At the back end of 2014 the founder team from our startup Cutover decided to apply for the Barclays Techstars Accelerator programme. From the outside, we found it an attractive way to enter the financial services market and to get guidance on building the business. We got both and a lot more. This rough post sets out a few thoughts on the value of the programme and good practices to maximise positive outcomes.
A great place to start when looking at what an accelerator is about is a brief video interview of one of the founders of Techstars Brad Feld (my notes on it are here). Brad makes some good points around an Accelerator being a nexus point focused on a geography/period of time (and in this case an industry). It’s about a great set of mentors as a backdrop to you setting up and running a series of experiments that would not be achievable in the time externally.
For a corporate accelerator programme, it’s important to still have a globally recognised name like Techstars to ensure the general startup growth angle is taken care of but it’s also good to know that the corporate sponsor will take a risk with you to make it worth your time. At the heart of the Barclays programme is a great team with the good remit and senior sponsorship to geTecht startup software in Proof of Concept usage. Sponsorship for innovation and breaking down the normal ways of working at Board level is critical. Our early due diligence focused on ensuring that Barclays would take a chance to use our software so we could get valuable feedback; we were very satisfied in speaking to previous cohort companies and massively impressed with their appetite to innovate with appropriate risk controls throughout the programme.
What Do You Get from the Techstars Relationship
Acceleration: Techstars is there to pick up the general startup acceleration role and it approaches this with an unparalleled record in working with startups globally. In terms of mechanics, the setup is usually one of an MD that runs the programme together with a number of programme managers that help to coordinate and support you. In addition, there are a group of ‘hackstars’ at the start of every programme that can be coaxed into helping you in your growth (and are often hired post programme, we got an excellent hire from this facility).
Experience: The MD is massively helpful (thanks, Greg and Chris!) in unpicking startup issues from a wide experience base, they are also invaluable in setting your pitch up for demo day. It’s all too easy to set that up for failure without the insight of someone that has seen thousands of pitches. They are the ultimate startup coach.
Mentor Madness: The programme managers under guidance from the MD will run you through the amazing experience of mentor madness and demo day preparation. Mentor Madness will involve interacting with the combined set of Techstars and Barclays mentors to do 5-minute pitches to numerous mentors on an intensive programme. The aim here is to give you access to people that can: invest in your company, help you with introductions and advise your company. We made some great connections here that did all three. You also get access to CEO and CTO breakfast meetings that connect you with the other cohort companies and other CEOs and CTOs from companies a little further on in the journey. Insights here are massively valuable. From the Barclays and Techstars network you can also pick up tremendously useful partner relationships; we would not have been introduced to Cisco without this mechanism.
Business Support: Techstars will also connect you with legal firms, accounting firms and wider business services for general advice and the potential for you to engage with them. In addition, Techstars has a huge range of perks (scroll down this page to see them) that you can take advantage of. We have benefitted from the cloud hosting offers provided.
Access: You also get access to wider Techstars entrepreneurship experts with a huge range of experience. People like David Cohen and David Brown. We got to meet personally with each and got great advice. We have had excellent responses from both on email enquiries. Importantly the Techstars link is also for life, not just the programme.
Pitch: We mentioned the pitch earlier, Techstars focus the end of the programme on a demo day event that will bring together the cream of the startup ecosystem in your area. Working together Barclays and Techstars provided us with the opportunity to present to over 700 people and make fantastic connections with investors, advisors and potential customers. The pitch guidance and coaching are superb. The pitch is used so frequently post the event and you also come away with a great video to help your marketing/hiring (ours is here).
What You Get From the Barclays Relationship
Customers: You get access to a hugely successful Tier 1 bank. This is something that a startup will really struggle with from the outside. It’s fine to knock on doors and use your network but outside of an accelerator programme at some point, the standards for procurement or some other defined process will stop you in your tracks. This is not the case with Barclays. The whole focus of the programme is attempting to do at least one proof of concept (PoC) collaboration during the programme with each startup. This execution focus is so important that it’s often pre-qualified as part of the selection process.
The ability to say to other potential customers that your startup has worked with / your software has been used by Barclays is worth the entire effort/cost of the programme. Whilst we only managed to conduct one proof of concept during the programme we have gone on post programme to have fifteen proof of concept uses of our software in planning or have been executed to date. The customer feedback from these PoCs is invaluable.
To get these off to a good start you will often have some form of early networking event to connect with likely PoC sponsors. It’s important to invest in this.
Contract: To do a proof of concept you need a commercial basis to interact. We got a 12-month software evaluation framework. This again is an excellent conversation point with wider potential customers. It’s also a great method to professionalise. As part of this process, you will undergo some form of information security, data privacy, access control audit. You can view these as a pain but really they are free consulting to help professionalise you. Also once done well you can use the evidence/processes with wider customers in future. It has been so valuable to us to be able to say we have passed this with Barclays in order to enable us to continue conversations with wider banks.
Bank as a Sandbox: With appropriate risk controls in place the collaboration with Barclays was really one of them opening up to try things out together. Both parties learn tremendously. Barclays has a tremendous culture to innovate where usually you would find lots of entrenched staff members considering startups as something to competitively eradicate you rather find people with a culture of saying yes appropriately to attempting experiments that might lead to improvements in financial services. I have seen decisions that would cannibalise existing ways of working all for the ideal of improving the industry.
Network: Like Techstars Barclays also has a wide and interesting network within an external to the bank. We have benefitted from introductions during mentor madness and beyond. We have been fortunate to be offered slots to present at senior banking forums to make fantastic connections. We have also been introduced to wider parts of the financial services value chain such as hedge funds. Barclays also runs a great set of partnerships through the partnerships team. We have been given lots of opportunities to present to many wider top tier firms through the great support from the partnerships team.
Exposure: Barclays also invests heavily in exposing startups through events and publicity. We have benefitted in areas such as being included in a Financial Times article, interviews with wider publications and meeting the Barclays chairman.
To enable the above benefits there are a series of good practices that we would suggest enhances the ability to make the most of the programme.
Take lots of notes: the programme is time pressured and your team will not meet with everyone together. You need something like an open google doc that you all capture your notes in. Otherwise quickly you will lose the thread of who you talked to about that particular critical topic. I think we had a document that was over 100 pages long at the end of mentor madness but it was a great bible for future discussions.
Operating Practice: you need some form of standup daily to coordinate and ensure the right actions are being done. It’s fast paced and 15 mins at lunch can save you dropping the ball.
Follow Up: ensure that for each meeting whether good or bad someone in the team writes back with a summary of the conversation, conclusions and actions. Do this the next day for each set of meetings. Don’t write huge emails, make them short and to the point.
Actions: track the actions somewhere, we use Asana. You need to use something like this to coordinate effectively.
Considerate: all of your mentors and particularly those early adopters involved in your PoCs will have lots of other things to do. Polite emails, considerate use of their time, being prepared — all of these things count to ensure they want to continue to work with you.
Support: ensure that for any PoC that you run that you provide support, go over rather than under on this to ensure that the person taking a career risk with you and your startup is comfortable. Our software is often used in overnight processes at weekends, we would ensure that someone from the team could be on site or provide remote support during the overnight period not on call but speaking with the team using the product.
Show the Product: we entered the programme with a demonstrator version of our product that had lots of rough edges. It was very useful to get users on it and to get feedback rather than talking about a concept. Usual startup advice but provided us with the ability to do a PoC.
Turn Up: we got a tremendous series of opportunities through the programme to meet and present to people, we took as many of these as we could, attempted to conduct ourselves professionally and developed our networks. The relationship with Barclays and Techstars will develop through your investment in it.
It’s all too easy to complain but it’s not useful: from the perspective of a fast moving startup, everything is slow. There is little point in developing acrimonious relationships with Barclays or Techstars. The corporate environment is changing and your PoC may get rescheduled through no fault of your own, it may take time to see a senior executive, procurement may take time. It’s better to show empathy with the situation and attempt to solve it rather than venting.
Lead Mentor Investment: Barclays provided us with a lead mentor who would be responsible for helping us to navigate the enterprise. We had a great mentor who remains a great friend to date. Fostering this relationship will help you unpick the times where you go off the rails from usual corporate processes, this will happen a lot. Just like the above points, it’s important here to respect their time as they will have lots of other things on their plate. We set up scheduled catch-up points, tracked actions and took notes. We really enjoyed investing time in connecting with our lead mentor. Thank you, Mike Andrews from Barclays, for being an excellent lead mentor.