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My First Startup Accelerator

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I was number 10 of 24 pitches. It was Friday night, and I was at Microsoft Research in Beijing. I was a little bit nervous, but I had done the necessary preparation: I’d practiced my 2 minute pitch 4-5 times in front of the mirror before I went to sleep everyday for the past week. I’d videoed it too. I was ready not to rise to the level of my expectations, but fall to the level of my training.

I applied to Beijing Tech Hive after talking with the CEO, Andy Mok, at a Python meetup (another reason why meetup.com is awesome). He is a very approachable guy, who listened to my (somewhat crackpot) ideas. He said I should apply. I said ‘I will’. And at the time, I think I meant it. But I admit that as the week wore on, I was tempted to just do more coding instead of applying. Then he actually wrote me a follow-up email saying that I should definitely apply. I thought that was pretty awesome, and it’s also a lesson I’ve been hearing a lot about recently: The importance of following up. So I applied and was accepted.

The format goes like this: You show up on the Friday night, and everyone who wants to pitches an idea (in this case, that was 23 of the 35 participants). Everyone votes for the best pitches, and the top five are selected. Everyone then joins a selected team, and you pimp that idea/business/dream over the next 48 hours until Sunday night, when you pitch to a panel of investors. The top 3 teams receive 100,000RMB (about $15,000) and the winner is entered into a bigger competition to pitch for $100,000.

It was a weird situation, because I knew my pitching ability was going to be good – I’ve done a lot of presenting in my life, as well as debating and drama at university. I’m almost always the best presenter in the room…but the problem was, my idea was totally obscure and a bit batshit crazy. I was actually a worried about being one of the winning ideas because I don’t know how I would direct a team to building what I wanted to.

My pitch went well, but my idea was not selected. Lots of people complimented the pitch, but the idea was a hard-sell. I was very relaxed about it, my main goal was to do some cool coding…but one thing I learned about accelerators is that you will end up doing what you least expect.

So I joined a guy who I thought would definitely have some coding for me to do. He said, ‘yeah let’s build an awesome home page for the site’ – I was up for that. By then it was late, so we called it a night. I rode the Beijing subway way across town for an hour, heading away from the hubbub of the universities and startups in the west, to the Blade-Runner-style lights of the financial district in the east.

The next day I got a shock. The founder I’d joined had decided that our best bet for winning the money was to really nail the presentation. His product had been in development for ages (this was perfectly legit), and so we changed approach. I was now tasked with building a financial model! I laughed and figured this was good practice for when I have to do my next pitch. Every team was given a graphic designer from the CAFA school in Beijing (which is the top design school in China, so they were incredibly talented), and we got him to work making sexy wireframes of the product. I immersed myself in hilariously wild ROI guestimations, as the whole team – five people in total – started to immerse themselves in the business model.

By Saturday night, we were ready to begin practicing the presentation – though it was ropey as hell. I ended up sending my friend a text about midnight begging for accountancy advice so I could figure out some P/E ratio projections. I fell asleep standing up on the subway home. Good times.

Sunday rolled around and we were polishing and tweaking. We did lots of brutal questioning of the founder, since he would be fielding most of the questions from investors – why haven’t the competition done this, can you explain these projections, are you sure you’ve researched this new technology, what’s your marketing spend per customer, recite pi backwards, etc. etc.

In the end, our pitch was pretty good. Probably a 7 out of 10. We all underperformed from the pressure. I’d say 60% of our rehearsals were better. Worth noting. Still we came second and won the $15,000, so that was aight.

So that’s the story bit of the post. I wanted to just braindump that, and now I can move on to the ‘offer your readers value’ bit. Here’s what I learned from my first startup accelerator

1) Do it. You will learn a lot. Not as much as everyone always says you will (if you’ve got your shit together and are already building something), but about 500-800% more than if you spent 48 hours over the weekend reading entrepreneurial books non-stop.

2) MUCH MORE IMPORTANTLY, you will meet smart, cool people. This is so invigorating. Paul Graham talks about why you should move to a startup hub – the basic premise is that if you are not spending time with other people having clever, overlapping ideas, you are handicapping yourself. I’m pretty sure I’ve secured a decent chunk of freelance work from that weekend.

3) Do not be intimidated by the competition. The guy who came third (a really nice guy) had a super-intimidatingly awesome product – he was growing vegetables in shipping containers using LEDs controlled remotely via cell phone and had a working prototype which already had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of investment. But his pitch kind of sucked balls. He only JUST squeaked into the selected teams.

4) Don’t assume people will get it – a lot of ideas that didn’t make it just weren’t that easy to grasp (mine included). You have to figure out creative ways to make them relate and realize the potential of what you are talking about. After my pitch a computer science professor came up to me and we had a great talk about all the potential applications of what I had discussed (this was very rewarding) – but I wasn’t able to convey this effectively.

5) Network – I met a ton of cool people – some of whom will be useful contacts for my day job. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel at an accelerator, much easier than even a meetup event. Everyone there made a significant commitment to go, so they’re not playing around.

6) Come ready to soak up information – I got loads of inspiration from seeing what other people were up to – for example I’ll be buying myself a Rasberry Pi (which will also help me learn Linux). Before last weekend the only Rasberry Pi I knew was edible.

7) Pick your team carefully – some founders didn’t give their teams much to do, this must have sucked for them.

8) Make sure you really understand the event – to be honest, although there were a lot of coders, there were fewer than I expected. A lot of product managers, researchers, and marketers were there too. So although I thought I was basically entering a hackathon, I got quite a different, but nonetheless highly useful experience. This was more about getting a startup off the ground, rather than hacking something cool (not that the two are mutually exclusive).

9) Listen carefully to the mentors/investors. Beijing Tech Hive invites seasoned entrepreneurs and investors to come talk to teams about their startup and give advice throughout the weekend. The questions they ask you are very important, because they reveal gaps in your own understanding of your product.

10) You can go far with a strong pitch. Don’t make the mistake of not practicing this A LOT.

If you live in the US or Europe, there are startup accelerators you can apply to – Google is your friend. If I can figure out a way to make it work in Beijing, you can in places where language barriers are not even a consideration. Apply. You have very little lose, and potentially a huge amount to gain.