The Art of Startup

2500 years ago, a true polymath authored a book so powerful that it made emperors, kings, and generals.

When I first read the Art of War by Sun Tzu in my youth, I set a goal. To one day understand my own domain well enough to produce a similar set of insightful directives.

About 15 years into my quest, 2 startups founded, personally mentoring more than 100 founders, managed 3 VC funds, and made a few angel investments I feel, for the first time, that I can produce my first version of these directives.

i. On startup ideas

  • When conceiving of an idea for a startup, write it down and return to it two weeks later. If the idea still seems good, pursue it.
  • When conceiving of an idea for a startup, ask yourself if you have empathy for the customer. For the first couple of years, the customers will reject you. Make sure you have enough empathy to see it through.

ii. On (founder) team formation

  • When forming the team, everyone must have a profound trust in and respect for each other.
  • When forming the team, everyone must be willing to work for the lowest possible salary to stretch the runway.
  • When forming the team, it must be complete enough to design, build and sell the product for the first year without relying on other people or money to pay other people.
  • When forming the team, it must have a person with an intimate insight into the life and thinking of the customer.
  • When forming the team, the members must select a clear leader who is given the title of CEO, and whom everyone agrees will have the last say in case of a dispute.
  • When forming the team, the members must select an advisor who can bring perspective and be a sounding board.
  • When distributing shares, all members must own enough shares to give up all other projects and keep motivated during the hard times.

iii. On culture

  • The culture must be written down as a simple list of commandments about behavior everyone obeys.
  • The culture must be one of honesty, clear and timely intellectual communication and debate, and utter and complete acceptance of whatever decision is made in the end.
  • The culture must be one where time is regarding a scarce and valuable resource.
  • The culture must be one that celebrates every win and victory with feasts, toasts, and hugs.

iv. On hiring

  • When hiring, the founders must perform the interview themselves.
  • When meeting a candidate, the founder must tell a breathtaking purpose that will offset a non-competitive salary.
  • When evaluating a candidate, the founders must devise practical samples of relevant work the candidate must complete.
  • When evaluating a candidate, the founders must prioritize culture fit, curiosity and helpfulness highest.

v. On employees onboarding

  • When onboarding a new team member, make sure everyone else knows the new team member’s name upon meeting for the first time.
  • When onboarding a new team member, place a welcome card the desk signed by the founder or CEO.
  • When onboarding a new team member, explain to the person exactly how his/her job contributes to the success of the company.
  • When onboarding a new team member, explain to the person exactly how his/her job affects the job of other team members.
  • When onboarding a new team member, explain exactly what behavior will impress and what behavior will disappoint.
  • When onboarding a new team member, give the person everything they need to do their work on the first day. Expect them to work the next.

vi. On employees

  • When having employees, the founders must embody the culture and always act like they want employees to act.
  • When having employees, the founders must attribute all success to their employees internally and in public.
  • When directing employees, the company must have no more than 3 company KPIs that is always pointed to.
  • When directing employees, the employees must be told exactly how their role contributes to the 3 KPIs.
  • When directing employees, the employees must be told what the priorities are, so they can make individual judgment calls.
  • When an employee does not perform, the founders must exclude that employee immediately and then help that person find something better.

vii. On fundraising

  • When fundraising, focus on investors who are known to invest in the stage, geography, and industry you are in.
  • When fundraising, ask other founders for introductions to their investors.
  • When fundraising, have a world-class pitch deck because it might be all the investor sees.
  • When pitching, only ask for an amount that the investor normally invest.
  • When pitching, know the other companies the investor has invested in.
  • When pitching, tell the investor why you are seeking investment from that investor specifically.

viii. On investors

  • When finding investors, founders must find one of two kinds. Investors who bring money and stay away. Or investors that bring money and provide a recent and relevant experience. Anyone else is harmful.
  • When having investors, founders must update the investors monthly. And whenever something interesting happens.
  • When having investors, founders must attribute the success to the investors in the press and on social media. This will make the investor even more vested in your success.
  • When having investors, founders must invite investors to any celebrations of success.

ix. On sales

  • When starting to sell, the founders must learn how to do it themselves until the task can be given to anyone else.
  • When starting to sell, the founders must focus on the smallest possible sub-segment of the market (the beachhead) until they have a monopoly in this segment.
  • When starting to sell, the founders must emerge themselves with their customers until the founders understand their customers better than the customers understand themselves.
  • When the customer has bought the product, the founders must make sure the customer actually starts using it. Only then, the sale can be considered successful.
  • When the customer has used the product for a while, the founders must ask for a referral.

x. On marketing

  • When making noise, make sure the message is so compelling that people will share it. Also the employees.
  • When making noise, distribute free education to potential customers in return for contact information.
  • When making noise, use referrals from happy customers.
  • When making noise, distribute free samples or free accounts of your product to the first critical mass of customers.

xi. On boards

  • When forming the board, select a chairman who is not a shareholder.
  • When forming the board, have no more than five people.
  • When having board meetings, place plenty of drinks and foods so people are not distracted by thirst and hunger.
  • When having board meetings, have a standard agenda and follow it every time.
  • When having board meetings, if a board member comes unprepared, let the board member know he/she has no business showing up.
  • When having board meetings, only have the founders and investors in the room.
  • When having board meetings, spend most of the time on sparring and decision making.
  • When having board meetings, and if big issues arise, form a separate working group to deal with.

xii. On exits

  • When receiving acquisition interest, deny it. If they really want it, they will try harder.
  • When getting an acquisition offer, hurry and talk to their competitors.
  • When negotiating an acquisition, be most interested in how the company/product will become a success with new owners.
  • When negotiating an acquisition, negotiate great terms for your employees.
  • When negotiating an acquisition, ask for cash with no handcuffs for all owners.

Why Urban Mobility, Global Mobility, Health, and Omnipresence remains to be my meta-thesis going into 2020

When my venture capital career began about three years ago, I formulated a meta-thesis around four areas I believe will be continuous themes of innovation in the next hundred years. Those were: Urban Mobility, Global Mobility, Health, and Omnipresence. When revisiting my thesis going into 2020, I find that the framework holds. But I have updated the thesis to reflect my current views and provided some recent startups examples from Accelerace (Copenhagen) and Overkill Ventures (Riga) where I serve as General Partner.

Urban Mobility

Originally, cities were a solution to reducing transaction costs. The Egyptian invention meant that we could easily interact and get our business done. Traveling for three days to get stuff sold on the market was a thing of the past. Productivity skyrocketed. However, this only worked to a point.

The continuous urbanization has enlarged cities to a size where friction returns. During my frequent family-related visits to China, I experience this first hand. Getting simple things done, like buying a new kitchen sink easily takes an entire day. First, you have to move through insane traffic. Then you have to negotiate prices. Finally, you have to validate that the product you receive is the item you intended to buy. Millions of people face this daily.

Luckily, technology will increase the mobility of people and goods in urban environments. Drones can circumvent traffic. Collaborative consumption can create liquidity in the availability of cars, housing and storage space. Review and trust systems make quality providers easy to find. Payment technology saves us valuable minutes in every transaction. We want the benefit of cities without the pain.

Going into 2020, recent Accelerace and Overkill startups such as Donkey RepublicDigura and Minrecept are examples of startups that make cities scalable.

Global Mobility

The division of the world into independent countries happened because of limited mobility.

Ancient empires attempting “globalization” struggled with the mobility problem. Collecting taxes in Britain and transporting the coins to Rome was a problem. And every attempt to sustain these empires failed. Consequently, countries grew independently and developed distinct laws, languages, and institutions. Today, we suffer from this. The asymmetry of laws, languages, and institutions makes little sense in a world where the next generation expects to travel, study, work and live anywhere.

Technology like Blockchain can help circumvent institutions such as banks, courts, and government. Consequently, it will be easy to buy assets in other countries, easy to enforce rights and agreements across borders and eliminate the friction of language differences.

Going into 2020, recent Accelerace and Overkill startups such as DiplomasafeOrangebooks, and Clockwork are examples of startups making the world a smaller place.

Health

Life expectancy has more than doubled in the last 100 years. In large part because of medical advances. Sadly, we mostly extend old age. 6 out of 10 people end their life in prolonged states of frailty and growing incapacity. In practical terms, it means that you don’t recognize your children and you are being spoon-fed while wearing a diaper. Needless to say, we still have some work to do.

Health is the answer and technology is the remedy. Health adds to the other end of life. It extends our youth and vitality. Technology can provide accurate health information, ensure the mental stability and hack our biology.

Going into 2020, recent Accelerace and Overkill startups such as InnovosensManpremo, and Studymind are examples of startups prolonging our youth and vitality.

Omnipresence

All living creatures depend on information. We use it to make decisions. Biological evolution has formed bodies with sensors that obtain information in our surroundings. Humans obtain information from five senses (sound, taste, touch, sight and smell).

However, our senses are not particularly good. Animals often have far better senses than humans. Instead, humans have superior processing of the information. Still, imagine we had senses on par with dolphins, fish, and bees.

Indeed, humans have always dreamt about owning superior senses. In fact, ancient Gods were just that. Odin and Zeus were people who could see and hear everything. They were omnipresent. And because of this advantage, they ruled Earth. Seeing and hearing everything is the ultimate state of being.

Technology is bypassing evolution. Instead of waiting for nature to give us the sight of an eagle, we can fly drones equipped with high-resolution cameras. We can participate in lectures at universities on other continents, and we can follow packages on the way to our door. We are becoming omnipresent and our adoption of this kind of power will be quick.

Going into 2020, recent Accelerace and Overkill startups such as MemorixDorothy, Fabcontrol and are examples of startups making us godlike.

The best startup advice you have never heard

Startup advice is everywhere. This is not one of them.

A story goes like this: In 1963, Martin Luther King was attacked by a white supremacist while preaching at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The hateful man threw himself at Martin Luther King, fist first. Instead of fleeing, the preacher responded by quickly closing the distance and embracing the man. King held him tight while saying: my brother I love youmy brother I love you. The man furiously tried to pound on King, but the preacher maintained his embrace while repeating his sermon. Upon hearing these words from the very man the supremacist was trying to hurt, the attacker went limp and burst into tears.

The story is beautiful, and maybe even true. Regardless, it holds a rarely told truth for startup founders. One that I learned myself.

My own lesson began around 2006. Rumors began circulating about Apple turning their next iPod into a phone. Then came the vision that would define me.

I foresaw that our phones would be on the internet. The clarity of my prophecy made me evangelistic, and I preached the coming revolution to everyone that wouldn’t listen.

I turned a couple of friends, and we decided to lead the revolution and built a product that would demonstrate we were right.

The product was a ticketing platform. We knew that events are fundamentally a social experience and that most people buy tickets together with their friends. So why not create a platform that allowed people to buy tickets directly from their phones.

We started pitch event organizers and demonstrate our platform. If they created events on our backend, users could buy the tickets from a mobile device. I told them it was the future.

The problem was that these people did not live in the future. On the contrary, they very much lived in the present. And in their reality, they had an event next month that they needed to sell enough ticket to. Because our platform had no users, we did not alleviate their anxiety.

I responded the way most self-development books tell you to. I persevered. But at large, the event organizers remained dispassionate. And then something important happened.

I started to hate our customers. Not immediately. But a resentment towards these dispassionate naysayers grew in me. Gradually, the feeling spread to the rest of the team. Perhaps because I started referring to our customers as idiots, dinosaurs and stupid.

Unsurprisingly, our emerging company culture of hating our customers did not produce a healthy environment for building a great solution to event organizers. Ultimately, it became a core reason for our failure.

Since then, I have seen customer resentment develop in multiple other startups. What happens is this: the founders create a piece of tech. They do customer discovery. Pivot a couple fo times. Finally, they find themselves targeting a customer segment that is somewhat alien to them. But the segment has money and a definable pain point. Advisors and investors agree.

The founders have built a product that is objectively valuable to their customers. It saves time, money and unlocks new opportunities. But for some unfathomable reason, the customers are wary. And most of them don’t convert.

At this point, resentment creeps in. Taking rejection upon rejection from people you are trying to help simply does that to a person. That is unless you are Martin Luther King, and have true and deep empathy for those you are trying to convert.

When founders ask me if they should go for market X or market Y, sometimes I put all the data aside, and simply ask them this: Who do you want to spend your life trying to help, knowingly they will reject you over and over?

Doing a startup is in large part an experience of suffering rejections from the very people you are trying to help. And in order to succeed, your natural response must be embrace. Something that is only possible if the founders truly empathize with the people they are trying to turn. Surely, Mr. King would agree.

Choosing a customer segment for whom you have deep empathy for might not be the most business-savvy advice. But sometimes, I find it is the most important.

Also, check out Acceleraceand Overkill Ventures. We invest in startups.

Why Milestones Kill Startups and how the Roman Empire points to a better way

Most startups founders are faced with milestone provisions by their investors. The investors do it because they think it helps them steer the startup in the right direction. And because they think it gives guidance for deciding on further funding. The headline reveals it is a mistake. This article will explain why milestones kill startups and suggest how to actually measure progress. 

When Octavian was 19 years old, his ruthless uncle was brutally assassinated by a group of political opponents. The young man resolved to achieve what his uncle had not. Founding the world’s largest and longest-lasting empire.

And so, Octavian began materializing his vision. He called it Pax Romana. We know it as the Roman Empire.

To people of his time, Octavian wasn’t a celebrity. He did not display the same early sweeping conquests as his assassinated uncle, Julius Caesar. Nor the bravado and charisma.

Instead, Octavian was a founder. His ambition went beyond military success, fame, and power. He wanted to create something lasting.

Gauging the career of Octavian, one notices the wide range of things he accomplished. Surely, he enlarged the empire through military campaigns. But more importantly, he created structural development. Like tax reforms. Setting up a firefighting brigade, and a professional police force. And obviously erected many buildings, temples, and monuments.

The result was peace. The reward was a natural death at an old age. Something rarely bestowed rulers of his time. And as you will see, the story of Octavian holds an important lesson for startup founders and their investors.

Lasting companies and lasting empires are similar

Small projects can be planned, managed and tracked. In contrast, Large projects, like building an empire cannot. The complexity, timescale, and unknowns will not allow it.

Instead, large projects require a founder (or founder team) with a deep resolve to materialize a vision that is larger than himself/herself. Just like Octavian. But more importantly, the founder must focus on a wide range of issues. Also, just like Octavian.

The large range of elements that goes into building a lasting empire requires something quite different from a plan. It requires awareness and courage. Awareness of coming issues and the courage to do something about them. It was true for founders of lasting empires. It is equally true for founders of lasting companies.

The elements that go into building something lasting are entangled and interdependent. In other words, a lot of things depends on other things. Revenue requires sales channels, that requires partnerships, that requires multilevel value propositions, that requires customer insights, that requires nurtured relationships and so on. When one thing changes, most other things changes. Octavian knew this. So do most startup founders. But for some reason, many investors seem to have missed this.

Milestones are flawed and destructive if not done right

Many investors place ‘milestones’ in their investment agreements. And these milestones tend to be flawed, if not downright destructive. The problem is that the milestones often have little connection to the actual job of building the company.

Instead, the milestones seem to reflect the faulty idea that the progress of large projects can be measured on a single dimension. Like the number of users. Downloads or revenue. But that would be like evaluating the progress of an empire by area or population. The first could easily be achieved by annexing uninhabited desert. The second by paying people to become citizens. Octavian did none of those things. Why? First of all, he wasn’t stupid. Secondly, he didn’t have investors who were.

Octavian focused on whatever made sense. He shifted his focus to what was needed to advance his project to the next stage and ensure its long term viability. So do the best startup founders. At one point they recruit. Then they release the next version. Then they build partnerships. Then they fundraise.

Founders successively focus on specific dimensions of their company. And when they do, the company progresses. But not in a linear function. It happens in steps. That means each dimension is stagnant for a period until the founders find it relevant to focus on it.

When investors make founders focus on a single dimension by enforcing simplistic milestones, they do one of two things. Either the investor presumes that he/she knows better than the founders what dimension needs focus. Or the investor is ignorant of the mechanics of large complex projects. Both should be colossal red flags to a founder considering an investor.

In cases where milestones are put in practice, the result is that the founders start doing stupid things. Why? Because humans follow the reward. And the easiest way to hit the milestone and claim the reward is rarely to do the right thing. Those who experienced the Great Leap Forward in China between 1958 to 1962 would agree.

That said, milestones make sense. Both for the founder and the investor. Understanding if a project progresses is important to avoid what economists call the sunk cost fallacy. In other words, keep doing something you should stop doing.

However, milestones only make sense if they actually capture the progress that is natural to the development of the company. What is natural, changes almost daily. And only the founders have the information to make this judgment.

Still, it is possible to define the potential areas of progress. An early-stage startup can grow in four dimensions. Those are: human capital, technology capital, customer capital, cash capital. E.g. if a startup recruits a rock star, it is progress. If a technology breakthrough happens, it is progress. If customer loyalty increases, it is progress. If the free cash flow increases, it is progress.

Consequently, the only sensible way to craft milestones for early stage startups is to include any and all type of relevant progress, and simply trust that the founders know where to allocate their attention. If investors do not trust founders on this, it is not the milestone that is wrong.

The Startup Adoption Lifecycle

This article tells the story of how farmers in Iowa shaped the way startup founders think. Furthermore, it argues that we need a new way for startups to identify their early customer segments. In the end, founders will know how to obtain product-market fit, and why the article features a picture of an airline crew on heavy cases.

In 1927, scientists developed a new hybrid seed-corn. They knew their invention would give farmers 20% more yield. What they didn’t know was that the seed-corn would define how we came to understand innovation.

The new corn was offered to farmers in Iowa. Oddly, not everyone adopted it. The situation caught the attention of two sociologists at Iowa State University.

In 1941, the two researchers Bryce Ryan and Neal Gross went to interview the Iowa farmers. What they learned was puzzling.

Even though the new hybrid corn was objectively better, some farmers simply resisted using it. In fact, it would take about 10 years for all of the farmers to adopt the new corn. And that was just Iowa. It then took another decade before it was fully adopted throughout the US.

Bryce Ryan and Neal Gross concluded that some people are just prone to try new things before others. Today, we know their theory as the Technology adoption lifecycle. For close to a century, the theory has defined how we understand the adoption of innovation.

The-technology-adoption-life-cycle-1024x336

Why the Technology adoption lifecycle is important and useless

The Technology adoption lifecycle basically explains that in the beginning, only a small group of people adopt a new technology. Later, the majority follow suit. Finally, the last little group of resisting people gives in.

As trivial as it sounds, it was an immensely important realization. Because it provides a frame for innovators view the world. I know this first-hand.

When I started my first startup in 2006, I was fresh of business school. And like any graduate, I knew the Technology adoption lifecycle. It helped me formulate our go to market strategy. First, we would go for the innovators and early adopters. Sounds right on paper.

But most startup founders learn that understanding who those innovators and early adopters are is much harder. In fact, the framework does not provide any guidance for this problem. At all.

The thing is that the Technology adoption lifecycle was never meant to help tech entrepreneurs. It was a retrospective view of a category innovation over its entire lifecycle. That means it spans decades and each block of adopters represent years of slow gradual adoption. Although important, it is pretty much useless as a practical startup tool.

In reality, most startups face less than 12 months of quickly evaporating runway. And the next months are the only period of any importance because it’s all the time a startup is sure to have.

Unfortunately, the Technology adoption lifecycle is of little help. The model just says: innovators and early adopters. Whoever adopts the technology first, are the innovators and early adopters. That’s called circular logic.

600 startups later a pattern emerges

Today, I am a partner at two accelerator-funds. And for the past seven years, I have met about a hundred startups per year, helping them obtain product-market fit. Or at least tried.

One consequence of specialization is that one obtains a very granular understanding of a narrow field. In my case, I suspect my expertise has become the early phases of the Technology adoption lifecycle.

Having observed so many startups go from zero to their first hundred business customers (or first million users), I have witnessed a clear pattern.

The startup adoption lifecycle

All the successful startups I have worked with have experienced adoption through the same sequence of micro-segments within the very first part of the Technology adoption lifecycle. Let’s shrink into the micro-cosmos of the very first adopters. What I call the Startup Adoption Lifecycle. Here we go:

The first adopters are always friends, family, and colleagues. They sign up to support the founder(s) and cheer on. They rarely have a deep need for the product. This group will constitute the first 10 to 50 customers.

The second adopter group is always the “crazy” people. They don’t know the founder(s) personally, but for some reason, they are obsessed about the area the startup operates in. And I mean abnormally obsessed. This group often send something that looks like fan mail to the info@ or support@. This group varies in size but is probably the next 5 – 30 customers.

The third adopter group is by far the most important. This group is often called the Beach Head. This group is also abnormal, but for a different reason. They are not “crazy”. Instead, they live under unique circumstances that impose extreme or unusual needs. Because this group is small, no one has really cared to serve their special needs. Consequently, they are somewhat “desperate” which makes them actively look for new solutions.

Examples were the first hardcore gamers on a live streaming website called Justin.tv. The founders realized the potential of this little Beach Head and renamed Justin.tv to Twitch.

Another would be airline cabin crew. Few people fly every day, so why bother making wheeled suitcases for cabin crew who do. In 1987 someone finally did. Of course, cabin crew was the first adopters. Today we all have trolleys. (The crew members in the featured picture clearly needed them).

A third example would be victims of the Japanese tsunami in 2011 that starting using a chat app to communicate because the cell phone towers were gone. Today, that chat app has an estimated 500 million users and is known by the name Line.

Billede2

In truth, all successful startups eventually must find their Beach Head. It is the most important adopter group because they are the first people who adopt because of a true need. Their need might be unique, but that makes them willing to test a new product from an unknown startup.

Who is the Beach Head for any particular startup? It’s the group that most founders overlook because it is far too small to fit the story of the billion-dollar market. It’s the group that has an unusual job. Or live an unusual place. Or have an unusual interest. Or have been affected by an unusual event. Or perhaps a combination.

The Beach Head group varies in size, but it is rarely bigger than 100 – 500 customers to begin with. Luckily, that is often the perfect size for a startup with an evaporating runway.

If startups can navigate the Startup Adoption Lifecycle they will be well on their way. Because on the other side of the Beach Head is product-market fit. And with that, the beginning of twenty years of movement through the Technology adoption lifecycle . May your journey be smooth.

Tip: If you are a startup founder and want to get help finding your Beach Head, a qualify acceleration program might the right thing for you. At Accelerace and Overkill Ventures, we see this as our main job. Some other accelerators might do as well. At least check out my blog.

Why many startup investors are missing the point of acceleration programs, and should seriously start investing in them.

Many investors think acceleration programs are cute. Playgrounds where inexperienced and hopeful founders go to learn basic stuff. And where real successful people generously share stories to “pay it forward”. Like charity for young people. Those investors are mistaken. Not always. But the ignorant consensus can cause some investors to overlook what can be the most effective and best performing vehicle for startup investing. This post will explain why insider trading is illegal and how that makes quality Accelerators a must for investors. In the end, you will know how to evaluate Accelerators, and management teams will gain inspiration.

In 1934 the rules of the game changed. In the ensuing years, hundreds of people would be jailed. Among them a beloved housewife and self-made celebrity named Martha Stewart.

The US Congress witnessed how certain investors benefited immensely from possessing unique information about publicly traded companies. Because these investors knew something others didn’t, they could make timely and informed decisions. Economists call it asymmetric information. The public called it unfair.

In response, the US Congress passed the Securities Exchange Act in 1934 making it illegal to trade securities on asymmetric information. Today, we know it as “insider trading”.

In 2001, Martha Stewart learned the value of asymmetric information. The celebrity housewife owned stocks in a company called ImClone Systems but her stockbroker knew something other people didn’t. He knew that ImClone Systems would receive a rejection of their new cancer drug. He urged Martha to sell immediately. She did and avoided a loss of about 200,000 dollars. To her horror, it would also cost her five months in prison.

Asymmetric information in startup investing

The rules surrounding publicly traded securities do not apply to startups. And because asymmetric information is generally the most valuable element in investing, startup investors are furiously seeking to obtain it. To this end, most Venture Capitalists require startups to sign ‘exclusive term sheets’, meaning that only they get to due diligence the company for a period of time. The VC wants to know something other investors don’t.

The problem with asymmetric information is that it’s hard to obtain. That is because it’s sticky. The information resides within a few key individuals and is often non-codified. If it wasn’t, the information would diffuse and thus become symmetric. In other words, everyone would know it.

Sticky information must be extracted and the process of extraction takes time and effort. The individuals holding the information must trust the entity that wants to extract it. Simply put, the startup founders must trust the investor before they share what they know.

Furthermore, sticky information tends to be unstructured. Maybe a startup founder recently got the impression that most of the customers will upgrade their subscription next year because of a new feature. This information is not just important but is also unstructured. To obtain this information the investor must spend time with the founder asking random questions until the topic might come up. Needless to say, this is expensive at scale.

How great Accelerators extract asymmetric information at scale

Interestingly, an acceleration program can be regarded as an institutionalized and methodical system for extracting information. And a well-run accelerator does this at scale.

Quality programs have lengthy and deep relations with hundreds of startups per year. During the program, the startups and the Accelerator enter into a mutually beneficial exchange. The Accelerator provides value in form of content, help, and resources. In exchange, the Startup provides information, such as in the application forms, office hours and workshops etc. Much of this information is asymmetric and can be called ‘Insight’.

Great Accelerators understand the value of Insight. And they design their program to obtain it. Less sophisticated programs will not.

To obtain Insight, the Accelerator must do two things. First, establish trust between the founders and the Accelerator. Second, provide content, help, and resources of high perceived value. If the founders trust the Accelerator AND believe the program will be valuable to them, the founders will be willing to provide Insight in exchange for benefiting from the Value of the program.

How Accelerators develop trust

Trust is an outcome of earlier beneficial interactions between the parties. If two people have engaged in numerous trades in the past and both parties feel they benefited from those exchanges, they most likely trust each other.

The speed at which trust develops seems to be a function of multiple factors. Such as the number of interactions, the depth of the interactions, and the environment the interactions take place in. This equation of Trust is depicted in the table below:

Fig 1: The equation of Trust. (Completely non-science based)

trust

According to the equation above, Trust develops quickly if the parties have many rich interactions in unfamiliar environments. And that is exactly what marks great Accelerators. Many programs start with an intense kick off period. The founders fly in and spend long days in workshops, mentor sessions, and social activities. The result is trust, at scale.

How great Accelerators obtain insight

Data is the ingredient of Insight. Not all data is Insight, but all Insight is data. Because data and Insight can be hard to distinguish, the way to obtain Insight is simply to obtain large amounts of data. Consequently, the best Accelerators collect data at every possible instance.

In order to obtain data, the Accelerator must solve the biggest problem with data collection. The problem is that data collection often incurs significant costs on the side of the startup. This is because the data is rarely readily available.

Often, the founders must spend time and energy to clean and codify the data before it can be provided. An example would be a lengthy survey. Not only must the founders spend time and opportunity costs answering the questions, but must also look through documents, search for old e-mails, and make calculations to answer the questions. The cost of a lengthy survey can easily seem insurmountable to a startup founder.

That is why the best Accelerators are solving this problem in two ways.

One, they provide Value of such a high quality that it offsets the costs of the “intrusive” data collection. This enables the Accelerator to obtain insight through conversation, surveys, and participation in customer meetings etc.

Two, they implement systems that collect data non-intrusively. Like tracking the attendance rate of the founders, their KPI reporting, and development in team composition, etc.

The collection of data at scale is making great Accelerators the most knowledgeable entities for startup Insight. Period. No other entities have had deep trust-based interaction with thousands of startups over extended periods of time. While collecting valuable data.

If done right, an acceleration program is simply the most efficient system for obtaining Insight into a large number of startups. And for investors, the best programs represent a golden opportunity to benefit from true asymmetric information. Wall Street would be envious.

Written by David Ventzel. Partner at Accelerace, a Copenhagen based accelerator and seed fund. Also General Partner at Overkill Ventures, a Riga based accelerator and seed fund.

What porn and ridesharing can teach corporates, investors and startups

Most investors and corporates estimate the potential of a new technology. It’s a mistake. Real disruption comes from the convergence of different technologies. This post will explain how technology convergence creates parallel industries and Startup Tsunamis. Most importantly, it will tell the story of a young stripteasing college student that took down a billion-dollar empire.

In 1953, a 27-year-old entrepreneur raised angel investment from 45 investors. With the money, he pioneered one of the world’s biggest industries and built a true empire. Today, his product is an iconic piece of western culture.

The name of the entrepreneur was Hugh Marston Hefner. His product was a new type of magazine. He called it Playboy.

The world was changing its view on sexuality, and pornography was taking off. It became a billion-dollar industry with companies raking in huge profits.

The pornography studios appropriated most of the profit because they controlled the means of production. Print machines, studio light, cameras and retail distribution were expensive.

At the height of its glory, the industry launched its own award show rivaling the Oscars in glamour. And then one day, in late 1990’s, it was all over.

A young college student had set up a camera in her dorm room. She connected the camera to her computer and created a website she called JenniCam. She started broadcasting for the world to follow. She quickly learned that viewers increased when she did stripteases.

A few years later, Playboy delisted from the stock market. Its stock was plummeting.

JenniCam started a webcam revolution. Today, there are thousands of cam models. They connect directly with viewers thanks to cheap cameras, fast internet connection, chat and digital payment.

The webcam revolution is one of the clearest examples of disruption caused by the convergence of technological innovations. The old companies were built on an infrastructure of professional grade equipment, film studios, and physical distribution.

In contrast, the webcam industry is built on the availability of cheap consumer grade equipment, online distribution, and new communication and payment protocols.

What the pornography studios experienced is the phenomena of parallel industries. Few people understand it. You are about to become one of them.

The difference between competition and parallel industries

The runaway success of Playboy attracted many competitors. Among the biggest was Penthouse. The magazines competed on celebrity pictures and naughtiness. With the emergence of DVDs, the studios competed on distribution and licensing agreements.

But when JenniCam launched, few took notice. To the established players JenniCam wasn’t a competition, let alone a threat. Its young founder didn’t try to muscle them out of licensing deals. She didn’t invest in new studios or steal their models. In fact, she was utterly invisible to them.

The thing is that when certain technologic innovations converge, it creates entirely new industrial platforms. The startups that emerge on the new platform are not competing with the incumbents. Instead, they are building a parallel industry.

A parallel industry is an industry that has been rebuilt from the ground up on a new industrial platform. The new platform provides an infrastructure that is magnitudes faster, cheaper and more effective than the traditional industrial platform.

The new platform enables entrepreneurs to reimagine all components of their business model and apply new technology in every layer of its business. As a result, the startups that emerge are so different from the incumbents, that they go unnoticed by the old industry.

The next thing that happens is that the parallel industry matures. It develops its own suppliers, consultants, and networks. Suddenly, JenniCam had sparked an entire industry of innovative producers of webcam technology, video compression providers, and digital payment solutions.

At this point, the incumbents take notice. But it’s too late.

How parallel industries cause Startup Tsunamis

Parallel industries are supported by underlying technologies that serve as the infrastructure of the industry. Like: production technology, distribution technology, communication technology and financial technology.

When innovations in the different underlying technologies converge, a new industrial platform is born. That happened during the industrial revolution when factories (production), railroads (distribution), the telegraph (communication) and Wall Street (finance) converged and gave us a tsunami of new products.

Startup Tsunamis describe the phenomena of very large number of startups launched within a concentrated timespan, attempting similar business models. One of the latest examples of this is ride sharing.

Much like the pornography studios, taxi companies had enjoyed decades of steady business. But around 2010, a new industrial platform was emerging.

The smartphone converged with advances in payment infrastructure. At the same time, venture capital was reemerging as a source of capital for startups after being decimated by the global financial crisis.

The result was a true Startup Tsunami. Here are just some of the few startups that built their business on the new industrial platform: Uber (2009), Ola (2010), Wingz (2011), Sidecar (2011), Hailo (2011), Grab (2011), Lyft (2012), Didi Chuxing (2012), Careem (2012).

Today, few people doubt that ridesharing will change personal urban transportation for good. When electrified self-driving cars join the convergence to enhance the new industrial platform, taxi companies are history. But the story doesn’t end here.

Blockchains are creating new financial infrastructure. IoT is creating new communication infrastructure. 3D printing is creating new production infrastructure. Individually they might seem like toys. But so did webcams until they converged with high-speed internet, chat and digital payment. The cocktail enabled a young college student to initiate the fall of an empire.

At Accelerace we help both startups and corporates. Check us out at Accelerace.io.

Thank you to Jeremy Rifkin and his great book, The Third Industrial Revolution, to inspire me to write this post. I can recommend his book.