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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.