Accelerators and the focus on Demo Day

If you check out seed accelerators for long enough, you’ll come across one relatively consistent criticism. (Particularly for the lower quality programs, I have to say.) That criticism is that accelerators focus way too much on Demo Day. I believe that founders that say this don’t understand the real “why” behind the preparation.

I joined Techstars at the beginning of June this year, and in that time have seen the preparations for the Demo Days of the Techstars London 2014 batch of companies, as well as the first Barclays Accelerator batch of companies. So I’ve already seen, up-close-and-personal, two cycles of companies spending time and getting ready to pitch at Demo Day. And Demo Day is important: there are hundreds of angels and institutional investors there and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most companies. They need to work hard to make the most of the opportunity.

But the subtle secret about preparing for Demo Day is that it’s not just about one 5-minute pitch, it’s a month of deep critical-thinking about how to communicate a product, a company, a market, a team, and an opportunity. Sure, the direct output is that 5-minute pitch, but founders learn how to give a one-line description of what they do, an elevator pitch about their company, and how to talk about the company in ways that really resonate with a particular audience. This process, and particularly the feedback from experienced entrepreneurs and mentors, is critical to founders. (And while it involves the whole team, it should only be the day-to-day job of the CEO, leaving everyone else to continue working on the company.)

Let me give two examples from the Barclays program:

ClauseMatch— Evgeny from ClauseMatch was not a natural speaker, and his company (a platform for contract negotiation) is in the legal world, which tends to make peoples’ eyes glaze over. And at times, he struggled to communicate how revolutionary their product is. But he cracked it with a simple (and amusing) anecdote to start his Demo Day pitch. He took the audience back to 1995, when Microsoft Word introduced “Track changes” and e-mail started to become widely introduced. For the first time, instead of faxing manually annotated contracts back-and-forth, lawyers could e-mail Word files back and forth… it was a revolution. Then he made a simple statement: after twenty years of internet and cloud technology development, lawyers are still working the exact same way. It was a massive “a-ha” moment for the audience that grabbed their attention for the rest of his pitch.

GustPay — Werner from GustPay actually spent a bit of time at the start of his pitch talking about Disney… specifically about the NFC wristbands that Disney has developed for their theme parks. He talked about the “magic” of the experience, in that the wristband becomes their ticket and their wallet and their room key, and everything they need for their stay. Then he told the audience that Disney spent >$1billion in developing this technology, but GustPay provides the same experience for venues and events for just $1/wristband. Again, it was an “a-ha” moment that got people to recognise what they did, and why it was important.

Being able to communicate your startup to a wide variety of audiences (investors, early adopters, sales prospects, press) takes a lot of hard work. And while it may seem all that hard work is just in service of a 5-minute pitch, the real benefit is far, far beyond that.

Life with my “distraction-free” phone

Earlier this summer I read two posts by Jake Knapp (a design partner at Google Ventures) about his “distraction free” iPhone: how he started it, and what it felt like a year later. In a nutshell, he found himself getting constantly distracted by his iPhone, and consciously made choices to take key applications off his phone: Safari, Email, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

I decided to try it for myself and my Nexus 5 Android phone. I didn’t want to be that guy that always had his phone six inches from his face, even when out to dinner or playing with my daughter. So these are (some of) the apps I deleted from my phone:

  • Chrome
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Kindle
  • NYTimes
  • Google+
  • Facebook

All of these were apps that had a strong risk of the “infinity” effect, where once you get started you just get lost. I had a particularly bad habit with opening tabs in Chrome (from Twitter, e-mail) that I then left open, always meaning to go back but never actually closing.

Apps I kept include: Calendar, Music, Maps, Camera, Photos, SMS, WhatsApp, Hangouts, USAA, Todo.txt, Voxer, Slack, Beeminder, Runkeeper, and a few others. The one app where I chose differently from Jake and did keep was Gmail (and now Google Inbox). E-mail in my job is just too important, and living several time zones away from the majority of the people I work with means that I can’t rely on just dealing with e-mail during the UK business day.

What I’ve learned

I’ve noticed a few things from this experiment. First, I’ve started to see how critical a web browser is to a mobile phone experience. Disabling Chrome means that a small number of apps (that aren’t well designed) just don’t work well, if at all.

Second, Google has made Google+ a key layer of infrastructure. I can’t use the modern, built-in “Photos” app on my mobile because it requires the Google+ app to work. Instead, I use a previous version of the stock Android Gallery app to view my photos.

Third, it’s fascinating to watch human behaviour. Pulling out a mobile phone, even when out with good friends, has become a reflex for (seemingly) everyone. The number of times that a conversation over dinner goes down a thread where once person checks their phone (to look something up or Tweet something), and then a second person does, and the next thing I’m looking at a table of people that are all staring at their phones instead of interacting with each other. I even find myself feeling like I should join in, but then realise I don’t have to stress out about it and can just enjoy the moment… even if no one is paying attention to me or each other! 🙂 I’ve become comfortable with momentary moments of boredom.

Fourth, you have a different relationship to a mobile phone when it’s purely a tool for messaging, navigation, health/fitness and not a tool for broad media consumption and broadcasting. I liked feeling that I had a less “emotional” tie to my phone.

How I cheat

It’s not like I’m no longer using a web browser, or Twitter, or reading Kindle books, or checking Facebook. But I decided that I would make my Nexus 7 tablet my “distraction” device. I have all of those apps there, and so then I make a conscious decision to consume media and be distracted.

Also, when I’ve traveled to the US I’ve had to cheat and re-enable a bunch of apps. I don’t want to have to buy and use two SIMs, one for my phone and one for my tablet, and I need to have a phone connection when I’m traveling.

Going forward?

I’m definitely going to continue this going forward. I may re-enable Google+ just so that I can use the full functionality, and because I think I can resist any G+ distractions. But I like constraining myself to use my mobile phone purely as a tool and not as a magic sinkhole of time.

Knyttan: the newest, coolest, “printing” company

One of the companies in the current Techstars London batch just launched their website yesterday, Knyttan. They’ve got some of the most interesting/unique technology I’ve seen in a while: they turn current industrial knitwear looms as 3-D printers for knitwear. The founding team includes three graduates from the Royal College of Art, and they’re full of passion and knowledge of knitwear. When it comes to disrupting an industry… they’re about to do it.

Current state of affairs

Knyttan is currently focused on classic knitwear: sweaters/jumpers and scarves. Today’s technology is literally archaic; the current code/protocol is 30–40 years old, and can be directly traced to punchcards! To create a sweater, a designer has to communicate the design/dimensions as best they can to a factory that has the loom manufacturer’s software to create the punchcard-code necessary to knit the sweater. These are then sent back to the designer in a series of back-and-forths until the designer gives their okay for manufacture. And when you’re a designer in the US/Europe dealing with a factory in China/Southeast Asia, this is a long, painful process.

For manufacturers, they also have significant constraints in what they can do. To knit a particular design of jumper, the different colours of yarn have to be on very different specific spools on the machine. And once a machine is set up to knit, it is time-consuming and costly to set it up to do something else.

Knyttan’s technology

What Knyttan can do with these existing industrial looms is incredible. They have essentially re-created the entire stack of code necessary for these looms to run. Instead of having to use complex software provided by the loom manufacturers, Knyttan has created a web interface that anyone can use. For people with knitwear factories, they can use Knyttan to turn their looms into general-purpose knitwear printers. It doesn’t matter what spool each colour of yarn is on, Knyttan can adjust. A loom can knit a sweater, and then a scarf, and then something else entirely without any costly change-over time.

For the first time, a designer can have complete control of the design/manufacture process. And for the first time, a manufacturer can radically improve productivity of their existing machines.

The two BIG effects

1- Democratization of design. Right now knitwear design is a pain in the ass, because designers don’t have the full set of tools necessary to go from what’s in their head to the actual creation of the item… manufacturers have to be part of the process. Knyttan allows any designer to create something they’d like to have/wear, and print/knit it out right away. This is transformational in the industry, particularly for designers that want to do more with knitwear, but don’t because of the pain involved.

2- Radical change in supply chain. The design cycle to design/develop knitwear is extremely long, potentially weeks/months as samples are sent between western designers and overseas manufacturers. Knyttan upends this process… designers can get back a prototype of their design in a matter of minutes to hours. But perhaps more importantly Knyttan disrupts the supply chain by making it far easier to create knitwear in smaller batches that can be manufactured on demand. Instead of being forced to make an order months ahead of time, either getting stuck with excess inventory (or having demand for product that can’t be filled), designers can order stock when they get low.

How you can check Knyttan out

If you’re in London, go check out their shop! You can buy some of their existing stock designs, or even design and print yourself an item in-store! (Literally, they have a loom in the store where they can create items immediately.) It’s in Somerset House, and you can find information here:

If you’re not in London, you can design and create a sweater/jumper or scarf today, and have Knyttan deliver it straight to you. They just launched their site yesterday, so check it out here:

The super-magic productivity button in the new Google Inbox

One of the most consistent email productivity tips is that you should ignore e-mail, turn it off, and only check it at specific times during the day. (Otherwise you just become a trained monkey, chained to your inbox.) But how do you do that?

For someone that does a lot of actual work via e-mail, turning it off completely or not looking at it isn’t an option. And while there are extensions that can “pause” new e-mails coming into your inbox (or at least you seeing them), I haven’t seen any that worked well or that I trusted.

But there is a simple, super-magic productivity button in the new Google Inbox that does exactly that, the “pinned” toggle. So when you switch this:

to this:

Suddenly the only e-mails you see are the ones that you have selected as action items. Any new e-mail to your inbox is hidden, because you haven’t “pinned” it yet. Each of your pinned e-mails can also have a short description of what the task is, in case the sender wasn’t as explicit as they should have been. Slide that toggle, and you have your e-mail todo list laid out before you. You can also add todo list items (reminders) directly that aren’t attached to any e-mail, but show up in the normal & pinned lists.

When I was at Google, I was a very early tester of a previous version of this new Inbox, absolutely loved it, and am so happy it finally got rolled out. At least for me, e-mail is a todo list, and the new Google Inbox has these simple tools to both treat e-mail as a todo list and become MUCH in dealing with that list. I just keep my e-mail in the “pinned” state for the vast majority of the day, making my way through the todos, and un-pinning/triaging only occasionally.


All of that said, I can’t wait for Spatch to launch. Spatch is a Techstars London ’14 Spring company that’s re-thinking e-mail, and making structural changes to e-mail that can turn e-mail into a real productive tool. (All while keeping it backward-compatible for e-mail users that don’t use Spatch.) If you care about e-mail and productivity you owe it to yourself to also sign up for Spatch.

PS — If you’d like a Google Inbox invite, drop me your details in the comments below. [UPDATE]: It only works for addresses right now, so please share that e-mail address.

Highlights from the HedgePo conference

In late October, I had the opportunity to speak at (and attend) a CIO Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, which was put on by HedgePo. (HedgePo itself is a startup that connects investors and family offices with a vast field of investment opportunities.) All of the talks were 20-minute “TED”-style talks, and many of them were quite interesting! In my talk, I spoke a bit on how Techstars evaluates the very early stage companies that apply to our programs. But I wanted to provide a little re-cap of some of the more thought-provoking talks I saw.

Phil Carson — former SVP of Atlantic Records

Simply put, Phil Carson is a legend in the music business. He personally signed AC/DC to Atlantic Records, toured the world with Led Zeppelin (coordinating promotion of their albums), and has managed artists like Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Foreigner, and Ronnie Wood. He was close colleagues with the Atlantic Records founder (Ahmet Ertegun) and promoted the Ahmet Ertegun tribute concert at the O2 in London… you know, the one where Led Zeppelin played a full set for the first time since John Bonham died?

I had the chance to speak with Phil at a dinner before the main conference began, and he’s just a wealth of data and stories about the music industry. We talked about Led Zeppelin recording their first album at Olympic Studios in London, and how Taylor Swift will have been the only artist to sell over a million records in all of 2014. And if she didn’t, it would have been the first time in decades that no one would have sold a million records in a year.

In his talk, he gave a little more background on signing AC/DC. They were an Australian band, but Australian artists at the time had very little (if any) success outside of Australia. One of the female assistants who worked for Phil at Atlantic Records had a brother who managed them in Australia, and convinced him to consider signing the band. After checking out a primitive video of AC/DC performing, he signed the band to a 15 album deal for just $25,000. (Phil claimed it was the most profitable record deal ever!) As he said, “There is money in the record business… you just need a pretty girl to give it to you.”

Phil also gave some great perspective about how the user experience in the music business has changed. In the 1950’s a single cost 99 cents, which equates to about $8–9 in today’s money. But they still only cost about 99 cents, so artists are making much less money from album sales. At the same time, the tour revenue for top artists is going up massively. But overall Phil is actually fairly negative about the record industry. As he titled the talk, “The Music Business is Alive & Well, and Living in 1947”.

Professor Tim Jenkinson — Professor of Finance, University of Oxford

Professor Jenkinson talked quite a bit about the performance of private equity and venture capital funds. He’s co-author of the paper “Private Equity Performance: What do we know?” which is the data from which he based his talk.

But out of all the data he shared and conclusions he made, one stuck out to me massively: if an investor were to invest in every first time venture capital fund, that portfolio’s performance would be top quartile among venture funds. The illustrates the fascinating dynamics in venture investing. First time funds have a hard time raising money from LPs because they have no track record. But those that do appear to do particularly well in their first fund, perhaps because their first fund sets a massive benchmark for their ability to survive in the future. So while any individual first-time fund looks even riskier than average, collectively they perform very well.

Professor Mark Most — Maastricht University

Professor Post’s talk blew my mind a little bit. If you search for his name, you’ll see quite a few results with his research. He and his team have developed a way to “grow” meat in-vitro. The impact of this is transformational… in today’s world, a huge amount of resources around the world go toward meat production. Vast acreage of farmland go just to growing food that will be fed to cattle, and the cattle themselves take up large tracts of land in addition to consuming that food.

The technology Professor Post has created takes a small biopsy of muscle from a cow, and then replicates that to “grow” meat. The meat is literally the exact same genetically as the cow it was taken from. Right now, they are only able to replicate the meat, which means that the traditional fat in the meat doesn’t exist. That’s the next step in their development of the technology.

Professor Post estimates that this method of creating meat will be production-ready in 10 years. Even if you’re pessimistic on timelines or cost, it is very feasible that in a generation the entire meat industry will be transformed. This could mean that hundreds of thousands to millions of acres of farmland would open up for other crops. It could mean the loss of thousands (or tens of thousands) of jobs across the supply chain from farm to table. But all of that said, it still strikes me as a hugely positive step for society, particularly as rapidly growing societies (China, for one) consume more and more resources. This technology could radically reduce the resources required to maintain our existing standard of living, and I think that’s a very good thing.

Scott Jacobs — Generate Capital

Scott was a co-founder of McKinsey & Company’s global CleanTech practice, and is now a cleantech investor. He was clearly a very smart guy, and talked about how many cleantech investment opportunities are isolated and treated in silos, such as solar energy or wind energy, etc. But really, all of these environmental risks are correlated, and that thematic investment across sectors makes much more sense in the world of sustainability.

Gregory Perdon — Co-CIO of Arbuthnot Latham

Gregory’s talk piqued my interest because he spoke about something I knew nothing about: the housing market in Denmark. He provided some persuasive data as to why Denmark’s housing market is f**ked, calling it a “fake haven” instead of a “safe haven”. Apparently this particular market has been stable for many, many years but recent regulation and market movements have actually caused severe problems in its foundation. The Q&A after this talk was also memorable when one of the academics in the audience asked him, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”. He replied first “How do you know I’m not rich?”, quickly followed up by stating that he and his firm believed strongly in the thesis he presented, and that they had made trades such that if they were correct they stood to make quite a lot of money.

Dr. Ayo Salami — CIO of the Duet Africa Opportunities Fund

Dr. Salami gave the most passionate talk of the entire conference, and I was massively impressed by him. He packed in a lot of content and data, but the fundamental message was that Africa is on the rise. He also beat the message into people that Africa is not one market or country, and in addition to that, African countries are not correlated! Unlike Europe, where economies are highly linked, that isn’t the case in Africa. You can have one country with a chaotic economy right next door to a country with a very modern economy, and they fundamentally don’t affect each other.

Instead of summarising his talk, I’d just suggest that you watch it in the embedded video here:

Finally, I’d like to say thank you to the three other “startup” speakers at the event:

All three of these guys has lots of good things to say; I just took fewer notes since their messages were familiar to me.

Seed-DB — Reflections on 2 years after launching

Two years ago today, on Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 I published a blog post that officially launched Seed-DB. I had been working at it since March 2012, and though it wasn’t 100% ready to launch I was able to push it out the door.

Since launch, Seed-DB has grown from >1300 companies to >4000 companies, from >100 accelerators to >200 accelerators, and from >$1billion to >$5billion in funding tracked.

What does that mean for Seed-DB today? I just checked Google Analytics to check the stats. In the last six months Seed-DB saw:

  • >34,000 user sessions from:
  • >20,000 different users
  • >118k pageviews
  • >5minutes spent per session
  • 59% of users were new

I’ve spent the last two years constantly adding more data, more features, talking to founders of companies and accelerators, and even a reporter or two. It’s been an interesting journey and I wanted to share some reflections on what I’ve learned.

#1: You CAN teach yourself to code in your spare time

Seed-DB was the first web application I had ever built. It was the first time I’d:

  • used Python for something other than a simple script
  • really used a DVCS (specifically Mercurial/Bitbucket)
  • installed/customized a Bootstrap theme
  • implemented jQuery plugins
  • and many more similar new tools…

While I had an engineering background, it was in aerospace/nuclear and even the projects I coded for my classes (in Matlab!) were over ten years in my past. I had picked up an O’Reilly book on Python and had created a few Python scripts the previous year, but without a project I didn’t really learn very much. By following example code, carefully reading error codes, reading more documentation and asking questions on StackOverflow, I learned everything I needed to build Seed-DB.

Creating something new from scratch is fun, and can keep you motivated despite mountains of problems. As long as you’re willing to do the hard work, it is possible to teach yourself to code. Think of something that you really want to create and just start building it.

#2: You CAN thread the needle

I just looked up and found that my very first commit to the Seed-DB codebase happened on March 27, 2012, so I built Seed-DB in my nights/weekends over the course of just four months. And I didn’t think it was really ready to launch. (I had to keep reminding myself of Reid Hoffman’s famous advice.)

But I was rushing to complete Seed-DB in time for some fairly big deadlines. I live in London and the London 2012 Olympics started on July 27th, so I committed to myself that I would launch Seed-DB before then. (My wife and I had family in town for it and tickets to a bunch of events… I HAD to launch before the Olympics started.) Launching on the 25th was literally the last day I wanted to launch, so I just made it in time.

Just after seeing Jess Ennis, Mo Farah, and Greg Rutherford all win gold for Team GB! (My wife is just a few weeks away from giving birth.)

Another more important deadline is that my daughter was due in early September. I had a ton of travel for work between the end of the Olympics and her due date, so there wasn’t a realistic option to launch later. (She arrived a couple weeks early, so this was an even wiser choice in hindsight!)

Me and my daughter (at a few months old)

Needless to say, launching created a lot of new non-coding work: responding to entrepreneurs and program founders, congratulations and criticism, and fixing bugs. But somehow the launch was the biggest needle to thread, and once that was done everything else does seem easier.

I learned that it IS possible to thread the needle between what may seem like impossible obstacles.

#3: You CAN do more than you think

In the course of a month, I launched Seed-DB, had an amazing time at the 2012 Olympics, traveled all over Central/Eastern Europe for work, and watched my daughter being born. After launching Seed-DB, I was getting… quite a lot of feedback.

What I tried to do was commit to spending 30–60 minutes a day (often while my daughter was sleeping and my wife was napping) responding to queries, implementing small features, and making progress on bigger features (like the Seed-DB Investor Graph). I found that was absolutely key: I didn’t have to complete a feature or fully respond to e-mail each day: I just needed to make a little progress each day.

#4: Building useful things brings you opportunities

People respect people that build interesting things, particularly in the world of startups. In my case, I started building Seed-DB out of frustration around a couple of job opportunities that had fallen through. I realized that I needed to do much more work that I initially thought to drive my career to where I wanted it to go, and that I needed to build something.

By creating Seed-DB, I suddenly had lots of people approaching me… and interesting people that I wanted to know! It led to lots of interesting job opportunities, too, and directly led to me getting hired by Techstars this summer.

One of the big principles at Techstars is to Give First. At the time I built Seed-DB, I hated that founders were making important decisions based on anecdotal data and what programs the press chose to cover, instead of researching from data on a full directory of programs. In hindsight I see that by building the site, I was doing my part to give first by giving entrepreneurs an honest, data-driven view into accelerators around the world.

Giving first generates goodwill; building something generates respect. When I launched Seed-DB I had no idea how powerful these two forces were, but they have totally changed my career and life.

Joining Techstars

After nearly five years at Google, Friday May 30th was my last day. I’m extremely happy to announce that I’ve accepted a role at Techstars as Director, Techstars Vision.

I first started speaking with David Cohen, the co-founder and Managing Partner of Techstars, in the summer of 2009 when I was doing my first research on seed accelerators. Over the past five years, he and several others of the Techstars team have given me valuable feedback that I’ve used in evolving Seed-DB. As I’ve gotten to know the Techstars team, I was constantly impressed with the quality of the people I met, and started in my new role at the beginning of June.

What’s ahead — Techstars Vision
I’ve joined Techstars to build and lead Techstars Vision, a new Techstars product. One of the key aims of Techstars is to build a strong network to support startups, made up of founders, mentors, investors, and corporations. Techstars Vision fits into this by building a significantly deeper and broader network between corporations and Techstars companies.

There are two parts to Techstars vision. The first is helping our Vision partners truly understand the very early stage startup market, so they can best engage with it. We do that by doing deep analysis on early stage startups, examining trends in startups, and evaluating the overall seed market. The second is facilitating direct meetings, presentations, and engagements between corporate partners and Techstars startups. We hope that our Vision partners will turn into customers and BizDev partners of our Techstars companies, helping both sides succeed.

What’s continuing — Seed-DB
Seed-DB will not be changing at all; I will continue to maintain it as a completely neutral database of all accelerators and companies from those accelerators. Techstars will not be treated any differently than any other accelerator, particularly since I will continue to get funding data solely from Crunchbase. If anything, some of my work with Techstars Vision will align with Seed-DB and I’ll likely have more time to follow-up with the many e-mails I get around Seed-DB!

What’s behind — Google
It goes without saying that it was a very difficult decision to leave Google. I spent nearly 4.5 years on the same team, and in that time the team grew 8x and the revenue we managed grew 40x. (!) I’ve learned so much from my managers and Google’s leadership and culture and really value my time at Google. To this day, even with 50k employees, each week any employee can walk up to the mic at Google’s weekly TGIFs and ask Larry Page and his management team questions they really care about, no matter how hard-hitting they might be. That level of trust in employees and willingness to face reality will always inspire me. What I’ll miss most are my amazing colleagues; you know who you are.