their favorites.

Love at first sight?

Nah!

If I go to a speed dating session, I would probably like to experience a euphoric love-at-first-sight moment.

It ain’t going to happen here. Instead, things went mad.

The mentors kept giving us the thumb down since we were not able to get our message across. Ondrej Krajicek, one of our mentors from StartupYard, attributes the reason to startup’s initial obsession. “They were mostly in the stage of technical obsession, still trying to think about how to sell how great their technology is. Some of them were undergoing the paradigm shift from thinking inwards to outwards thinking, i.e. instead of focusing on how they solve problems to what problems of their customers they are trying to solve and why.”

When your product revolves around strong encryption, military-grade FIPS 140–2, security standard and compliance, backend and platforms, you can be damn sure, nobody is going to fall in love with you as long as you’re still much in love with your product and its technology.

We had only 20 minutes to tell us about our company, ourselves, the big problem we’re trying to solve and the solution that we have. However, we spent the majority of the time getting to the dirty technical level that even caused difficulty for technical people to understand.

This confusion happened for the entire first week and the first couple days of the second week.

We played the blame game and pin all the thumb-downs to the dry and boring field that we are in, information security, entertaining perhaps only to hackers. Info security is not something people can see, hear, and touch, thus not simple for them to understand. We even prejudged that people are not interested and wouldn’t like it anyway.

John Bradford and Max Kelly, MDs of Techstars, told us that although there will be a lot of people who don’t and will not understand what we do, but we need to learn how to communicate with them anyway and get them excited about our company and what we do.

I have a dream, that Dr. Martin Luther King appears right now and shows me the beacon in the fog.

And then, it happened, at last.

During the last three days of the mentor madness or speed dating from hell, depend on how you look at it, we got all thumb up. How is that even possible?

The biggest lesson we learned from this two-week madness is that just like anything else, if something doesn’t work right the first time, you try differently, get feedback, iterate and get it right the next time, or maybe next time, or wait, the next time, maybe.

And you might get it, at last.

Branding

That leads to…

Who are you? What is your purpose? What do you stand for?

Gabbi Cahane, Intermittent Investor, Occasional Founder, Frequently Tattooed, conducted a mini MBA crash course on Branding. We did an interactive exercise “do you recognize that brand” in which Gabi flashed random mission statements and taglines while we guessed the companies. Immediately, almost everyone recognized iconic brands like Nike, Google, and to some extend Ebay, with just one or two lines of texts. That shows how powerful branding can be. The branding messaging needs to be consistent, specific and align to what the company is doing.

Can you guess who this is?

Life. Powered

To honorably serve the community by providing products and services of super quality at fair price.

Continuous self-renewal.

Tap the latent power within us.

Continual improvement in all that the company does. Ideas, quality, customer satisfaction.

We screamed out Tesco, Walmart, H&M, Mark & Spencer, Ikea, British Gas, Energizer, and Toyota. When you can be a supermarket, discount retail, fashion, furniture, utility, battery, and car; you have no brand. You have no identity.

Now, can you guess who they are?

I’m loving it.

A place to buy. A place to shop. A place to collect. Free for buyers and inexpensive for sellers.

Just do it.

To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

We all got them right with just one guess.

This workshop is by far one of the most enjoyable sessions I had at Techstars. More than just getting new information and upgrading my knowledge, I can relate to the key topic on a personal level.

From the branding angle, developing a company is similar to developing a person. Each has a beginning. Each has an evolving story. Each goes on a journey to reach an end that makes sense to specific to that company and that person.

You need to know who you are, your purpose, and what you stand for.

Ideas & Execution

I have the tendency to pickle stuff and let things go on indefinitely without closure. The idea playground is way more fun than getting bogged down to the dirty details of execution. Anybody with Input or Information theme as one of his top strengths (StrengthsFinder) will know what I am talking about. “People strong in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.”

Ideas are good, but ideas are worthless without execution. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The art lies in the execution.

But there exist people who can’t seem to stop popping thoughts out of their heads, a process I call mind popcorn. A friend of mine, a “mind popcorn” machine, reasons that we need to think of ideas because the ideas can be good for later application. (Hallelujah, I’ve spent my life doing that. Now, I need to think less, do more.)

The answer to that is keeping an idea diary, as suggested by James Altucher, by writing down ten ideas a day. You might never go back to your journal and read what you wrote anyway. At least you’re assured that you record your thinking. Who knows some days looking back you’ll find your million-dollar idea. Unlike many people who discard ideas, James seems to value them, and I find his approach to idea keepsake manageable and worth doing.

Remember though, even popcorns need to be packaged, marketed, and sold to become valuable popcorns.

That’s still a whole lot of execution. So just do it. And do it fast.

Enjoy the moment

I went back to Prague at the end of July for an appointment and arrived in the city in the middle of the night. The next morning, I did my errands around the city, taking the trams to the office and to my old neighbourhood to pick up a few belongings. It was a pleasant surprise to experience good feelings about a familiar place as I seldom enjoyed sameness, quietness and the lack of pace. Being a big-city person, I’ve always enjoyed the buzzing and the crowdedness of the big city — that was until I lived in London. The distance between places and the daily commute are pains, reducing any form of spontaneous traveling.

And I realized the cliche we know all too well but often forget. We don’t appreciate what we have until we no longer have it.

Does that mean I that I prefer to hop on the next flight back to Prague and can’t wait to leave London behind?

Not at all.

Because on the same note, I’m also certain that that once the Techstars program finishes and I leave the London, I will sorely miss the city and my time here.

So I will enjoy every moment.

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