Startup Lessons from the Mountains
Over the past few years, I’ve participated in quite a few accelerator programs both in Asia and in Europe. The latest one, I.E.C.T. Summer School on Entrepreneurship, organized in collaboration with Cambridge University and the European Forum Alpbach in August 2019, was definitely the one to remember. This intense, one week program, nestled in the birthplace of the mighty Swarovski crystal imperium in Tyrol, covered all the startup basics from value proposition to building a great team, yet it cleverly combined a ton of networking, mentoring, and industry expert meetings with world-class theory session and lessons. The mix of theory and hands-on, practical sessions ensured all participants got immediate feedback, tips and market views for all aspects of their business.
Below are my five key takeaways from the Alps.
1. Surround yourself with brilliant people
Smart, hard-working, well-connected, (maybe even rich and famous). Doesn’t hurt if they’re of royal descent.
When we did the initial introduction round, my fingers were not enough to count the number of Ph.D. students and post-docs in our batch of 29. Many of the business ideas and ventures in the room stemmed from university research projects representing different fields of technology, science, advanced engineering, life science, physics, mathematics, IT, and AI. Having mingled in the startup scene for quite some years now, I was amazed how refreshing it was to converse and exchange ideas with a bunch of extremely smart, knowledgeable people who don’t repeat the old and worn startup mantra “hustle and grind” but were true experts in their respective fields and had a very structured approach to building their product.
Additionally, these wonderful people were able to truly understand the business ideas of fellow participants – even if you talked about your deep tech headaches or chatted casually about cultivating human brain tissue on a chip, they’d get it. Long development cycles, patent applications, big funding rounds, and regulation are all common struggles for entrepreneurs dealing with complex technologies, and the peer support from this beautiful bunch was really amazing throughout the program.
The Cambridge crew, our mentors, and all the experts and visionaries invited to deliver various keynote sessions were all extremely competent and put tons of effort into helping us crystallize our strategy, value proposition, vision or whatever aspect of the business would require the most attention. The same level of quality applies to the investors invited to attend the “Cambridge meets Tyrol” pitching session and the final day pitches. It’s not every day that you have six deep tech investors judging your pitch and asking the most interesting details about your technology or a prince attending the final dinner (kudos to I.E.C.T. team!!).
As much as we love hanging out with the 20-something startup founders who dropped out of school to build the next Tinder or Uber, and whose life is all about hustling, I’d still strongly encourage every founder to spend some time with people from alternative backgrounds who might not represent the typical startup founder profile. People who’ve spent years in academia. People who’re smarter than you. More experienced than you. Maybe even older than you. Aim to surround yourself with brilliant people! The right kind of accelerator programs, incubators and events provide fantastic opportunities to meet them.
2. Great views (and good coffee) for great ideas
Get your creative juices flowing.
Most of the I.E.C.T. Summer School sessions took place at Werkstätte Wattens, a rustic co-working space set up across old Swarovski factory buildings surrounded by beautiful mountains in the Austrian town of Wattens. Our afternoon mentoring sessions were held on the terrace of the building so we got to enjoy the most precious view (see picture) while working on our concepts, assignments or brainstorming as a group and sipping a steaming cup of hand-crafted coffee or a local artisanal soda. I personally felt that this space put me in a very zen mindset and released an incredible amount of (great) ideas that ranged from alternative ways to increase sales all the way to new features, functionalities, business models and collaborations to support the vision and mission of my venture. Besides inspiration, the stunning working environment also increased my optimism – how could anyone feel anything but hopeful about the future when you see the raw beauty of nature right in front of you.
The same creative flow and optimism surround me and the team also back at the office in Singapore as we have the privilege of staying in an incredibly cool space on the 18th floor facing the seafront. On a sunny day, you can see all the way to Batam from my work station (picture below). The office decor is inspiring all the way from the bright-colored furniture to the super cool graffiti on the walls, and there’s freshly-ground coffee and filtered water available all the time. Even when we have our regular advisory team meetings at 9 AM on Saturdays, we always end up admiring the views and the vibe and jumping right to work instead of complaining about the early wake-up or the fact that we had to drag ourselves to the office on a weekend.
I’m a strong believer in inspiring surroundings to optimize your work performance and release your creative thinking. If you’re a fellow entrepreneur and aren’t convinced yet, I recommend you try it for a day or two – you can easily get a hot desk at one of the hip and trendy co-working spaces in your town – and see if it makes a difference! Pay attention to the view and the quality of coffee, you need to rest your eyes somewhere and fuel your creative process so it’s good to optimize these two factors.
3. Timing is everything
Yet sometimes you’re ahead of your time and need pure resilience and grit.
Most startup accelerators and programs, startup gurus and inspirational speakers repeat the same message and the same questions: “think about your customer”, “what is your value proposition”, and “explain your revenue model” until you have all of it clearly explained on the business model canvas, spreadsheets, one-pager, and your pitch deck. They also echo the same examples and success stories of Uber, Alibaba, and whatnot until all entrepreneurs in the room are certain they’re doomed to failure if they can’t answer every question precisely before building their first prototype.
I.E.C.T. Summer School did something else – the mentors and speakers gave us lots of examples of companies that built amazing technologies when the world wasn’t yet ready for them. These range from mapping technologies before mobile phones were around all the way to certain MP3 player hardware in the era of portable CD-players. The key message was (at least my interpretation of it): these guys were ahead of their time but they knew they were on to something amazing and just figured out alternative ways to keep the business alive until the world was ready for whatever cool they had built. Revenues and success followed. Not after 2 years but in some cases after 10 years. Even if we’re told timing is everything, perseverance and grit help you a long way if you happen to be an early runner with your technology and product.
With futuristic ideas, products and technologies the path to success might not be as simple and short as with easy-to-commercialize ideas that’d make your MBA teacher proud and solve an existing pain point for the customer (with understandable and well-known tools and technologies). However, in many cases it’s a rewarding path nonetheless as you’re building the future, seeing beyond the current setting.
Don’t lose faith even if you can’t answer all the questions and fill in every section of your business model canvas at the beginning of your journey. The world wouldn’t have Elons if everyone only thought about the very moment we’re living in and focused on solving issues consumers are facing this very day. If you manage to keep the business alive until the world is ready for your product, you’ll be one of the first players in the market. And you’ll notice along the way if your idea is not good enough or your perseverance and grit are insufficient – you’ll simply run out of money and need to seize operations. Even in that case you’ve learned a heck along the way. They say it’s about the journey and not the end destination, so make sure you give it your everything.
4. Solitude is golden
Seek for it and ye shall find clarity.
The life of a founder is a hurdle race. Every day. We’re surrounded by people, tasks, information overload, meetings, calls, deadlines, requests, and demands. You have so many hats, as you’re trying to build your amazing product, build up a kick-ass team, sell your idea to all possible stakeholders, be the coffee lady, the social media expert, the janitor and an accountant at the same time. Manage relationships and projects. If you live in a big city you can add the constant noise on the top of that – all the cars, buses, subway tunnels, people, birds, and music everywhere make sure your thoughts are constantly interrupted despite the best noise-canceling headphones.
The I.E.C.T. week in Tyrol provided a well-deserved break to my hectic and noisy everyday life and allowed me to come up with tons of ideas while listening to the silence and looking at the breathtaking mountain views. Being in a foreign country in a different time zone ensures you’re not constantly available – your team, your family, and your friends are sleeping when you’re awake (and vice versa) and even if your inbox is bursting when you wake up, the distance allows you to have a much cooler, less adrenalin-spiking approach to everything that happens back home.
Also, without unlimited data, you’re not available 24/7 and need to rely on books for entertainment while traveling on planes, trains, and buses to your final destination. If you’re lucky enough, you won’t even understand what locals are saying so the conversations around you will become a muffled background sound. Best of all, as you don’t know anyone in your final destination (yet), there’s no obligation to converse with anyone (although in smaller towns it’s common to say hi to fellow humans on the street – a lovely habit I sometimes miss in Singapore).
Personally, my favorite uninterrupted stint during this accelerator program was the train ride from Vienna to Wattens when I had 5 hours to sink into the blissful state of solitude. I sat down in a Quiet Zone and got to dive into the fascinating world of the super-rich and the story of Jho Low – if you haven’t read “Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World” yet I strongly recommend you do so! The long train ride also provided an opportunity to look at the beautiful scenery, have a lovely lunch and meditate a bit.
You need occasional distance to think clearly, to come up with new revelations, ideas, and truths about your business. Allow yourself some silence, some solitude, and take yourself to new surroundings where you’re not constantly surrounded by demands. It will do wonders, trust me!
5. Go local
Not just with hippie-food trends but with business as well.
Despite Skype and all the other modern communications methods of today, it really pays off to go and meet potential customers, partners, investors, and other stakeholders in person in their natural habitat. Dragging your butt to the other side of the world might sound like a huge hurdle but chatting face to face with locals allows you to learn about the new geographical markets – you’ll see in practice and learn from the conversations how things work over there. In addition to being able to converse with potential customers and ask about their pain points, you have the opportunity to ask fellow entrepreneurs in the market for some tips and best practices.
One of the best things the I.E.C.T. team arranged was a meet and greet session with local business owners. The participating startups had their posters up in a casual evening setting with drinks and nibbles available, and I.E.C.T. had invited loads of local business people to come chat with them. During this one single evening, I had tens of people stopping by for a casual chat but astonishingly enough I was lucky enough to have four really good conversations that provided excellent insights into the Austrian corporate wellness system, and the pain points of business owners when it comes to health and stress management of their employees.
Had I only interviewed the big MNCs with all sorts of corporate wellness programs and initiatives in place I’d never had gotten such information. Had I only cold-called some random companies in Austria and tried to interview them over the phone, I’m pretty sure I hadn’t gotten this much information and built a relationship with these people.
Building trust is key for your business. And it’s darn challenging over the phone or on Skype. Going local and meeting up all sorts of stakeholders in person in their natural habitat allows you to listen deeply and maybe even explain some aspects of your business that might not resonate from your one-pagers and spreadsheets – let alone help you build trust and charm your audience.
Healthzilla’s participation in I.E.C.T. Summer School was generously sponsored by UNIQA Ventures.
Photo credits: I.E.C.T. Summer School and myself.