About one month ago, we were given the opportunity to participate in Seedcamp Paris 2012. In this post I’ll try to think back to that time and provide feedback, along with some advice if you’re considering going in that direction. In short, I can already say that this experience has revolutionized the way we drive the company!
Everything starts with a good application… or a rushed one in our case! At that time (end of October) we were fully focused on product development and finishing everything needed for our launch (documentation, video, etc.). While we knew about Seedcamp coming to Paris in early December, we initially saw it as a potential distraction from more important stuff… we could not have been more wrong!
Our opinion changed after a lunch with Philippe Laval, former Seedcamp alumni with his company Kwaga (now WriteThat.name), whom I had the pleasure to meet a few times in my previous jobs. In a couple of hours, Philippe opened our eyes to the broad requirements for successfully launching a startup. Product is clearly one, but there are so many others we could not ignore. His description of how his Seedcamp participation helped him a few years back was enough to convince us we had to give it a shot.
Each step of the process brought its own rewards, starting with the application! It is a simple form but it contains excellent questions about positioning, monetization, competition and more. The best thing about it was that we were forced to write down our vision for the company and this simple process made us think harder than we had ever done before. We ended up convincing ourselves more fully of what we were doing and why, with facts and arguments to defend our vision. Of course, we would present the company completely differently today! We continued to learn at an accelerated pace in the following weeks. Despite some imperfections, participating in a Seedcamp final is definitely a must.
The Almighty Pitch Preparation
About a couple of weeks before the event, we received the good news: we were in! The promise to keep our success confidential was a bit frustrating, but honestly we were overjoyed! However, there was no time to celebrate as preparations for the event began immediately.
We already knew about the format and what to expect from the Seedcamp team from what we gathered on the web. But there is a great leap from knowing to actually preparing to participate! And with all the regular day-(to-night-)to-day activities that our startup entailed, time was short.
We started by focusing on the pitch: 3 minutes, in English, to say a lot. We rapidly drafted a first version and began to iterate, adding essential information and removing anything not worth mentioning. It may seem straightforward, but including everything from the problem, solution, vision, market, competition, monetization and team in a three minute deck is no easy task. It is, however, an excellent way to learn how to better explain your startup! We learned to be concise – every word counts, and I began to memorize each and every one of them. I had given speeches of various kinds on many occasions in the past but I had never learned a text by heart. If you’ve never done it before, it is more difficult than you may think. For a long time, I was so concerned to get the wording right that any mistake would send me fumbling for my next words. I had to practice dozens of times to feel comfortable enough to pay attention to simple things like intonation!
Some advice: start working on your pitch as early as possible and get as much feedback as you can. We were able to organize some pitch training sessions with startup personalities and I can’t stress how useful this proved to be! (Our greatest thanks to Wessel, Liam, Philippe and Fred). But wait, isn’t there a training session on the eve of the event? Yes, and it is incredibly useful. But if you don’t like the idea of changing everything overnight, work on your draft and seek feedback beforehand! The preparation session will be all the more focused for it. Also, if you can, do test your presentation with the actual computer and projector that will be used the next day. While in our case the conference room was really nice, the projector was very low-res and our embedded video would not render at all. Fortunately we had the time to record a new one with all fonts in bold…
Prepare your Mentoring Session too!
Out of the 20 teams participating, only two or three get an investment, so the odds are tough. You may be lucky and seduce the Seedcamp team, but if not don’t waste your opportunity to get the most out of the mentoring sessions! This is an incredible opportunity: about 80 mentors, many of them expert in some field key to the success of your company, and all there ready to help. Believe me, you don’t want to miss that! You would have a hard time to get their attention at any other time.
So be prepared! Think hard about the important questions (tip: usually the ones that hurt) and look at the mentors’ bios, articles, and anything else you can dig up. If there’s a fit, that’s a win! Don’t take it lightly, this is probably harder than preparing your pitch. You’re probably thinking you only have one chance to make a good first impression with your pitch, while you can’t shame yourself too badly by being underprepared for the mentoring sessions. You’re right… but I’m convinced it is much more fruitful to concentrate on getting answers and advice that could mean success over failure for your company (a passable pitch may not be enough to get a Seedcamp investment but good advice might reap untold rewards). Convinced? Have a look at Andreas Klinger excellent post to get on track!
In our case, Julien did most of the work preparing for mentoring while I concentrated on the pitch. Could we have done more? Probably. Should we have done more? Yes. One month after the event, I think we put a good level of effort into the pitch preparation, but we should have taken some more time on the mentoring preparation. Honestly, I think we were good, with a clear list of questions and we were ready to shut up and listen. But we could have researched the mentors more thoroughly, especially the ones not on our schedule.
Your pitch is ready, you’ve got all mentors covered, you slept
8 6 4 as many hours as you could… let’s do this! First, get up early. Arrive at least 30 minutes before the start of the event. Then you have time to relax, get friendly with other teams and actually take the opportunity to speak with a few mentors before the event.
After a relatively short presentation by the Seedcamp team, it will be time for the pitches! 20 of them, 3 minutes each. Attention tends to drift, which is why your pitch has to be captivating. Now is your chance to shine and put all your practice to the test! We were lucky to go first as we were sorted in alphabetical order. Other participants thought that was unlucky but I was thankful! I had an opportunity to grab the audience’s attention and there was no time for stress to build up in anticipation before our turn… and everything went all right! It was actually one of my best performances, much better than during training the previous day.
One thing we could have improved was leveraging the pitch for communication. There are two things you can easily do – take some photos or a video, and tweet about your experience! Also, always have your twitter handle visible on the slides. You may think it is enough to put it on the first and last slides but what if someone watching wants to tweet during your pitch? Make it easy for them!
Time for Mentoring
OK, so you are prepared for the mentoring and have researched all the mentors? Some good ones are certainly not in your schedule so go and meet them during the breaks! And either ask them to participate in your open sessions (mentors are free to pick the teams they want for the last two sessions) or directly ask them the questions that trouble you. Don’t expect them to remember everything you said during your pitch (they just saw 20 of them!) so get a short intro ready. It is also better to have a quick demo instead of too many words.
You’re now up for 5 or 6 sessions of intense discussion with mentors. Andreas provides excellent advice on the pitfalls and potential benefits of these sessions. Don’t forget, mentors are there to help you, they won’t attack you. Don’t try to convice them you’re right, just listen what they have to say. Don’t lose time explaining every aspect of your startup, instead ask specific questions about their experience. And don’t be shy to ask for introductions. Either they will or they won’t, but it doesn’t hurt to ask!
Of course nothing is ever perfect. All mentors are not equal and some of them may not even show up to your scheduled session (don’t blame them, they usually have a hectic schedule and your startup may not have an activity they relate to). Anyway, you don’t need to speak with all of them. It is much better to enjoy profound and fruitful discussions with a few.
The day concludes with a party – in our case at a nice wine bar. As you can guess, every team was quite exhausted and didn’t stay late. A handful would be invited back the next day to discuss potential participation in the program. The selection process is a little obscure, with no clue provided as to their criteria. This is a bit frustrating as I would have appreciated to know why they didn’t select us.
Keep in mind that mentors will have been approached by many people and may forget the intro they promised you. Connect with them, thank them for their precious advice, and kindly remind them of the introductions they promised. And if you had a really good discussion with some of them, see if they would be happy to continue a more regular mentorship role.
To get the best out of your Seedcamp final, you should invest a lot of time in preparation. Don’t bet everything on being accepted, the pitch day and mentoring alone is definitely worth your effort. The preparation itself helped us to focus on key questions and strategic decisions. We then had a priceless opportunity to test our ideas with experts in many domains and to ask them focused questions. That was like 6 months worth of mentorship in one day and it profoundly affected our strategy for 2013! The event also boosted our network – we contacted many people directly after the event and a few have even become regular mentors.
The Seedcamp team is amazing but there is some room for improvement. We got excellent feedback on our pitch during the training, but unfortunately, it was lacking after the actual event. We were forwarded a few very nice comments from mentors, but that was it. While we had the opportunity to discuss directly with mentors, I would have loved to have some feedback from the Seedcamp team. I understand they do not want to encourage debate over their selection decisions, but understanding their reasoning would certainly be useful.
From listening to other participants about their experience, be aware that if you are selected for investment, the paperwork is time-consuming! Do not plan too many developments for your startup or you may be disappointed by the poor progress you’ll make during that time. And don’t forget that the Seedcamp US trip is early the following year and that is something to prepare for too! Another important thing we overlooked when applying is the need to (re)incorporate your company in the UK. This is not such a big deal in the first year as you will have help from Seedcamp but what about afterwards, especially if you operate from your home country? Each country’s legislation is highly specific and you may have some headaches in store. Don’t forget to prepare for this before the end of the Seedcamp program.
In conclusion, Seedcamp Paris lived up to its reputation. Asked if we would do it again, we would certainly answer yes! And I sincerely encourage other startups to give it a go!