TNW has been visiting with the Wayra Academy to check up on how the process of growing businesses in an accelerator works.
The first round of companies was accepted into the Wayra London Academy back in June and in July we found out how they were settling in.
“The most awesome stage”
Last year, Facebook's VP of Design thought the TNW Conference main stage was the best she'd ever been on.
By now the companies have advanced a fair way. Products have been launched, contracts organised and for the first round, the program has been extended by a further three months which should take them through to March next year.
19 companies are currently working with Wayra in London at the moment, three of these were taken on a little later than the first batch.
As part of the support at the Academy, the startups are provided with a shared work space, investment money and access to mentors and speakers. They will also be presenting to prospective investors around February time to see if they can secure the money they need to push things further.
We came back to the seven companies we spoke to in July to ask them how they have progressed and what they have gained by working with Wayra.
Night Zoo Keeper
Night Zoo Keeper is an educational and storytelling site where kids can engage with digital activities. CEO Joshua Davidson wrote the story of the Night Zoo Keeper seven years ago and so he has a lot invested in pursuing this business.
When TNW chatted with Davidson this time around, he described a day of very mixed working practices. “I spent this morning trying to come up with a magical clock for a time-travelling elephant,” he says. “It does explain why they have such good memories – they can go back in time and check things.”
Although the time at the Wayra Academy has been extended, the funding remains the same and so the teams are having to keep an eye on their finances while they work. Davidson says that Night Zoo Keeper has been managing cash carefully and he expects that they will work things out for their remaining time at the accelerator.
Davidson also says that the extension has allowed his company to concentrate on making things. “Three months is a small extension but this helps in fundraising terms as it’s a full-time job going out and looking for money alone. So that three months gives us three months more on the product before we have to think about going out and raising money.”
The team has grown since the last time TNW visited. A developer has been employed to take on some of the ambitious technical work required to make the site. “Wayra made available some of the O2 recruitment team to act as advisors on the process on ways to find new staff,” says Davidson. “But we didn’t use that, we hired through Freelancer.com.”
So although a great deal of resources has been made available through working with Wayra and Telefonica, it is reasonable that startups will also find their own methods of getting things done.
So what has working in an accelerator done for Night Zoo Keeper? Davidson is very positive about the support provided.
“Having a place to come and work has increased productivity and helped us be more ambitious,” he says. “Rather than living day-to-day, that little bit of money has given us room to develop a product that we wanted to get right. So what we submitted to the app store – we’re really comfortable with it.”
The investment has naturally made working a lot more comfortable too, “If we were back pre-Wayra funding we’d be living for the next meal and just desperately trying to get something up to attract potential investors,” says Davidson. “Having an investor on board has given us the opportunity to put a strategy in place and have a better business plan.”
The Wayra Academy provides a number of opportunities for speakers to visit and advisors to spend time with the startups. According to Davidson, the questions these people ask when they visit help to sharpen up business plans.
“It’s almost a serendipity feeling of someone coming and giving you their own journey, you hear that one bit of advice or opinion and it can shape your next decision,” he says. “The questions the speakers and mentors bring to the Academy, even if they’re not directly challenging you, it makes you come up with answers to things you may not have thought about in this stage of your business. It helps you work out what your priorities should be.”
Working in a shared environment also seems to suit the company at this stage. “We’ve been working with the Cloud 66 guys,” says Davidson. “That’s a great service. They’ve been invaluable. The more general advice we get from the other entrepreneurs is useful and the competitiveness is also a big thing for us all. There’s a Wayra Facebook group with a noise generator where you can see the social media chatter and find out who is being talked about.”
While working at the Academy, Night Zoo Keeper has been busy as you might expect. The company has put an app into the app store, developed its web platform and set up ‘Teach meet’ and ‘Kids meet’, the former where educators can gather and network and the latter where kids can present what they have been learning.
“As a nice circle we are hosting a Startup Weekend in January,” says Davidson. “Having won Startup Weekend for Education, we can now give back to that community. We can show that if you have a great idea in technology and education then you can get lots of support to turn that into a business reality.”
So what happens when the time and money with the accelerator finally runs out? “We won’t give up on this idea,” says Davidson firmly. ”Night Zoo Keeper was never a whim of a tech startup idea. It’s been a lifelong dream to get this project up and running so there will be a Night Zoo Keeper presence. But the level of success will depend on the conversations we will have in the next few months.”
Pollarize.me was one of the very early idea stage startups to enter the Wayra Academy. The company provides a free mobile decision-making tool that can help with A/B questions. It is designed to be shared on social platforms so those enquiring minds who need to know can get more people to answer their query.
The app has already been released into the Apple App Store and an official launch of web and app products is scheduled for December. So the company has been doing some hard work on product.
“When we arrived, we had a pitch deck and a slightly ropey web app,” explains CEO Mat Munro. “We were one of the earliest stage teams to be accepted into Wayra. So we had to get our heads down and execute as quickly as possible.”
The startup has made good progress while at the Academy but Munro feels that the schedule could do with a little improvement. When the accelerator program comes to an end, all of the companies will need to have something in place as further funding or profit to keep them afloat.
“We’ve been able to talk to VCs and we would not have had that opportunity if we were not with Wayra,” he says. “The only thing I think is a problem with accelerators as a whole is that the demo day comes at the end of it. Unless you blow someone’s mind and close the deal, then you have a gap you need to bridge so we’ve been talking about taking on consultancy work if there is that gap, much as we’d like to focus on this full time.”
The process of working things out for investment and settling into the Academy was also a learning curve for Pollarize.me. “The reason it took a while for the contacts is that we were all negotiating different points,” explains Munro. “I think that because we were the first batch we knew that it would take a long time to sort things out. It isn’t as well established as later programs will be.”
“On the other hand,” he continues. “Because we are the first batch, they were much more open to negotiation. It might be a more particular offer in future. It did take a while to get the first tranche of funding but we were being picky, so it did take a long time. We could have come in on the first day, signed off and taken the money. Wayra’s flexibility meant that although we were living on savings, it was plus for us as a company to get things right.”
The work with other statups also seems to have been beneficial. “It wasn’t first in our mind when we joined but the support of the other teams has been the most valuable thing so far,” says Munro. “There’s a lot of knowledge that is passed down. When we were submitting the app, there were other startups that had already been through the process. So they were able to say what you need to have sorted when submitting the app and what gets things rejected.”
So where will Pollarize.me go when the program finishes? “There’s talk of a Wayra alumni,” says Munro.“Where the startups may find a place to work together in a similar environment.”
This idea is something that many of the startups mentioned. It seems that co-working for new companies provides a lot when it comes to social support and co-dependency.
One thing that Pollarize.me identified as an area that has improved over the months is business planning. “I’ve learned a lot since moving in here about the intricacies of business, contracts, certification and tax. From a business point of view we’re still feeling our way with our business model, this is because we’re still focused on product but we have a sense now of where we’re going,” says Munro.
The product is also evolving from the simple A/B testing app that was first developed to a more sophisticated offering. “We’re still focusing on social and we’re working on the authority graph,” explains Munro. “Early next year we plan to open up our API and develop an ecosystem. Indexing and searching is something we are interested in pursuing, maybe in the future you won’t have a question and two options, you could have a question and we can say these are the two options you might consider – or you can open it up to the crowd.”
Munro says that even as an early-stage startup, accelerators are a good way to get a business off the ground. “We would recommend the experience. We were lucky as Wayra was a sponsor when we won a Startup Weekend,” he says.
“Between us we had tried startups before and failed so there is a desire to make this work. I don’t think your product has to be that far ahead. The accelerator is here to speed you up, after that it’s just a matter of finding out how fast you can go.”
The first notable change for this startup is that is has rebranded. When TNW last chatted with the company it was called 2ndSight, now it is known as Equaleyes.
CEO Tine Postuvan, who was comfortably tucked behind his desk wearing a startling pair of padded dinosaur feet slippers when we arrived, explained the change.
“We started the 2ndSight team a year ago when we were students and we didn’t care so much about the name but then we figured out all the domains are taken and it was trademarked. I’m happy with it now but when we first chose the name we didn’t check it properly. We had to negotiate the domain,” he says.
Equaleyes is an Android solution for the blind and visually impaired. It carries all sorts of features like color recognition through a smartphone’s camera, a speaking clock and a remote assistance service that makes use of geolocation and video streaming.
Since the team entered the accelerator is has been very busy. The fifth iteration of the product has been launched. The company has grown with the addition of one full time and one part time developer.
Postuvan says that one of the more valuable aspects of working at Wayra has been finding UK organisations that could help. “Everything was new to us,” he says. “When working on products for blind or vision impaired people we had to find out which hospitals to work with and it was a pain. Having advice on finding the right people and accelerating the whole process of networking has been great.”
Mentoring and advice also seems to have strengthened Postuvan’s confidence. Equaleyes now has an advisory board and being at Wayra has provided access to relevant mentors.
“It’s sort of weird being a CEO,” says Postuvan. “I used to code. Initially I thought, five years of college wasted, but I’m getting more confident now and this is because of Wayra. You run ideas past the mentors and they tell you, ‘yeah, that’s great, I would do that’ and you realise you know what you’re talking about.”
The basics of running a business in the UK and moving to London can be a challenge in themselves. Postuvan says that working as part of a network of companies at the accelerator helped him sort things out.
“The process of getting a bank account, that is horrible,” he says. “We had trouble with banks, we had to open five accounts in two days to get what we needed. Regarding accommodation and places to stay in London, people here helped us there too. We’re building a community here because the place is so open. You get to know people a lot faster here.”
Though the support system at the accelerator is strong, Postuvan is not worried about heading toward the end of his term at Wayra. “When we come to the end of our time here there are a couple of options. One is that we could get a place together with other teams, or we could try a co-working space. Hub Westminster has some great social entrepranuers so that’s another option. Two back up plans are two more than we usually have,” he laughs.
Being a part of an accelerator helped to propel Equaleyes into the British startup scene, but having moved over to London from Eastern Europe, Postuvan notes that the scene is lacking in at least one area. “You definitely need developers,” he says. “I think in general you should bring more technical people here. There’s enough money and business skills but in engineering you’re falling behind.”
Equaleyes seems to be steadily preparing not only product and service but for the leap that will come when it is time to leave Wayra. Postuvan is pragmatic about the forthcoming change.
“If you have companies here for too long, then it isn’t an accelerator,” he says. “There is a certain period where it makes sense to be here and then you’re on your own.”
Taskhub is an online marketplace for services where people post jobs for completion and others in the local neighbourhood bid on those tasks. It has launched into beta and a public launch is on the way.
“We have 70 people participating in the beta version. We’ve had a lot of requests but we’re not accepting everybody. You want to seed the company properly,” explains CEO Rahul Ahuja.
The private beta launch has been populated with hand-picked users. COO Aurore Hochard calls each one to find out if they will be the right fit.
The good news is that so far the beta has run smoothly. Ahuja says that other than a few browser differences, the service appears to run well. “The most comforting thing has been that the financials and payment processing systems work. We’ve had zero issues,” he says. “That’s been really good.”
The beta has also helped to shape the service before it launches publicly and the ideas the users are providing are opening up options for Taskhub. “Sometimes you think you want go in one direction, but in a beta you can see the other directions you can go as well,” says Hochard.
Initially Taskhub was designed to accommodate services like cooking and cleaning or garden clearance. Now Hochard says that services and skills exchange are also emerging as suitable things to offer on the platform. The idea of working with charities is also something the company hopes to pursue.
Working at the accelerator has encouraged this evolution. Hochard says, “Wayra has been extremely supportive of the initial idea as well as the change. They are helping us think of how this can evolve into other projects. Sometimes when you’re so into something, it’s good to have a different view point and to listen to people who have tried things in a different context and they can advise you with a fresh eye for things.”
More importantly the internal structure of Taskhub has become a lot clearer. Working together and as a couple, Hochard and Ahuja had been overlapping in the work that they do. “We’ve separated our tasks to be more efficient,” says Ahuja. “It makes things a lot easier to follow up.”
Taskhub is pleased with the extension that is being offered to the first round of teams at Wayra, “It’s a pleasant surprise and a big bonus,” says Hochard. “We appreciate the flexibility from Wayra, it’s a gift.”
The extension means that the company can plan appropriately around its public launch and post accelerator planning. “We’re relatively on schedule, we would would have liked our main dev guy on board a little earlier but it all works towards the launch which has always been planned for the end of the year,” Hochard explains.
When it comes to moving on, Taskhub has plans that reflect upon the London startup scene. “We’ll still be in London. It’s where we live and the city we love,” says Ahuja. “Also we would not have launched in other cities by then, we will still be planning so it’s best we stay here. We’ll head east but not to Shoreditch , it’s too expensive. So we’ll move to Canary Wharf maybe. It’s close to where we live, the rent is cheaper and being closer to the financial centre is better for us.”
Indeed the cost of working in the Tech City area seems to be quite off-putting to Taskhub. “Tech companies can sometimes get lost in cool. I don’t care about cool, I care about what works,” says Ahuja. “As a startup you can very quickly drain money, you can go through so many funding rounds to support yourself in Old Street Roundabout. That’s unreasonable for anybody. I think that we can use our time and resources with an office in somewhere like Canary Wharf with newer facilities that is considerably cheaper.”
However well planned, the idea of moving on does have an emotional impact for the company as Hochard says she has become rather attached to the teams at the Academy. “We get along with everyone here – it’s like a school,” she explains.
“You feel like March is going to be the end of the year. It feels like a trauma to me. I can’t think of how it will be, it’s normal to come in here and greet everyone in the morning. If only we could move up one level in the same building,” she laughs. “Working in an accelerator is an investment, but its more than that – it’s a friendship. We feel very close to each other here.”
True View is a smartphone application that is built around existing social media accounts. Using this live information, the company hopes to solve the problem of stale profiles and keep users coming back for fresh updates.
The team seems pleased when TNW asks them about progress. The company’s app has just landed in the Apple App Store. However, the process of getting there was not without its challenges.
“It was submitted on the 28th of September and it was rejected the first time,” explains technical director Damian Mitchell. “We tried for the iPad support and got the resolution wrong, so we withdrew the iPad support and it went straight through.”
As well as getting its apps together, True View has also seen an uptick in global sign-ups. Customers from Brazil, America, Australia, UK, France have started to use the service.
The company has also pushed a redesign to appeal to a more discerning audience. “We’ve rebranded and changed the look and feel of the service,” says co-founder Andrew Ibbotson. ”We’re going for a premium look and feel and to make something easy for both sexes to fall in love with. It was more playful before and it’s more sophisticated now. We realised our target market and so we aligned our UI experience to suit that.”
The startup has been busy in the past months preparing for its big public push. “We’re now planning our phased approach to a mainstream launch in February,” says Ibbotson. “The app will be free in November and then a paid for download after that. Users that sign up between now and February will get lifetime membership for a download price. We’re going to run some competitions and being associated with O2 means we have some nice prizes.”
As you might expect for a dating service, the future focus is built heavily around February and St Valentines Day, but the company has been canny in identifying earlier options too. “People tend to try and change their lives in January so we’ll be prepared for that,” says Ibbotson. “We’ll launch a subscription service after February too.”
The True View team is pleased that Wayra has extended its first round of startups. “It’s been invaluable. You couldn’t put a cash figure on what they have done for us,” says Ibbotson. “Without the extension, we might have been working around a kitchen table again. Time creeps up pretty quickly when you’ve got your head down working on something with limited resources. It was a bit of a blessing that they extended, it’s really going to help us.”
The company is pretty confident when it comes to moving on from the accelerator. “We hope to be cash positive by March,” says Ibbotson. “We’re seeking further investment and hope to find a broom cupboard somewhere with connectivity to work.”
Leaving the accelerator also means growth for this startup. Matt Verity, creative director says, “Going beyond March, we will have to scale to meet the roadmap we have in place. We need to get a bit more support around us so we can move from being a little startup in an Academy to hopefully a full blown business with people who can come in and extend our fire power and capabilities.”
But taking the company out of the accelerator also means leaving an ecosystem of support, “One of the great things of being at the Academy is the buzz of having people around. It’s a big motivator. There’s a little element of healthy competition, when you see other people working every hour god sends, it makes you want to work harder,” says Verity.
Chatterbox is a conversation platform to help brands streamline their social media engagement by finding people who may be valuable brand advocates.
The company has grown since TNW last visited the Academy. Chatterbox has hired a software developer, data scientist and a part-time employee who is helping the company include data from Weibo and so works with Chinese language and translation.
Co-founder Dr Stuart Battersby says that Wayra has helped grow the company and consolidate it as a business. “It’s really helped in setting up our structures, our legal paperwork and making the investment happen,” he says. “We were just a two-person operation, without external investment. Without this we would not have been able to add more people.”
Investment can be in equal parts exciting and laborious. Dr Battersby says that the process was not easy but it was a worthwhile experience. “We spent a lot of time getting the investment right and Wayra have been really helpful in that process. Just helping us understand what we have to do. We knew the principle of it but not the details and the resources have been really helpful with that.”
Learning about investment has not been easy. But the education has prepared Chatterbox for the future. “It’s been drawn out dealing with contacts because it’s complicated. It taught us that investment processes take a while. Doing it with Wayra has been really helpful, other investors might not have taken that time to work it all out. We’re now thinking about our next investment round and so we know that this will take a little while. It means we can be realistic in planning for the next one,” says Dr Battersby.
The company seems to be moving forward apace with a product out and paying customers already on board. Chatterbox already had an API on the market when it joined Wayra and that is also scaling fast.
The advice from mentors has been particularly valuable to the startup as Dr Battersby explains, “In coming to market, talking to our mentors or the Wayra team we identified who we are selling to – organisations or independent developers. It’s made us examine our direction and open it all up. It’s good to understand who we are selling it to and now we can get revenues in quicker as a startup.”
From here the company is looking at opening its technology up in a similar way to its API so it can power a white label platform for different market sectors.
Overall, the Chatterbox team has worked hard and made good use of its time with the accelerator. “It’s been a good experience for us,” says co-founder Dr Matthew Purver. “If we hadn’t done this it’s not clear we would have met the mentors and advisors we have as quickly. It’s nice to have someone to talk to but the connections have been tangible business opportunities.”
Epicurely helps people organise dinner parties and share meals. From working out who will bring the wine or dessert or finding a way to make new friends with culinary skills, it’s a social way for foodies to work out ways to break bread together.
CEO Santiago Tenorio appeared to be spinning dinner plates when we last caught up with him at Wayra. But now the company has grown and things are moving forward.
“We have another part-time person in New York and we hired another person there too who is helping us with PR as we start thinking about how to expand to the US,” says Tenorio. “We have a very talented CTO in Spain who is moving to London soon and two guys here with me, so that makes a real difference.”
Having a startup based around food, Tenorio says that one speaker in particular was an exciting person to meet at the Academy.
Globally renowned chef Ferran Adrià of el Bulli works with Telefonica and so he came to see the startups at Wayra. “We got close to him and I got time personally with him,” says Tenorio. “We invited some of our chefs to come along and he tried some of their hors d’oeuvres. They were very nervous but very excited.”
Working in an environment with other startups has also meant that Epicurely has been able to network and find opportunities. A discussion about forthcoming culinary events with a fellow food startup took the company to a conference in Turin where connections were made as Tenorio learned more about the industry.
The self-motivation among the startups also impresses Tenorio, and not just for business purposes. “A lot of the teams have been very proactive about discussion sessions on specific topics,” he says. “Once a week we have a marketing session and we learn from each other and find new ideas or things to try. We have a Facebook page where if someone has a question, others with that experience can help. It’s for non-work things as well. Today I promoted a soccer tournament, which might be fun for those who like football.”
The extension is a mixed blessing for Epicurely, Tenorio says that although the space is great, the money might be an issue. “It made sense for them to extend the stay at the incubator. The real challenge for us though will be to stretch the money even when we have somewhere to stay.”
Tenorio feels that getting funding has not been easy and that it is something that could be facilitated a little more through the accelerator. “They are introducing us to investors,” he says, “But I do wish we had organised more networking events with investors though. Not for pitching but to build relationships.”
As well as taking on staff, the business is expanding its offering. “We’ve had big milestones,” says Tenorio. ”We launched our first product which was huge. There has been 80 events on the platform. We are learning from the users now to see how we should adjust the product. It’s been fun because we go to lots of food events.”
Tenorio wants to keep the company in London once it graduates from the Academy. “London is the place we will stay,” he says. “I do have an extensive network in New York, but I think London is a great market to startup with our concept. There’s a great diversity and that is important for the culinary experiences we want to offer. We’re also close to so many interesting markets like Italy and France. Next year we hope to build relationships in Europe.”
Working in an accelerator might look a bit like fun and games from the outside. With open plan offices and ping-pong tables, brightly coloured bean bags and interesting visitors, it’s easy to think that there is an academic atmosphere with little in the way of business responsibility.
However the opposite is proven by talking to the startups at Wayra. Even after a few months since TNW first sat down to chat with these businesses, a confidence and maturity has emerged along with the excitement of creating and owning something worthwhile.
There’s time until they all have to move on to new pastures to let another set of startups settle in at the Wayra Academy. It will be interesting to see how they change and what their plans will be for co-working or separating to grow in the new year.
Read next: Review: Nokia Lumia 920