5 Questions with Saalim Chowdhury, Managing Director of Techstars London Accelerator

Jun 24, 2022

Saalim Chowdhury is the Managing Director of the Techstars London Accelerator. Previously a Partner at global early-stage venture capital firm 500 Startups, Saalim is passionate about startup education and has led and enabled over 30 accelerator programs in 16 countries. He teaches and invests with the benefit of a decade long period as a technical founder and startup veteran, with exits to Cisco and Toptal. For his sins he has held senior executive positions at News Corporation and Reach plc, focusing on digital transformation. His career started at BCG.

01. What are you looking for in startups for Techstars London Accelerator?

Techstars London is a talent first accelerator, everything else second. Past performance isn’t always an indicator of future performance. So I look at the fundamentals that time over time keep producing amazing startups that have an impact on the world.  I look at founders themselves first, then the business they are building

As for the businesses, I get most excited when they operate at the intersection of two traditionally disparate areas, and are able to create products/services with advantages that only the overlap brings. 

As for the founders the top things I look for are:  

  • They have almost always outperformed in some way relative to the position they were starting from.

  • Borderline obsessive about the problem they are solving, yet are constantly trying to question and understand what is the right thing for their customer. 

  • They are head-over-heels in love - with the people they are trying to serve. That’s right, not the product, but their customers.

  • Do they care about more than themselves? Ideally something that shows they are civic contributors in some way (e.g. volunteering, taking care of a family member at some point, etc…).   

  • The ability and self-comfort to be okay with being wrong or being open to thinking in a way that goes against what they initially thought, ‘Okay, after hearing x, my hypothesis on y was wrong so lets do something about it’. 

… and the top things I look for in the business they are building… 

  • Ideally the solution people are using to meet their needs is getting to a turning point (the market is showing early signs that patience with the current solution is starting to wither).

  • Concision and clarity of thought in any descriptions and explanations used. 

02. What are some of the biggest learnings from your career and entrepreneurial journey that you bring to being a Techstars MD?

 The three things I wish I knew before I became a founder:

1. Make sure you have an amazing network of supportive people around you, who understand what you are doing, and invest time in them. Otherwise, it’s a brutally lonely ride.   

2. Do not underestimate the mental health impact the startup journey will take on you, your family, your friends, your co-founders, your co-workers, even your pets. 

3. Stop reading the tech press and treating it as if it is representing 99% of startups. It’s often written chronicling the investment success, not the customer success – you’re building for the customer, not the press or the investors.

03. What is your favorite thing about the UK startup scene?

We’re a nation that quietly loves to pull well above our weight, and for all the revelry and monarchic pageantry, we know we can’t do it alone. We’re a nation of teams not individual mavericks. 

It’s the diversity of skills, thought, and cultures that is unlike anywhere else in Europe or the world, combined with an intrinsically global outlook, that sets the UK ecosystem apart. London in particular is a global vanguard - at >50% of its residents being not-British. The overwhelming majority of founders of UK unicorns are not-British. Our visa schemes let organizations like Techstars sponsor talent into the UK based not on where they were born, but on their ability to outperform.  

Our not-so-secret superpower here? Creativity. Our creative industries are typically the 2nd or 3rd largest of our industries. Yes, we’ve got world-class universities, and large life-science, engineering and professional services sectors to draw do-ers from. But what’s the greatest technology if you can’t capture people’s imagination and humanize it?  

04. Has being a minority founder - and more recently a venture capitalist - shaped how you invest? 

 It’s 2022 and there is still a large gap between the investors' words and actions here UK. This has improved over the last few decades, as many established later stage VCs are finally making material actions to drive the change. A few funds are hiring actual former founders instead of bankers, and more are hiring diversely. But still, soft introductions from family and school friends remain huge advantages. As minority founders we have to work on a more evidence-based, less rhetoric-based, playbook to raise than many of our better connected, higher social-status peers who as they are like many of the investors themselves, or the majority getting funding, have different level of rigor applied to their playbook.  

Our image and identity as minority founders isn’t one that many establishment VC’s see as being low-friction to advocate for at the investment committee, especially as it's so easy to back a safer ‘feeling’ alternative - this means we have to give them the tools to counter that friction, make us and our enterprises feel safer bets to them. It’s a hard-learned series of lessons that have been passed on to me by minority mentors and I have iterated and pay forward today, even in our programs here at Techstars where necessary. Over time who we are (rather than what we do) is thankfully becoming less important, but we’re not quite there yet. That said, my experience in overcoming these hurdles, gives me a more confidence in investing in unconventional founders than others in our industry might. 

05. If you could have coffee with any entrepreneur who would it be and why?

Taylor Swift. She’s been able to market and drive value from her work more profitably than almost any other artist by being highly adaptive to her customer base. Her timing of her work is almost perfect for the moment when released (Evermore and Folklore on repeat during Lockdown anyone?). Also, I adore her cats and would love to meet them too!