One of the most fun things that I get to do in my job here at Microsoft Ireland is work with all of the great startups here in Ireland. I manage the Bizspark program for Ireland, North and South. Through that work, I get to work both with startups directly as well as working with the startup accelerators and incubators here in Ireland. That’s great fun as we’ve got some really good ones. TechCrunch did an article last year where they highlighted the top incubators in Europe and they specifically highlighted the top 8 which includes NDRC Launchpad at #6, DCU Propeller at #7 and Startupbootcamp Dublin at #8. That’s some heavy hitting for such as small island and I’m right in the middle of it.
Eoghan Jennings runs Startupbootcamp Dublin. I met him back in March 2011 when I had the pleasure to speak at a startup thing he was running for Dublin Web Summit. He’s a crazy Irish man who was largely raised in the US (Boston if I remember right) so he really brings the best of the Irish and the American together in a fantastic motivational package of intelligence, perseverance and going huge… It’s that unique blend of personality that make him a great guy to get Startupbootcamp Dublin off the ground and attract some great startups, mentors and investors into a great win-win-win…
Today, I spent the full day down at Startupbootcamp Dublin mentoring potential startups who have all pitched for the program. It was a brutally intense day where we, the 25ish (I didn’t actually count) mentors that were onsite interviewed and gave advice to the startups in a speed dating style day. In this way, we got to mentor 10-12 of the 16 startups that were in for the day.
Patrick de Zeeuw and I were paired up as mentors the whole day. Patrick runs the Startupbootcamp Amsterdam and is a co-founder of Startupbootcamp. I’ll be honest, I’ve been working with startups for a long time and I learned a ton co-grilling startups with him. His business acumen and sense for what startups need was outstanding. If I am ever to do a startup, I’m going to seek him out as a mentor and advisor. It was impressive to see him cut through all of the clutter and spin to get to the base of the business in a short few moments.
There were some of the startups that we pushed pretty hard. There were some that really wowed us. There were some that really disappointed us. All of them, I hope, walked away better for the experience and will take the advice that we gave forward.
Some tips that we ended up giving a lot of companies and things that you should know…
- Focus. Many of the startups were giving their pitch and it had several ands, alsos and the like in the pitch or they were talking about going live in a thousand different countries. The best possible thing that you can do is focus. Get down to the one thing that’s going to matter and trial it in a sandbox – then go BIG. We applauded the companies for thinking big but pushed them to get down to the nitty and gritty “minimal viable product” and to knock out a specific market and then go big.
- Commit. It’s imperative that if you’re really going for it with a startup that you commit to it. That means that it’s not your part time job or your hobby but rather your full time gig. That’s tough but it makes a difference. We saw several startups that had been in theory mode for a couple of years and in every case it was because they had been working on it part time rather than committing full time and risking everything. Honestly and on a personal note, it’s why I’m not actively working on a startup – I can’t currently take the risk with the family and I need to put food on the table on a day to day basis rather than risking my kid’s college funds on a company that might not take off.
- It’s all about the team. Patrick said it well. They don’t invest in products, they invest in people. More than once, Patrick chased down the team dynamics and found glaring issues. Sometimes that was in areas where people hadn’t or can’t commit full time. Sometimes it was that they had business folks and no tech folks. More often, it was that someone had a great idea and tech but didn’t have someone to really carry them on the commercial and business side. That was a huge issue that I don’t think that everyone got when he said it. There was a bit of, “well, we’ve carried it this far so what’s the problem?” and they couldn’t see how much of a difference the right MD/CEO would and could make to their startup.
- Demos matter. We only got 4 demos today out of all of the startups that we saw. That was a problem especially with a handful where we really didn’t get the product. A demo, wireframe, sketch, pretty pictures, ugly pictures or some type of visual would make a huge difference. There was one that I was all set to dismiss until I saw their short demo and was wowed. All of the sudden, I got it. The pitch might or might not be perfect but sometimes, like in this case, I was not familiar with the industry involved and the demo all of the sudden crystalized things for me.
- Mentor up. It was amazing to watch how things worked today. Every person who came and sat down with us were smart people who had been thinking about their business far longer than we had been. Yet, in 5-10 minutes, we were able to push every one of them to think about things that they hadn’t though of before. This wasn’t about us trying to be mean, just bringing our fairly vast experience to bear to help them think in different directions. It doesn’t matter how well you know your business, your product, your market, your team and all the rest of it, mentors can push you to think in new directions.
It was a fantastic day and I wish all of the startups the very best of luck!!! I’m looking forward to tomorrow as well…
Oh, and I’ve got a new camera and took a bunch of pictures of the day which I posted at – http://www.flickr.com/photos/joshholmes/sets/72157629032625343/