I have to admit, when I first heard of the accelerator created by Techstars and Barclays in October of 2016, I arrogantly felt that I didn’t need it as ShieldPay is my third startup. There is a huge misconception in the industry about what an accelerator is and who it is aimed at and, in all honesty, I was one of the people perpetuating misconceptions.
Having never been on a Techstars programme before, a number of questions ran through my head:
- Was I too old as a founder at 35 and won’t it just be loads of 20 year olds running around in hoodies?
- Did I really need lessons on the basics, such as creating a business plan and a P&L report? and
- Why trade equity in my company to the accelerator when I can get it all this done by myself?
I was first introduced to the idea that ShieldPay should speak to the Techstars team after meeting with Sean Duffy, part of the innovation team at Barclays. Just for reference, ShieldPay is an instant digital escrow facility that enables anyone to safely buy or sell with someone they don’t know. At this stage we were looking for a banking partner in the UK to provide us with a set of accounts necessary for our FCA regulatory license and Sean felt that the business might benefit from being involved in the accelerator.
Sean went ahead and made the introductions to the Techstars team on my behalf. This led to some hastily organised video calls with Madeleine Blyth and Chris Adelsbach from Techstars; neither of whom looked like they had slept in a week (because you tend to miss out on sleep when dealing with hundreds of admissions). In the first 10sec of the initial call with Madeleine my initial fears were realised when a guy walked past in the background; early 20s, carrying a table tennis bat and…..wearing a hoodie.
However, in saying this, the calls with Madeleine and Chris did put my mind at ease on a number of issues. Firstly, I was really impressed with their market knowledge and what was needed for a fintech company to succeed. They understood the problem that we were trying to solve and could see a real need for ShieldPay in the market. They also said that the average age of the founders at this accelerator was 38 and, due to the sheer number of applicants, Techstars was able to select companies that not only had a great concept but were also well on their way to getting market traction. In fact Chris highlighted the scale of Techstars, the global network and the success rate of companies coming out of the programmes.
After jumping through a few more interview hoops and a final pitching day, Chris called a number of days later to say that, out of 800 applicants from over 70 countries, ShieldPay along with nine other companies had been accepted on the three-month programme to start in January 2017. Chris said that everyone loved the idea and in their eyes we had the team to pull it off!
Panic, apprehension and nerves very quickly replaced the initial feelings of excitement and pleasure that your company has been externally validated by a lot of people. You realise that you are about to sit in a room with nine other fintech companies, not knowing what stage they are at and if you are about to be humiliated by how little you actually have to show.
Now ShieldPay at this stage had very little indeed. For example our brand name at the time wasn’t even ShieldPay, we were called PayFlip (a terrible name, I know, but the URL was free) and the team consisted of me, half of a head of product Federico and half a CTO in Jerome. Although Jerome and Federico are the best in the business in their respective fields, they had inherited a prototype platform that in their words (accurately) was “an ugly, broken, piece of s**t.” We had a couple of patent applications but had nothing that truly matters, like product market fit or users who enjoy using the platform.
I had also gone through a whirlwind personally over the previous two years with my previous startup. To say it failed hard is a massive understatement. I made a huge number of mistakes and let a lot of people down. It sounds clichéd but at that stage ShieldPay was being run from the spare room in my parents’ house. Not in-line with the romantic Hollywood startup stories, but because of the huge errors in judgment left me with no other options.
In hindsight, failure has grounded me a lot and my experience was an MBA in how to f**k up as a founder and it has provided me with a set of skills that unless you have failed before, are very difficult to obtain. I’m not saying that failure is good in any way (it sucks) but it isn’t all negative either and everyday on this new journey it’s guiding me; my spidey senses kick in and I know when something doesn’t feel right because I’ve seen it first-hand before. Perhaps Chris and Madeleine could see that in me as well, who knows.
The weeks leading up to the accelerator were a mad scramble as I tried to piece together the team and any value that could be assigned to the company to make us look as viable as possible. Federico and Jerome both agreed to come on full time and on Christmas Eve the owner of the domain name shieldpay.com agreed in the Christmas spirit of things to sell the domain name to us. We could upgrade to a company name that actually meant something and a name we could build a great brand on.
We entered the accelerator still with a ton of work to do but with a good foundation to start building on. Within 30mins of being in the room with the other teams I knew I had made the right decision. Being a founder is an incredibly lonely experience and to have nine other founders around you all in the same place tackling similar issues as you is a huge benefit.
Chris, Madeleine and the Barclays team had done an incredible job bringing the brightest people from all over Europe to the same building to work together but also to push each other. Founders are inherently competitive and, although we were all working on tackling very different problems, the progress of other companies really drives everyone else. It’s something you never get when a startup works in an enclosed environment on their own. Success breeds success.
The first 4-6 weeks of the programme really are a blur for me. I went back through my calendar for January and February and found that, on average, I had seven meetings a day. That’s 35 meetings a week! For a startup founder to do this on your own is impossible and you wouldn’t even get a meeting with the calibre of some of these people let alone have them come to your office in a structured format. It was a dream. I learnt more and made more positive decisions about the company in those six weeks than I would have done in six months on our own.
We were introduced to experts and mentors in biz dev, legal, marketing, compliance, organisational strategy, fund raising, tax and a host of other fields. You left the accelerator everyday with your head in a spin with feedback, suggestions and new avenues to explore but it projected us forward in so many ways. The team could see first hand the validation from the mentors and experts in what we were building as well as tonnes of new business development angles we hadn’t even thought of. This really was the first time that ShieldPay had been described to the outside world and the response was hugely rewarding and acted as such a motivator to the team.
The second half of the programme was really about putting the pedal down. The first half is set out to challenge the teams and ensure you are pointing the ship in the right direction. The second half is all about progress; go to market strategies, developing key business partnerships and making the companies as attractive as possible for external fund raising.
Alongside building out the team with great hires in Tom Clementson (Head of Business Development) and Andy Derrick (Head of Technical Delivery) it became obvious that the talent pool of the Techstars associates put together by Techstars was exceptional. ShieldPay’s whole compliance and governance process was shaped by Geoff Dunnett and the restructuring of our P&L and new funding round was tackled eagerly by Tom Squire. I made the call early on that if we could hire Tom and Geoff at the end of the programme then we should try, and I made the approach to them about coming onboard, and with the blessing of Techstars they both agreed.
Towards the end of the accelerator, after getting to know a number of key mentors that we had been working alongside, I realised that ShieldPay would hugely benefit from having that calibre of person ‘within’ the company and not just as an advisor. We approached two hugely experienced individuals in Willem Wellinghoff (formerly of LendInvest) and John Stamler (formerly of Blackrock) who were in fact as enthusiastic about ShieldPay as we were about them. We acted quickly and they agreed to leave their much more secure jobs to join the ShieldPay adventure. The calibre of the team is now exceptionally high and, as with most things recently, we would never have probably met the two of them if we were not part of an accelerator that had the ability to call on people like them.
The culmination of the accelerator is Demo Day, or in our case Demo Days. The team had organised an initial internal ‘Barclays only’ Demo Day and a community day where the best Venture Capital firms in Europe were invited to hear the founders all 10 companies pitch their company. A fantastic two day event that for the founders such as myself really allowed us to shout for the first time about all the hard work that our teams had put in.
Here is the ShieldPay pitch presented by yours truly:
So overall the three months with Techstars was one of the most exhausting, exciting and rewarding experiences of my life. We were able to do in three months what would take most startups 12. ShieldPay has grown from a team of three to a team of 14, hired two associates, hired two mentors, become FCA regulated, seed funded landed, built a world class international payments platform, secured a brand new office space (see below), became revenue generating, and began working with over strategic banking partners all over the world . Not bad for three months… ShieldPay was well and truly accelerated!
The accelerator has given us with the greatest possible chance of success and if I was asked to recommend the programme to anyone, I would do in a heartbeat. Safe to say it’s the best business decision I have ever made!
Massive thanks to Chris, Madeleine and everyone on the Techstars team for all that they did for us. Also many thanks to the Barclays team for their continued support in ShieldPay and helping bring the whole thing together.
Techstars for life!