So this is the last (proper) week of the accelerator and we have had to move out of our temporary home in Central Working, Shoreditch.
I have mixed feelings about going because on the one hand I have enjoyed being up in London and around others for a change, rather than the solitude of home working. However, on the other hand I won’t miss the early starts and getting to the station only to find that my train has been delayed.
The big thing this week was getting to practice the pitch at the venue we will be at for real next Friday – 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf. Unfortunately the actual room that we will be in next week wasn’t available so we had to be content with peering through the window to see the space. The consolation was that the views out across Canary Wharf were fantastic, as you can see below.
We were in a space call Level 39, named because it takes up the whole of the 39th floor of 1 Canada Square. A very trendy place to work if you can afford it but the facilities are, as you would expect, top notch. This includes the iPad operated coffee machine which allows you to not only select the drink of your choice but also options such as the number of grammes of coffee and how much chocolate sprinkles you would like. Not being a coffee drinker I cannot say how good the coffee was but I cannot imagine that even the addition of an iPad can replace the abilities of a proper barista.
So all that remains now is the demo day itself. Check back in a week to see how it went!
So we are rapidly reaching the end of the accelerator programme and most of what we are doing now is geared towards the demo day in a coupe of weeks time. We have had more sessions with the Pitch Doctor and it is really taking shape now and beginning to flow. You can pack quite a lot into five minutes it seems.
What has been really great is not only seeing how much our pitch has improved over the weeks but also those of our cohort. There has clearly been a great leap forward from everybody.
As I said at the outset I’m not a gamer but can really appreciate what goes into their work. Being alongside a couple of gaming companies it has been interesting to see them at work. Clearly their way of working is very different to us working on B2B and that in itself has been educational. What has been particularly impressive is just how quickly they have gone from a concept to playable demo in a few short weeks. We really need to up our game and start delivering more often too.
Elsewhere we have been back to Microsoft UK HQ in Reading for a meeting with the sales side of the business. Microsoft has five buildings in Reading at TVP and during the accelerator I have visited three of them so I am hoping to complete the set before the twelve weeks are up!
One thing that all accelerator programmes seem to have in common is a demo day at the. The Microsoft Ventures Accelerator is no different and we are working towards ours which takes place on 6th December.
I haven’t yet worked out quite why it is called a demo day as there isn’t going to be any time for a demo given that we have a three minute slot.
We started this week with a session with the “Pitch Doctor” who took us through our existing presentation in excruciating detail and it really felt like being back at school with a really, really enthusiastic teacher!
The first bit of good news that the doctor dispensed was that only one of us should present and given that Tim is the CEO it makes more sense for him to do it! Result! The rest of the advice seemed sound and enabled us to hone the presentation.
As I have pointed out in previous post one of the best things about the accelerator programme is the access you get to a wide variety of people – all of whom are happy to share their opinion with you. This is great until you somewhat inevitably receive conflicting advice which is exactly what has happened regarding the presentation. This is unfortunate but it is our business and we know what we want and so spent time filtering the advice to find what made most sense for us. This I think is really important as nobody knows your business like we do.
Microsoft kindly organised a UX Hackathon for us this week out at their Reading HQ which gave us an opportunity to put our two products in front of a panel of individuals. We spent two hours going through the functionality and getting some really useful feedback on how we can improve both. Having people come to your offerings blind really shows you what bits work and what doesn’t.
The office had the addition of the odd contraption you can see in the picture in the bottom right. So far I haven’t been able to establish what it is and have been told that it is a Dalek maker!
There are many great things about the UK plug but size isn’t one of them. This is mainly due to the advantages the plug offers including things that most other countries eschew such as an earth pin and integral fuse.
All this means that they take up an enormous amount of space and a bloody painful when stood on being second only on the pain scale to a Lego brick.
However, help is at hand with the absolutely brilliant Mu Folding USB Charger which collapses into one neat little package. The bottom pins rotate to be in line with the earth pin (see picture above) and then two “ears” close around the pins.
While the folded size is impressive so is that face that it is so sturdy when opened out – it feels incredibly rocksolid. Amazon describes it as a USB Smartphone charger but I have had no difficulty charging my iPad Mini with it – not sure about a full sized iPad though.
They are a bit pricy at £25 but occasionally Amazon have them at £15 so it is worth keeping a look out here, it comes well recommended.
Working from your spare room at home can be a lonely existence and having conversations with colleagues on Skype really is no substitute. It also can be a pretty sedentary life as the distance from my bed to the office is probably less than 20 paces. The distance to the kitchen where the biscuits live is slightly more but not so far as to be a distraction. So all in all home working is not good for your health and fitness.
On the other hand being in an office means you get to see great street art such as that shown here. It also means that hitting my daily steps target is a breeze and the biscuits are not so close at hand. Options for lunch are much more than what I might have remembered to get in the shopping. Add to this the benefits to working with other people around you and the raise in productivity this brings you would think that office working is a no brainer. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer certainly seems to think so.
One thing that the accelerator programme has shown me is that there are advantages to both home and office working. The big plus of being at home is that I can save myself 3 -4 hours of travelling which is time I can much more usefully use to the benefit of the business. Given that my journey involves a walk, bus, train and tube it doesn’t really make for a productive and uninterrupted working environment.
However, being in the same place as my colleagues really gives us an opportunity to discuss ideas and issues and reach a quicker solution than we might over email or IM. Nothing beats sketching ideas on a scrap of paper and working collaboratively in the same place. I am sure that there are plenty of companies working in that space that would beg to differ but I love the immediacy it brings. But, in a start-up, you have to balance that with the cost of getting so that you are all in one place and that can be prohibitive.
So this week has been a mixture of home and office. The former when I wanted to get my head down and focus on a single task uninterrupted, testing our new release in this case. The latter when I went up to meet with our mentors. This week, in a noisy Pret that we had decamped to after the fire alarm went off in the mentors office, we got down to honing our message. This is something that we have struggled to do effectively in the past and it was amazing to hear how easily he came up with something that expressed our business clearly and concisely.
This, for me, is the beauty of the accelerator programme – putting us with people that are highly regarded experts in their fields who can quickly make an impact on what we do and you cannot put a price on that but could well be the difference between success and failure.
There was only one organised session this week and that was on “old school PR”. Unfortunately I had to attend a sales meeting and so wasn’t able to attend. However, what this did mean was that my diary was much clearer for getting on with the day job.
The stage your business is at when you join an accelerator will determine both how much you get out of it and how much of an impact it will have on your working day. When we joined we had already been in business a year and were making early sales. For us it was important to keep the momentum we had built as well as making the most from the programme. This inevitably means that there are some compromises to make in terms of attending sessions and meetings with prospects and clients.
We are lucky in that Microsoft understands that we need to keep the business moving forward and are flexible enough to ensure that we can get to as many sessions as possible. Also when there are one-to-ones with experts we can swap times with other companies to ensure that we can make the session. In some ways these one-to-ones are more useful than the general sessions because they can be tightly tailored to your business meaning that you can get solutions to real problems. I found that with the UX session held in week six.
Another unexpected and tangential benefit of the accelerator has turned out to be an introduction from one of the other participating companies to a graphic designer. We have used a number of different people in the past to get graphics done both for the site and the webapps themselves but had never found anyone who’s style we liked and understood what we were trying to achieve quickly and easily. This we have now done and the quality of the graphics has not only been lifted but also has provided us with some really great visuals to explain what we do – a real bonus.
Another result that shouldn’t have been surprising is that because as a business are spending so much time together, rather than home working, we are getting more done as it is so much easier to bounce ideas off one another. So much for remote collaborative working!
A busy 7th week was started with an early morning meeting with one of our mentors from Yammer. We met in their offices where the meeting room tables converted to allow you to play table tennis and there was a pop-up sign in reception encouraging people to bring their dogs into work for dog week, which seems like a recipe for disaster to me. We stuck to the meeting and got some sound advice once again.
From Yammer it was straight to TwiloCon Europe, a full days conference organised by Twilo and pretty impressive it was too. I have been to a number of these things and they are usually all about the company and its products, which is fine but not overly useful and engaging. What Twilo did was much more interesting and more likely to leave you with a lasting positive memory of the company. They had laid on two tracks, one around innovation and the other technical. I remained in the former and was treated to some really interesting presentation and debates.
Highlights of the day for me were Nick Lansley, Head of R&D at Tesco, a company that I don’t normally associate with innovation and now I have to reevaluate them and a panel session on European accelerators. Given that I am currently right in the middle of one it was fascinating to hear what it was like on others – I never knew there were quite so many competing for the local start-ups.
While the accelerator programme is a structured series of events and sessions to ensure that start-ups have the tools and knowledge to make the most of their opportunity you do still need to find time to do your day job. For me this week that meant a train trip to Coventry for a meeting. While I had pre-booked I wasn’t at a table seat and trying to get a laptop on the pull-down table was nigh on impossible but still necessary to ensure that I could continue to work. However, sometimes things don’t go quite as planned. On returning to the station it was chaos as, it eventually transpired, a tree had fallen down and blocked the line. This took a couple of hours to clear, most of which time was spent milling around on the platform, which wasn’t terribly productive.
3D printing is all the rage at present and I was delighted to see that a printer had turned up in our space at Central Working. One of the other start-ups is looking at producing real world items from their virtual equivalents in a game, which is a cracking idea. So the printer was set off to produce a number of items, one of which was a complex thing taking over six hours to complete.
Something that I hadn’t really appreciated was that some elements of what you are printing need a supporting structure while printing to stop them collapsing but you don’t want these to remain in the final finished article. For this the supporting structures are created in a soluble material that can be washed away. Unfortunately this printer don’t have that option so the range of what it can produce was limited but it was fascinating to see what is bound to be something that is going to be widespread technology in the not too distant future.