Ohad Frankfurt is the cofounder and CEO of Swayy, a personalized content curation and management platform.
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About a year and a half ago, we got accepted to the Elevator accelerator program in Tel Aviv, Israel. At the time, we started working on a product called Summer, a browser extension which lets you get more information about people you read about online (think of it as “Rapportive” for the entire Web).
We had built an impressive technology and a really cool product in less than three months, and we tried keeping it “lean” in every way we could. Our team of four wore all the hats, did things our own ways, and we loved the freedom.
All of us were pretty experienced product guys, so it was only natural that we were completely confident in our abilities to build a good product which people would actually use. However, we quickly realized that building a product is only a small piece of the startup puzzle.
As an early stage startup, there are a lot of risk factors to face before you will find success. As an Israeli startup aiming for foreign markets – the risk is even higher.
Although we knew how we should actually build the product, we had nearly no experience on how to ship it to the market, get funded and attract customers.
It was only after a few months when we decided to pivot and came to a conclusion that an accelerator program is sometimes an invaluable platform for an early stage company which resident outside of its target market. Each market has different mentality, needs and values we had to consider when building our product.
There are a lot of reasons why an accelerator can help you reduce some of the risk factors an early stage startup has. For us, being specifically based in Israel, these were our four main advantages.
Having your own office to work from is nice, but it’s definitely not a must-have when working as a small team. Working in a shared open space with 8 other startups, though, is an inestimable advantage as an early stage startup.
I can only hope it is not unique to us Israelis, but I was actually amazed by how everyone in the first Elevator class was so keen to help and learn from one another. Sometimes, it was a technical issue that other founders helped us to solve. Sometimes, they just shared their two cents about a marketing strategy we wanted to implement.
The fact that smart people, who were determined entrepreneurs like ourselves, surrounded us every day, allowed us to constantly improve our product, our own skills and eventually, our company.
We can’t even start to explain how meaningful mentors meetings are as an early stage startup trying to build a product, generate traffic and raising money all at the same time. You are probably going to make a mistake along the way, and guess what? Someone has made that mistake in the past and he is willing to share it with you.
We had about 25 mentors, some of them are Israelis, others are based in NYC and the Valley. It is absolutely amazing how each of them had their own views on what should be our next move in terms of sales, marketing and others. They allowed us to better understand our target market although it is not physically near to where the company is operating from.
Recently I had a great talk with a local investor who was one of the original investors we met when we applied to the accelerator program. He told me that one of the things that he, as an investor, is looking at in a company is the process they have been through. That is a fascinating perspective.
Fundraising is a process, sometimes even a long one, when someone is willing to invest in you he needs to know that you can make it big. The fact that a bunch of local and US investors were able to see us in the process of becoming better entrepreneurs helped us once we met them again when started fundraising. That is something we probably couldn’t get if we’d met them not as part of the accelerator program.
Early access to the market
With Summer, we came to the conclusion that in order to turn it into a real business, we can’t only focus on bringing users on board, but rather on publishers and other media partners.
At the time, with more than 12K users in less than two months, we started fundraising and met with tons of investors around the world. When we were in NYC, we decided to meet potential publishers in order to better understand their needs and try offering them Summer as a solution.
Business development is an art of its own. It takes time to reach out to someone specific and even more time to arrange a meeting especially when you’re a foreigner who is not a part of the NYC/SF local startup industry.
However, luckily for us, we had a widespread network of mentors and partners who helped us arrange meetings with small/medium online publishers. We were thrilled with the opportunity to start selling and actually monetizing what we’ve been working on for the past few months.
Nonetheless, everyone said “No,” including one big publisher that we maybe couldn’t have met without the help of the accelerator. As an entrepreneur you learn to accept a “No” when you get one, if there is one rule I always remind myself is that “No” is better than “Maybe” as it gives you a candid, honest answer.
For most of you, this might sound sad. For us it only meant one thing – we made a mistake, and luckily for us we realized it very quickly. We failed fast which permitted us to pivot very quickly without wasting our investors, partners and our own time and money.
After our class was over, we started working on what is now being called Swayy. Without a doubt, one of the main reasons we could have pivoted from Summer into Swayy is our early investors, partners and mentors who supported our decisions along the way and guided us through the process of creating a real business.
Now as a mentor at the Elevator program, I have the pleasure of meeting exciting early stage Israeli companies and share my own experiences with them in the hope that they won’t make the same mistakes we’ve made.
Did your startup join an accelerator? What were your experiences like?