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Guest post by Vele Samak

The event will pass even faster. One weekend is quite short, but more than enough to develop a great idea, find a good team, and move forward.

I debated whether to write this in Macedonian or English, but I decided in English because I hope others can also contribute to this. I want to share some useful points for all interested and excited participants, and hopefully I can motivate a few others  on the fence to enroll. The experience will be worth it. I hope this post serves as a starting point for many of the past mentors and judges to contribute and share their advice before the event.

The teams will go through several stages: generating ideas, developing and testing, building a pitch, and finally presenting in front of judges.

The advice below isn’t comprehensive, nor universal, but more specific to what I think were common issues here in Skopje.

Ideas, local vs. regional, focus

We noticed a lot of good ideas, but many ideas which focused too narrowly on local problems one encounters in Macedonia, or problems too broad to consider a viable business.  A business worth developing is based on a problem experienced by many potential customers who’d gladly sign up for a common solution. Always check your ideas or possible problems to be solved whether they are broad enough to capture a large market. This means looking at competitors, but also how other people are dealing with such problems in other countries. You need many bad ideas to get to a good idea, whether it’s a problem or a solution. The more common the problem, the more likely you’ll find customers for the solution, the more likely you’re to test ideas and generate traction. How’d you know? Ask as many questions as possible, seek answers from many people, and try to provide a testable hypothesis for the idea. However, don’t get too broad or general that the problem is sooooo common that your solution is practically boiling the ocean, ie, something impossible to satisfy everyone. Instead, once you identify potential large market, focus on an area you want to solve, carve out a problem and define it further, then re-test they idea, and iterate. The more you focus, the more you identify areas where large markets exist, ie, where many people would be interested in a similar solutions.

Teams and team-work

Teams need multiple competences, ie, technical, design, business, etc. If you have a good idea for problem, try to think of which competences you have and which ones you need to fill to complete a viable business by the end of the event. Once teams are formed, you need a good leader who is a CEO designate. This is a person whose job is to make decisions. There is very little time to build consensus and have multiple voices. The CEO-designate needs to be able to listen to suggestions, especially from people who may have more experience, ask and direct the questions to the Mentors, and after getting all input to drive the work of the team. Decisiveness will save you time and get you prepared. Sometimes, a lucky team will have a good leader with a strong vision. A vision is not equal to stubbornness, the team must be able to adapt to input quickly, to test their vision and possible solutions, and still be able to focus on developing a solution which when presented to the Judges looks like a viable business. People are generally hungry for ambition and to work on something creative, don’t underestimate the drive of the participants.

Research and development

The key is to identify a good well-defined problem with a large market, and focus on a solution which would be a viable business. The solution could be an app, a website, software, platform, API, hardware, device, service business, heck even a restaurant! You will need 2 items to make the pitch stand out: traction/users and demo. Users and/or traction means you actually go out of your way to enlist people during the event to sign up and be interested in your product. Don’t be afraid to exit the building and meet people outside. This could be users, customers, testimonials, etc. This is your proof of market concept, beyond the market research stuff in the business plan. To get there, remember, ask questions, research info, ask more questions, collect and prepare.

Finally, you will have to develop something to showcase and make your business look alive to the Judges. What will the business look like, how will the users interact with the app/software/web, how will the device function, if it’s restaurant, showcase the layout, menu, or whatever is interesting. The Judges all have something in their heads, don’t make the assumption you know what they think, show it to them! If you can build an app or prototype, that’s great, even with basic functionality, it’s a big step forward. The key is to create working app or web mock-up for example, which will look alive only on the most critical functions which solve the customer problem. Focus is better here.

Presentation

From experience, there weren’t many great presentations. There were potentially good ideas, but generally poor presentations. Even teams which had good ideas, had terrible presentations. The Judges end up deciding on a hunch more than on clarity of ideas. The clearer your vision and you business plan, the better your presentation will be. So, here’s what you need to do.

By Saturday evening/Sunday morning you should decide who will present. One presenter is better, and you need to decide on the one with the best presentation skills. It’s a short presentation, there’s no time to mix and match, or give people equal time. Also, more people presenting, means longer time to coordinate, and not enough time to adapt and improvise if you have to. Later, others can answer. Build the presentation like a speech first, then like a powerpoint. A speech is good story which can come alive, even without a single slide!  Focus on this: what is the problem and whose problem is it (user/customer), what is the solution you’re proposing, how does it benefit the user, show a demo or walk-through a mock-up (see point below), focus on the business plan and benefits, how you will start and grow, and who’s the team.

One of the most common questions everyone asked: what’s your go to market strategy and what do you need from us? The first question was asked because it wasn’t clear to the Judges how this business will get off the ground. You need to address this right-away, how you start, where you gain first users, what you hope to showcase with the business, and where you focus the marketing to retain and grow customers. The second seems obvious, but confounds many people. It’s easy to say a number, but more importantly, what’s the number for. Think, how many and what kind of people you need to develop and grow the business, what kind of contacts and experiences you need to reach new markets or talk to partners, then give a rough number and ask concretely. Judges appreciate concrete action plans, rather than super-precise numbers for potential investments.

Demo

Last year’s winning team had built an app, but forgot all about it, until after the presentation. When they showed it, it made all the difference. Sometimes, you won’t be so lucky. A demo needs to make your business alive and needs to be very short, less than 1 minute. Focus on a potential customer, don’t explain too much, make story such as this “hey I have this problem today, I have no date, I go to this app, log-in, then clikc-click, I pick a potential date interested for tonight, click-click on her favorite restaurants, what she likes, the click-click I book a table, and already reserve an Uber to drive us to our events, click-click, she gets a notice, I have calendar appts, Ubers and OpenTables are booked, my movie/museum tickets are in my inbox (Passbook for iphone), etc. The app is called DateTonite, and you can be a on a new date tonight with interested people. This app takes me from on-line to offline in seconds.”.

Don’t focus on features, don’t focus on you, don’t focus on your coding, or you design, or other crap. Just focus on the user, problem, and how it’s solved. Then go on with the presentation. The Demo is just a teaser, leave the Judges asking and wanting more. If it’s an app, working app is great. If it’s web, just do screen mock-ups, and show the steps. If it’s something else, show pictures, and how it works. The Demo sometimes can make all the difference for your team.

Business plan

There’s a lot of stuff to suggest for the business plan, but every Judge knows this is more fairytale than a Disney movie. Few points: potential markets are always overstated, so immediately focus on a segment you’re targeting. Define a segment and customer profiles (personas) as much as possible to not seem like you’re the next facebook or Apple or Microsoft. Definitely identify competitors and who is similar and who is not. This shows maturity and that you understand you’re not alone in this world. Once you show competitors, outline how different you are and why there’s still market for that. Definitely point out if there’s a pricing strategy involved, or this is something you still need to test and develop. Humility at this stage is much appreciated, when it’s accompanied by a good dose of drive and motivation, as opposed to completely unenlightened arrogance and naivety. Better to focus on how you get traction, which markets first, how product development will grow and which ideas need to be tested and validated.

Mentors and Questions

One common feedback from all Mentors and Judges was that we weren’t used enough! That’s right, we’re there for the teams. Many teams, even with a few minutes left, were utterly hesitant to ask questions, to check their slides, their business, ideas, development, get feedback, etc. Don’t stop asking questions. Test and try your Mentors to the end. You need help, we’re here for you, so fire away with the questions. The more questions you ask, the better decisions you’ll make, the more confidence you’ll have. Remember, telling is selling, and asking is buying. You are partly pitching when you’re asking questions. Ask anyone what they think about your ideas, your solutions/app/software, etc. The Mentors need to be just as exhausted you are.

There’s always one more thing

Enjoy and learn as much as possible.  For each point above, there’s a lot of stuff, but I hope the above is a general guideline to get everyone off ground and running sooner and faster. I hope many previous and new Mentors will sound off with additional feedback from last time. Also, here are a only few good links to check out:

http://blog.slidebean.com/blog/2015/2/20/8-startup-pitch-deck-must-haves

http://steveblank.com/tools-and-blogs-for-entrepreneurs/

http://happystartups.quora.com/10-awesome-tools-a-happy-startup-shouldn%E2%80%99t-live-without

 

Happy building!
Vele Samak

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Eva Piperevska