Business Technology

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Startup Diary: 'Startup weekends can be just the break your firm needs'

Richard Rodger, Voxgig founded

Deal or no deal: Choosing what sales channels you will use, from your own website, to finding partners who already have customers, is a key element for any startup
Deal or no deal: Choosing what sales channels you will use, from your own website, to finding partners who already have customers, is a key element for any startup

Richard Rodger

I was very privileged to participate as a mentor in the Startup Weekend event that took place in Waterford this weekend past (Google will find the details for you easily enough). I was pretty jealous of the participants, I can tell you.

When I started my first online business in 2003 there wasn't half as much support as there is now, and certainly very little in the way of a startup community to help you overcome self-doubt and rookie mistakes.

If you read this startup diary and are thinking about starting your own company, then participating in these kinds of events can be very helpful for getting your thoughts in order, and living the startup experience, if only for a weekend.

The way it works is as follows. You have Friday evening and one weekend to create an idea, form a team, build a prototype, develop a business model, and then do an 'investor' pitch at the end of it all. They do feed you, in case you're wondering.

The Startup Weekend in Waterford was supported by Techstars - one of those global startup incubators.

These very early stage investors run events like this to give themselves something known in the trade as 'deal flow'. Finding good startups is something of a black art, and this is one of the ways it is done. That means that if you do decide to participate, you should be prepared to take it seriously - your team-mates certainly will.

The main space for the event was provided by Bank of Ireland, which has kitted out its branches more like co-working spaces these days. Again, it couldn't be more different to the perception of startups even 10 years ago.

The thing that makes Silicon Valley work is the ecosystem - everybody buys into the value of creating new, large-scale, businesses.

You never dismiss anyone, even if, or perhaps especially if, they are wearing a ragged old hoodie. You could be speaking to the next Mark Zuckerberg.

Although these days, startup chic has been very much gentrified, and 'startup hoodies' can set you back hundreds of dollars.

There's even been a startup that tried to launch a range of such designer hoodies - now sadly (or perhaps thankfully), deceased. Entrepreneurhoodie.com is once again free if you want to try your hand.

At the Waterford event there were five teams in total, of about five people each. I got to meet three teams. My session was on the Sunday morning of the final day, so I got to hear and see the nearly complete concepts.

To say that they were streets ahead of my thinking when I had put money down to start an actual business in 2003 would be an understatement.

It would not be fair to say that I had no guidance (I went through an earlier incarnation of the New Frontiers Programme), but a Startup Weekend exercise would have been so useful. You really don't know what you don't know.

There is no formula to building a successful business, and especially not a tech startup. But there are many mistakes that are easy to avoid - and these are often what kill you.

The benefit of the startup weekend exercise could clearly be seen in the great teams that I was able to work with.

By Sunday morning they already had pretty solid pitches, and had moved beyond many common misconceptions.

I was still a little mean to them (the real world is much nastier, and in any case, there's was no time to waste on the stuff they got right).

After each pitch I went straight to my favourite startup question: but how do actually make money?

It can be surprisingly difficult to articulate why people will give you money.

The fancy term for this is called the 'Value Proposition' of your business.

The next question I asked is how will you get your product in front of customers? The fancy term, again, is 'Distribution'.

Just build a better mousetrap and you will most assuredly sit there looking at tumbleweed blowing past your empty shop.

This is a tough one for people to come to terms with. If you've build a great product, or at least come up with a great product concept (all the teams had), then you can get stuck answering this question by talking about how great the product is - it's a no-brainer to buy it.

This may be true, but if there's no one in your shop then you still make no sales.

The answer isn't 'Marketing & Sales'. It's all in the details. What sales channels will you use? Your own website, or partners who already have customers?

Will you use events as part of your marketing mix? (Yes).

Can you and your team sell, or do you need to find someone who can?

And most importantly, what do your 'unit economics' look like?

If you're buying apples for €2 and selling them for €1 (like, say, Uber) then you better spend far more time on your pitch deck than your product - because you'll have to explain how you get to billion-dollar valuation in under a decade at most.

The teams struggled with the distribution problem the most, because it is a really hard problem.

One team would need to spend a fortune on Facebook ads, another would have to displace powerful market incumbents, and another would have to find a way into airport retail - all really hard problems. When I left them, they were all still looking for an angle on this one, which was great. In startup, even a weekend startup, you always need an angle.

Search engine statistics: Technology conferences are at a count of 2,238, and we have 6,146 speakers, 4,953 exhibitors, and 980 venues.

This week we will start the process of migrating and refactoring this data into our second-generation data schema so that it is fully integrated into our system, and so that we can start accepting conference descriptions directly from our users.

We estimate that there are at least 12,000 technology conferences globally that have a few hundred attendees each.

We've only captured data on about 15pc of those, and we'll need the help of one group of our users, conference speakers, to help fill out this data. We've built some great conference planning tools to encourage this and reward the effort. We shall soon see if this particular strategy works.

Marketing update: speakers newsletter - 6,009 subscribers, open rate 17pc. What a fabulous week. When you're building a startup, all the little wins help to keep you going. This milestone was truly a team effort and worth celebrating.

We'll now apply the same efforts for other newsletters to grow their subscriber numbers. It's easier to grow absolute numbers at the start when things are still small, so for now we'll more to focus more effort on the new newsletters. This should give us the highest overall subscriber numbers. EventProfs newsletter - 5,573 subscribers, open rate of 31pc. The podcast is at 114 downloads for the week - our best ever. As noted last week, this is a proxy for the true number of listens, which we've not yet figured out how to measure directly. Still, a growth trend is a growth trend.

Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford

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