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Seedcamp: How we got in to Europe’s leading accelerator.

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A bit of background: Seedcamp is a leading pan-European accelerator that takes in promising start-ups and accelerates their growth. It’s backed by a great team, has been investing in businesses since 2007 and it’s funded by over thirty VCs and angels, including Index Ventures, Atomico and Yandex to name but a few.

Each year it accepts thousands of entries, and boils them down to batches of twenty who take part in an intensive Seedcamp Week. Around a quarter/third of these companies are then picked to move full time on to the programme.
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Tom and I (the founders of Formisimo are Al Mackin and Tom New) were fortunate enough to win Bizcamp in October 2013 which took us to Tel Aviv with eleven other start-ups for a week of events and knowledge share. It was a five-day period that had a dramatic impact on us, the kind of experience that you want to recreate…the kind that you’re desperate to recreate. We met so many great people, from other start-ups to tech leaders, we slept so little and we came back as a stronger business and unit than when we left. Wherever our journey takes us Tel Aviv will forever be a big shiny pin on our roadmap but we wanted to find a programme that would be the next step up.

We knew Seedcamp and we wanted to have a team of their strength working with us on Formisimo so we put in for their London 2014 Seedcamp Week. Entering an accelerator isn’t a light process, there’s a lot of questions, videos as they have the unenviable task of getting under the skin of thousands of businesses and filtering them down to twenty.

Getting that email from the team saying we were in to the Seedcamp Week was a pretty emotional experience. This journey is about a business, numbers, electricity and sweat, but behind everything we’ve experienced so far, from Seedcamp to Bizcamp, from our first big client I met in NY to that first incredible feeling of knocking down the technical barriers in our first prototype, it’s about feeling something.

I wanted to share the five days we had in London.

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Day One – First Presentations (4.5 hours sleep)

We landed in London on Sunday 2nd February and Seedcamp started at 2pm the next day. Google’s campus is pretty cool, there’s a nice energy there and Techhub & Seedcamp sit in the same building. After some intros, and a “tell us something interesting about yourself” (Mine was: I used to play the Cello and I used to get inside the case to hide) we split in to two groups and presented our three minute pitch.

Over the last year our pitches have got shorter and shorter, which means you have to be on point with every slide.

This session was all about some straight down the line feedback, from both Seedcamp and the other teams, which led to us making some subtle changes that evening. The key take home is “What’s your story and why should I buy in to it?” The best bit of advice we received before the week was to start from scratch. Presentations evolve over time, get bastardised and end up having layer upon layer of edits.

By midnight we’d completed our fifteenth presentation run through.

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Day Two – The Big One (6.5 hours sleep).

On paper this day looked easy – a single three minute presentation with twelve minutes of questions. The less time you have then the better you have to be, and we were told – rightly – to get the answers to any questions out as quickly and succinctly as possible. The shorter we are, the more questions we can get through, the more the audience absorbs our journey and future.

In front of us that day were representatives from the funds behind Seedcamp, plus the Seedcamp team. I was told that there was a dog in the room too, but I was so focused that I don’t even recall the questions we were asked. We were on at 1:30pm, downstairs again by 2pm.

We were up to thirty five practice run throughs at the end of that day, I no longer feel any embarrassment doing a presentation on public transport.

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Day Three – Founders Day (7 hours sleep)

Tube strike day – we set out at 8am as our line was still running but every train that hit our station was rammed. At one point Tom managed to get on, but I couldn’t squeeze myself in. Founders don’t leave each other behind, so we located a taxi.

Today we upped the game and presented in front of fifty people, all of whom are founders of tech businesses. It was the same three minute presentation, with a couple of minor tweaks, and we ran in alphabetical order. We were told if you’re the first, or the last, then you’ll be remembered, if you’re in the middle then you have to entertain. What followed was a networking lunch, then an afternoon of rotational mentoring.

We sat still, and groups of four founders would move around each table every thirty minutes. I can’t put words in any order that would convey how cool and powerful this was.

Sat in front of us were people who’ve been through this process and who want to help you, and the quality was high – all killer and no filler. I’m not going to pick anyone out in particular, they were all so great, and we got a brilliant response from them on what we’re trying to do.

The day ended up with a wrap up, and then a founders party at a nearby bar. You’re never off duty and we ended up having a great chat with a founder who has a business in our space. Hotel, practice again, sleep. (Up to forty five run throughs now).

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Day Four – Product Day (5.5 hours sleep).

Earlier than usual set off to beat the tube strike, which failed so we decided to walk and bus it.

There’s a cross-over between the days in terms of knowledge, but the real focus for today was to get under the skin of the actual thing we’ve built. It was the same format as the day before, presenting for three minutes (minor tweaks to cater for the crowd) and a new group of great mentors. To give you an idea of the quality of the mentors we had thirty minute sessions with people from, or previously from, T-Mobile, Asos, Google, Not On The High Street, New Look to name but a few.

I had an acronym filled final chat with a CTO who gave us a great steer on future proofing our infrastructure. Powerful advice that we’re already starting to implement. The day ended with a party in the Google Café, more chats, a pretty intense game of table fussball and eating bread sticks, popcorn and drinking beer.

There’s an opportunity to drink at the end of each day, but you’d be daft to go beyond a couple of units – we went back to the hotel and ripped our pitch apart. Sat in a tiny hotel room eating takeaway, going over each shape, each point, each image has become an enjoyable norm. We’re up to sixty five run throughs now.

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Day Five – The Big One (6 hours sleep).

Out of the hotel at 7am so we can arrive at the venue at 8am. We’re presenting in front of a hundred and eighty leaders, investors and key individuals so we got in early to do a run through. By the time we hit the venue we’d practiced another five times, but it’s important to note that we’re always adjusting – maybe we’re right, maybe we’re wrong but we considered every word and what impression it gave, so Tom and I were constantly feeding back to each other to either reduce the number of words to say the same thing, or to find a better way of expressing a number or fact.

I enjoy presenting, I have great days, good days and bad days, but I love talking about what we’re doing – we’re lucky that we have a great story, a great product and some great numbers to share. I’m proud of what we created, and that makes it a whole lot easier to stand up and string sentences together to build a picture.

There was a great vibe today, I haven’t touched on the other teams yet but there was a growing bond between everyone, there was no one in the week who I didn’t like, respect or both. The auditorium was big, and it was a good setup with a huge screen behind us and two monitors in front showing just the speakers their time and their current slide. The first presenter up was asked to give a sound test so he sang a soul song, just one more laugh out loud moment for the week (and there were many) that de-stressed us.

A week before the start of Seedcamp Week we had an email which asked us for two missing pieces of information – one was something technical about the business, the second was “Which song do you want to come on stage to”. We span through my iPod and by random chance Billie Piper came up, so we walked on stage to Day and Night. I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to walk on stage to Billie Piper again.

Can I remember those three minutes? A bit, especially when I glanced down to the prompting screen to see it was blank. One thing I noticed after running through the same presentation so many times was that I could talk and think at the same time, so I’m saying the words I need to say but I’m free to have a think about the next steps, what’s coming up, which words did we agree to change etc.

My honest summation of our presentation was it was the quality high point of the week, Tom and I are pretty self-critical, but we’d gone from being good to somewhere hovering around great, and we weren’t alone in moving the quality forwards. Some of the teams had accelerated dramatically, and it was a lovely thing to see – lots of back slapping, well done’s all round.

The last section of the day was the same as previous, rotational mentoring with around six to eight in each group. Our second to last group was so big we had to split it in two! The quality of the feedback and advice was ridiculous, and the personal high point for me was speaking to the co-founder of Shazam, a company I’ve followed since I was young.

We ended the week with notebooks full of feedback, a stack of business cards, a huge increase in sign-ups and that incredible feeling of tiredness when you’ve just done something amazing.

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Some final thoughts

It would be rude not to thank the great team behind Seedcamp. Imagine herding twenty start-ups with fifty founders, hundreds of investors/leaders, and all the support staff, food and devices through five days? They did it all brilliantly, so big thanks to Carlos, Reshma, Hilary, Kirsten, Felix and Sia.

It’s just been announced that we’re now officially part of the Seedcamp family, so our journey with our great product will now be alongside a group of talented and passionate individuals. We get to work out of Google’s London campus, we get to go on the US tour which takes in all the major tech and VC hotspots and I’ll get to eat takeaways out of tiny hotel rooms for the foreseeable future.

The last thing we did before we left on Friday was grab some Seedcamp t-shirts. I wear mine with pride, as I’m now part of the Seedcamp family.