Blackstone LaunchPad Techstars Training Camp (part 2)

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Laura Drudy and Niamh Keogh, two drivers from the Geec, won the opportunity to travel to New York City for the Blackstone LaunchPad Techstars Training Camp and Demo Day through a campus competition run by Blackstone LaunchPad at NUI Galway. Read more about their experience below:

“The Galway energy-efficient car (better known as the Geec) is an eco-car designed and built by NUI Galway engineering students.” www.thegeec.ie

Already Ireland’s most energy efficient car, the Geec has the capability to travel from New York to Chicago for just 16 cents worth of electricity, over 500 times cheaper than any average diesel car today. Designed and built by undergraduate engineers, the team now wants the Geec to become the world’s most energy efficient vehicle. To prove the vehicle’s ability to compete on a global scale, the Geec competes in Shell Eco-Marathon, the world’s top ultra-efficiency competition, aimed at finding the world’s most energy efficient cars.

Aiming to get the knowledge and advice we need to bring our idea to the next level, we pitched the Geec to Blackstone Launchpad at NUI Galway with the hope of gaining a place at the Techstars Training Camp and Demo Day in New York. Last month, we were then selected as one of the two student ventures from NUI Galway for the event! Within two weeks we were in New York.

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The two-day event proved to be everything we expected and more. From the moment we arrived, we were surrounded by enthusiastic and positive entrepreneurs – all wanting to share ideas and learn as much as possible. The event space itself, Galvanize, was creative and fun. Its artistic, innovative design set the mood for the event. From start to finish, the event was jam-packed with mentoring sessions and talks from the Techstars and Blackstone Launchpad teams. Throughout all of this, we had the opportunity to meet new people, share our ideas and learn how to improve our project. There was a constant energy and drive to succeed shared by everyone present.

We also got the opportunity to hear Steve Schwarzman (Co-Founder, Chairman, and CEO of The Blackstone Group) talk about how he built the Blackstone empire. To hear him speak so humbly about his experiences was fascinating and truly inspiring. Overall we felt that we gained a huge amount from the experience, despite the limited time frame. Meeting other start-ups, seeing how they think and seeing what drives them to build their businesses showed us a new way of thinking. Talks and guidance on everything from marketing and funding to diversity provided us with the invaluable advice we needed to bring our project to the next stage in its development. Now just to implement it!

 

Tolteca Review

Tolteca Galway Counter

Tolteca Galway CounterTolteca is a Mexican burrito bar founded in Ireland in 2011 inspired by the success of large U.S Mexican food franchises. I decided to have a look on behalf of Blackstone Launchpad at what makes Tolteca different to its competitors, its marketing efforts towards students and the challenges faced by Tolteca Newcastle Road Galway throughout the year.

What you see is what you get when you decide to eat in Tolteca , all of their kitchens are open planned so you can see how the food is prepared. This is a big unique selling point in my opinion as it gives customers a sense of trust in how the food is prepared. You can literally see staff members crushing the avocados for the guacamole which highlights the openness “nothing to hide” culture of Tolteca.

Marketing efforts to the student market remain a strong focus for Tolteca Newcastle Road Galway, through student meal deals – burrito and drink for €6.95 , loyalty cards – every 7th burrito is free and regular social media giveaways. Involvement in NUIG societies also plays a major role in marketing to students and Tolteca Galway is currently involved in the GUMS society and also provides sponsorship for the NUIG basketball team.

Further efforts to understand the student market have been taken as Tolteca Galway are currently working alongside students who will be conducting a Tolteca student survey as part of their final year project which will provide Tolteca Galway the opportunity to hear direct feedback from the student market.

A successful franchise in the competitive Mexican burrito bar industry does not come without its challenge’s. Summer months are less student focused but when September comes around again marketing efforts are focused on gaining returning student customers. Tolteca Galway’s location, although relatively close to the University is not ideal. Potential customers have to pass a long line of restaurants and food marketplaces before reaching Tolteca which makes it challenging to compete effectively at times.

Overall if you are looking for student friendly, high quality, Irish sourced, honest, Mexican food then Tolteca makes for a great option. Located just a few minutes from NUIG it is well worth the visit.

Jack Middleton,
Blackstone Launchpad NUIG intern.

Blackstone LaunchPad Techstars Training Camp

MistCalls recently won a competition put forward by Blackstone LaunchPad at NUI Galway to attend the Techstars training camp and demo day in New York City. Two members of our team – Des Dolan and Shane O’Sullivan – jumped at the opportunity. We will describe our experience and some key insights we gained from our two days there.

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Blackstone LaunchPad, Techstars and the Training Camp
“Hosted at Galvanize in New York City, Blackstone LaunchPad Techstars Training Camp brought together the top performing Blackstone LaunchPad ventures from across its global network (20 Blackstone LaunchPad campuses across the US and Ireland). Over the course of two days, the teams heard from experts on specific topics related to entrepreneurship, and received mentoring sessions from members of the Techstars global mentor network”

 

MistCalls is a mobile call manager that provides a holistic suite of context, organisational and analytical features to help professionals manage their calls. Ultimately, MistCalls acts as an intelligent personal secretary that’s always with you. The company was started in the west of Ireland by the MistCalls team and at our very early stages, when MistCalls was nothing more than an idea, we were lucky enough to call into the Blackstone LaunchPad based in the National University of Ireland, Galway to seek some advice. The team there have been hugely helpful in getting MistCalls to where it is today – from its infancy state when we first knocked on their door and still provide great support to us as we continue to grow, as they have with many other companies. (We are especially grateful to Natalie Walsh and Joshua Chao, Executive Director and Venture Coach Extraordinaire at the NUIG LaunchPad respectively, who have gone above and beyond with their help and insights to date.)

We were fortunate to be picked to attend the Techstars training camp and demo day with another NUIG LaunchPad-backed venture ‘the Geec’, who are working on producing the world’s most energy-efficient car. With four other Irish companies from TCD and UCC, we flew to NY to join the 36 US-based start-ups for a packed two days of learning and networking.

The whole event was an exciting and busy mix of talks, workshops, 1-on-1 mentoring sessions, demos and of course networking. We learned a lot from some of the best mentors and entrepreneurs the Techstars family has to offer, such as John Hill, Ryan Kuder, and Brad Feld.

Desmond Dolan (CEO) and Shane O’Sullivan (Lead Software Developer) from MistCalls
Joshua Chao (Venture Coach) and Natalie Walsh (Executive Director) from Blackstone LaunchPad at NUI Galway
Desmond Dolan (CEO) and Shane O’Sullivan (Lead Software Developer) from MistCalls
Joshua Chao (Venture Coach) and Natalie Walsh (Executive Director) from Blackstone LaunchPad at NUI Galway

Workshops, Talks, and Key Insights

Both days started with talks from Brad Feld and David Cohen (cofounders of Techstars). These were then followed by workshops, talks, and deeper discussions from a number of speakers from the Techstars team, Boston Consultancy Group, Blackstone Charitable Foundation, and of course, a handful of successful entrepreneurs who have been through it all before.

We talked through everything from finance to the importance of culture and its effect on your bottom line to dealing with large corporations as an early-stage startup. We can’t begin to describe everything we learned through these talks and discussions, but we’ve listed some of the topics we discussed and a few of our key takeaways below:

On “Finance, Growth Projections, and Sales”, we heard from Clement Cazalot, Lesa Mitchell, Amos Schwartzfarb (Techstars team members) and Brent Grinna (Founder and CEO of Evertrue). Some key takeaways:

  • If you can’t answer exactly, ‘Why are you fundraising?’, you probably shouldn’t be.
  • It can take up to 12-18 months from first meeting a VC before receiving any money; make sure you plan for this.
  • If you want to raise money, ask yourself: Do you have a scalable mechanism? Will people follow you? Prove it!
  • Take advantage of non-dilutable finance opportunities like competitions, grants etc.
  • Don’t underestimate ‘Smart Money’.
  • When defining your market always go bottom up AND top down and be realistic.

We then heard from Ryan Kuder and Ryan Luikens from the Techstars team on “Brand Development, Identity, and Effective Marketing”. Some key takeaways:

  • For all things marketing: Keep it simple and always be learning.
  • Work on figuring out just 3 questions: Who are the customers? Where you find them? How will they pay?
  • Consider segmenting your market based on problems as opposed to demographics.
  • Always allocate a small percentage of your budget on trying new marketing platforms and ideas.
  • Know and understand the 3Ms of virality: Motivation, Mechanism and Message.

“Business Strategy, Dealing with Corporations, Building Roadmaps, and De-Risking Your Business” was then discussed with Jenny Fielding and Cody Simms (Techstars), Jesse Wolfe (Founder of O’Dang Hummus) and Cassie Newhouse (BCG). Some key takeaways:

  • You sometimes need to look bigger than you are to deal with large corporations (incl. retailers) and be very aware of the long sales cycles, decision processes, and who the real decision makers are if you want to succeed.
  • Think about pushing for a paid pilot if you are providing real value to larger enterprises.
  • A roadmap should be defined as ‘a prioritised view of things assumed to be most critical to the company subject to test’ and should be treated as such.
  • Assess your roadmap based on how crucial an assumption is and the quality of the data you have to back it up. In turn, don’t prioritise features; prioritise assumptions that need to be validated.
  • Test everything, if you don’t have data you only have hope.
  • Instigate daily, weekly or monthly learning goals for both your team and your company.

“The Power of Your Network, Dealing with Mentors, Communication Skills, and the importance of  Diversity in Tech” were all touched on by John Hill and Nicole Glaros (Techstars) and Kate Brodrock (CEO of Women 2.0). Some key takeaways:

  • Build your network now for when you need it later.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of LinkedIn; they have some amazing tools hidden in there.
  • Export/download your LinkedIn contact list (while you still can).
  • Don’t be afraid to just reach out and ask; the worst they can say is no.
  • It’s been proven that a diverse team does affect the bottom line and it’s a lot easier and cheaper in the long run to ensure you’ve instigated an appropriate culture at an early stage than later.
  • Be careful of unconscious biases your team may have, particularly in interviews.
  • When suggesting a meeting offer three times and an option for them to suggest a time
  • Ensure you follow up after meetings, introductions, mentoring etc.
  • Be specific when asking for advice
  • Email is like a science in itself, know when to use and how to use it, e.g. how to make intros, using the ‘bcc’ effectively, when to follow up or how to cold email.
John Hill (Network Catalyst, Techstars) Describing how to best utilise your Network
John Hill (Network Catalyst, Techstars) Describing how to best utilise your Network

1-on-1 Mentoring

Day 2 mostly revolved around the 1-on-1 mentoring sessions which we found was the most valuable aspect of the two days. The direct input on how we could take MistCalls to the next level was invaluable and truly highlighted the benefits of surrounding yourself with people who have scaled successful businesses before. Jon Zanoff and Lesa Mitchell (both MDs at Techstars), Jason Grad (CEO of Bstow) and Preston Junger (Co-Founder Mile Square Labs, Ex-Yelp) all provided their insights and feedback on everything from product innovation, initial target markets to growth strategies and team dynamics – all of which we’ve taken on board and begun instigating in the company since we arrived back to Ireland.

The team from the Geec making the most out of their 1-on-1 mentoring
The team from the Geec making the most out of their 1-on-1 mentoring

Networking

I don’t think the value of networking during the trip can be understated. Blackstone hosted an evening social at their new Innovation and Infrastructures office on Lexington Ave where we had a chance to network after the first day of talks. We also heard from Stephen Schwarzman (Chairman and CEO of The Blackstone Group), William Murphy (Sr. Managing Director and CTO at Blackstone), Amy Stursberg (Executive Director of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation) and Alisha Slye (Global Director of Blackstone LaunchPad) on how they grew Blackstone into the multi-billion dollar company it is today and how they are continuing to innovate moving forward. Throughout this event and over the rest of the hectic two days, we met teams from over 40 amazing start-ups working on everything from cricket cookies to trading algorithms for digital assets through to the Techstars and Blackstone mentors, curious investors, and even potential customers interested in MistCalls.

A fascinating keynote talk from Stephen A. Schwarzman, Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Blackstone
A fascinating keynote talk from Stephen A. Schwarzman, Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Blackstone

Demo Day

To close out the event, seven companies were picked to pitch in a ‘Demo Day Competition’ and we were delighted to see Ireland being so well represented in the winners chosen. Josh Aviv of SparkCharge (portable charging for electric cars) won the event. Second and third place were taken by Irish companies ApisProtect (IoT solutions for bee hives) with Fiona Edwards Murphy, and Zorin OS (a Windows/MacOS competitor with 17 million downloads) with Artyom and Kyrell Zorin, respectively. The standard of all seven pitches was extremely high and the judges didn’t hold back with their questions so it was a great end to the event itself.

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The judges taking every detail in during the Demo Day Pitches

 

Ultimately, the Techstars Training Camp and Demo Day was a huge success and incredibly helpful to us as a growing startup. The insights we gained and the connections we made will be invaluable moving forward. We are looking forward to applying everything we learned over the coming months to the company and we are excited to get back to NYC soon again but hopefully next time, as we’re launching our product into the US market.

The MistCalls team making the most of their downtime in NYC
The MistCalls team making the most of their downtime in NYC