Not for the thin-skinned: accelerating the trajectory of a tech startup
“What makes your project any better than those of your competitors? What will stop people stealing your idea? You need to learn how to interact with investors.”
This is the blunt feedback that Skolkovo resident companies hear from potential investors during the pre-demo day of the Seed accelerator programme for IT startups run by the Skolkovo Foundation’s mobile tech centre.
Fyodor Gabibov enjoys presenting his company Surfancy's product, and says criticism is like gold. Photo: Sk.ru.
No punches are pulled as the five participant companies present their results after one month in the four-month programme – the aim is after all to help the companies sell their product – but entrepreneurship is not for the thin-skinned.
Fyodor Gabibov, commercial director and co-founder of Surfancy, a company that can turn any surface – such as shop windows and store shelves – into a touch-sensitive area, is unfazed.
“It can be hard giving these presentations, there’s a lot of pressure, but you can look at it another way,” he says. “I say, ‘thank you for coming to listen to us’ – I see it as an opportunity to listen to them. That way, even when we receive criticism, it’s like gold, it’s really important.”
Gabibov is visibly undaunted by the repetitive cycle of presenting his company and product and then hearing just what those present think could be done better.
“I enjoy it, and that’s why in our team, I do it,” he laughs.
Mikhail Kulikov, founder of Throne Systems, which makes control interfaces for smart homes, says his company also finds the feedback useful in general, though he says there is not always a consensus among investors.
“Experience shows that there are a lot of different opinions,” he told Sk.ru. “A unanimous opinion among investors doesn’t exist, so we look at who’s talking. There are some investors who might potentially invest in our project, and there are others who don’t even understand what we’re doing,” he said, adding that the company had gained some very valuable feedback regarding its first presentation as part of the accelerator.
Mikhail Kulikov, founder of smart homes programmes Throne Systems, said valuable feedback had made the company reevaluate its product, though he said investor opinions are rarely unanimous. Photo: Sk.ru
The Seed programme, which is focused on helping startups to clearly define their audience and attract clients, will culminate with a Demo Day at Skolkovo’s Startup Village in June, when the startups will present their projects to investors from all over the world.
It is the first accelerator in which Throne Systems, which has been a resident of Skolkovo’s IT cluster since the end of last year, has taken part.
“We’re taking part in the accelerator in order to get a second opinion, feedback, a fresh view of our project, and we’re pleased with the results,” said Kulikov.
“In the first month – the pre-accelerator – we learned a lot of new information and were made to reevaluate our project, and that was the most useful thing, because without the accelerator, we would have continued to consider it as it was, and that would have been wrong. We’ve made really significant progress,” he said.
Surfancy, on the other hand, is taking part simultaneously in another two accelerator programmes organized by Microsoft and MEGA, the chain of malls operated by IKEA.
“It’s hard, it’s intensive, but we’re managing,” says Gabibov. “The Microsoft accelerator focuses on technology. MEGA is a great programme for focusing on retail, it’s been really helpful. The Seed accelerator helps us to set up various sales channels.”
Gabibov said the feedback from investors and top managers was emphatically an asset. “The constant communication with them is inspiring and interesting,” he said, though like Kulikov, his company has also encountered the dilemma of contradictory feedback.
“When we get conflicting advice, that’s actually the cool part – then we discuss why it has happened,” he told Sk.ru. “People make recommendations based on their own experience, and it’s not an exact science like physics, so our task is then to test all the advice on the market and establish what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
The Seed accelerator programme is being run by Skolkovo’s mobile tech centre for the second year. Open to IT startups at the early stages of pre-seed and seed investments, it consists of a series of workshops in aspects ranging from internet marketing and work with social networks to financial models and sales strategies, as well as negotiations, crowdfunding and corporate law.
“Companies have a clear understanding of the trajectory of their development following the accelerator,” said Vasily Ryzhonkov, head of the mobile tech centre.
“They have a better grasp of the business model and are more likely to attract investment in the next round - like Navigine, which completed the Seed accelerator last year and recently announced it had raised $400,000 from a Finnish-led syndicate,” he said.
The first month of the accelerator is aimed at researching demand. The companies devote their time to communicating with potential buyers and experts, explains Sergei Pogrebnyakov, manager of acceleration programmes at Skolkovo’s Technopark.
“The first month is spent identifying the audience and understanding what they want,” he told Sk.ru. “The aim of the second part is to work on ways of attracting clients and assessing profitability, as well as formulating a concrete plan for future development after the accelerator program is over,” he said.
“We try to develop the teams’ competencies through seminars and traction meetings, when they assess each other’s work for that week and formulate a plan of action for the next week, based on what they have learned and what seems to be holding them back,” said Pogrebnyakov.
Ryzhonkov said the next step would be a large-scale accelerator programme open to all the foundation’s residents, not just those fostered by the mobile tech centre.
As for the frank feedback, the companies understand its value and most accept it as useful, said Pogrebnyakov.
“Companies who listen to experts and are open to feedback achieve better results,” he said.