This article was published on July 9, 2012

Springboard accelerator: 11 startups talk about their incubation experiences

Springboard accelerator: 11 startups talk about their incubation experiences
Jamillah Knowles
Story by

Jamillah Knowles

Jamillah is the UK Editor for The Next Web. She's based in London. You can hear her on BBC Radio 5Live's Outriders. Follow on Twitter @jemi Jamillah is the UK Editor for The Next Web. She's based in London. You can hear her on BBC Radio 5Live's Outriders. Follow on Twitter @jemimah_knight or drop a line to [email protected]

The Springboard accelerator round has just finished. Eleven teams worked through thirteen weeks of mentor meetings and intensive work to knock their businesses into shape.

Many startups think about hot-housing their businesses in this way. But what is it really like to work through this? We asked each and every company from the last round with Springboard to describe that experience. So, if you’re thinking of trying an accelerator, here’s what it’s like:

Nils Frers CEO – Student Reading Lists 

“It did what it said on the tin and really accelerated things. It meant that we really spent time focusing the business and pushing ahead. We got a new product out and we have a good sales structure with a better chance of securing funding.”

Student Reading Lists provides a central way for students to find all of the course material they need. It’s the company’s first time in an accelerator. “It’s interesting looking at the equity we gave away,” says Frers. “It was a good deal to give away 6%. Looking at it now, we would not give that much away, but that proves the concept, the process increased the value of the company.”

The process of learning through Springboard is a highly social one with plenty of face to face meetings. Frers notes, “We met so many people and spoke with so many mentors, so we got a lot of impressions of our business and proposition. It increased our focus. I had a lot of ideas but now we realise we need to repeat what we were doing successfully and this has also given us a sales route.”

To get the best from this accelerator, it seems that three is the magic number. Fewer team members can mean that there is some pressure to cope with the amount of learning and meetings required. “It was hard work trying to draw conclusions from them all,” says Frers.

Frers now hopes to raise £100,000 to scale the business. There are plans to grow in the UK and the US and work on promotion for the coming academic year.

The main thing that Frers took from he process was to consider the value in the process. He acknowledges the advice of Paul Graham of Y Combinator, “Ask yourself whether giving away equity will increase the value of your company. I can clearly say that an increase really happened in our case. The valuation would have to be much higher now if we did it again.”

As to whether all startups should be accelerated, Frers feels that it depends on the type of business you have and the stage you may be at. “I don’t think it’s the only way but it’s a proven way. I’ve had a strong supporting network and met a lot of investors that I would not have met otherwise. I’d encourage others to consider it carefully. It’s a very good recipe to get to market very quickly. If you have more time on your hands you might take it easier.”

Jules Coleman & Tom Nimmo, Founders – Teddle 

“It’s been a long but fantastic few weeks, hard work but good fun. It feels like a moment ago we just started but a lifetime since those early meetings.”

The founders of Teddle had not worked with an accelerator before and they saw it as a good way to take their first steps into the startup world. The company provides a way for independent local businesses to provide services to customers. It aims to make finding dog walkers, piano tuners or any of a variety of businesses to be found and take bookings more easily.

The process of entering an accelerator gave the team the chance to focus on their business. “Doing Springboard meant we had to draw a line in the sand and drive into it,” says Nimmo.

The company stayed true to its original idea but also used the time in the incubator to refine it and get validation that it was the right thing to pursue. From here Teddle is seeking investment of £200,000 to scale across London and possibly further.

Nimmo says that the process is a good one but notes that it is very intense, “We had three co-founders there. It made it much easier for us to continue to build Teddle while still going to meetings. If you do more than ten mentor meetings a day you go a bit mad. So it really helped having three of us there. We’re used to working long days so it wasn’t a mega shock but it was hard work.”

For others thinking on how to develop a startup, Jules notes that you need to stick to your guns. “Keep a clear vision of what your original idea is. Take on board the advice of course but keep your idea.”

Teddle also benefited from the shared working environment at the Google Campus in East London while taking part in the accelerator. This is something the founders hope to continue as Nimmo points out, “We’re going to aim to move somewhere with lots of other startups. I really enjoyed having others around us. If you’re sitting in a room on your own you can make some wacky decisions, I think we’d do well in a place with lots of other startups.”

That sense of shared working environments is something that the Teddle team also recommends to other small businesses looking to grow. “If you can’t get into an accelerator I’d say work in a shared office space where you can be exposed to other businesses and investors. You’d have to know that you’re doing with your startup and leaving your job. But it does what it says on the tin. It accelerates your thinking more than anything. You get all this feedback so you can make better decisions.”

Rich Waldron CEO Tray

“This was our first accelerator. We knew we wanted to find a way to get into the scene a bit more. There’s a lot of talk about what happens in London and how to make good connections and introductions. This is a good way to get in front of people. There was no down side.”

Tray is a bit like Ifttt for your email. It is a system where users can set up rules to take some of the pain out of being overwhelmed by email daily.

“We’d been running a startup between Southampton and London for about a year and playing with startups for a couple of years, left our jobs and burnt our cash,” says Waldron. “The problems we had were getting access to people, getting the right contacts and quick feedback to push us on a bit quicker. Springboard expedited that whole process.”

Tray came to the accelerator process and pivoted on day one. It began as a group planning application for people planning holidays and taking that process away from email. The company realised that there was room to focus on email alone and make that more efficient.

“We used the mentor sessions to hone in and figures out what we were doing,” says Waldron. “Since then it’s gone crazy, we’ve had loads of great feedback, we’re going to the US and it’s fired us on to the next level.”

Turning around on day one didn’t faze Tray too much it seems. “In a weird way it didn’t feel like starting again”, notes Waldron. “We jumped a few hurdles with the previous startup and learned from failing with that. We found out you need to test our idea quickly and work out a game plan as to where you are going with it.”

This team also found that good time management in an accelerator is essential, “Three of us were on Springboard and it helped us,” says Waldron. “In the first weeks we had eight meetings and day of 15 minutes and it leaves you no time to do anything. So we left our CTO coding and it was great to catch up at the end of the day. Having that team dynamic helped us deal with the program.”

That seems to be the main message that the company would pass on to other startups hoping to get through acceleration, “It’s all based around time. Organise who is going to do what. Staying on task is the important thing. You can get lost in meetings so focus on building and developing while someone else is taking on the meetings,” advises Waldron.

Honing those skills are also something that the company hopes to take onward to the next level. “It taught us a lot about the requirements for a startup  and how to raise finance,” says Waldron. “Raising money is full-time job so we’re definitely keeping our CTO shut away developing and iterating with our biz dev guy to keep the noise from raising funds separate.”

Tray did very well pitching on the Springboard investment day. “We were looking for £400,00. Off the back of the investor day we were already oversubscribed. We have lots of offers and it is a matter of going to meetings and going over the options.”

Waldron says that the process is very valuable to companies who want to get ahead in development, “Each startup’s journey can take its own course. If it’s your first startup up it’s the best way to take a year or two’s learning into a few months. We probably jumped two years in those two months. You realise the experience you’ve got when you’re back out on your own.”

Catalin Zorzini CEO

“It was amazingly intense but we got tons of value out of it. Meeting 200 talented and extremely intelligent people who play key roles in the ecosystem could mean only one thing: startup Viagra.” is a simple way to create a website for almost anything. The main point is that it is quick and easy. The company appears to have made the most of the weeks in acceleration as Zorzini points out, “I thought that it will compress a year worth of experience and takeaways in 3 months. I was wrong. It compressed at least 2 years.”

This company also saw a lot of change through acceleration, this shows that there must have been a lot to take on and put to good use through the process. “We basically changed the whole thing based on feedback we’ve got from mentors and early users, based on the questions we learned to ask from Springboard.”

Now the company is looking for investors, “We’re looking for £150,000, specifically to bring two more people on board and to boost the development process. We’re launching the public beta and going after the creative professionals market, where we’ve made a ton of connections in the last few months.”

The main thing that Zorzini took away from the course was that it is good to talk, “Sit down and talk to potential users from day 0!” he says. “Startups need as much input and outside help as possible, and accelerators offer plenty of that.”

Adam Baker CEO Blottr 

“From our perspective we got a tonne of contacts and good ideas from people who didn’t know us well. We met a couple of people who are now advising us, they’re really passionate about what we’re doing.”

Blottr is a citizen media organisation that produces daily news via its users on mobile or via the website. The company is not new, but Baker says that the process was still valuable. “It was a good incubator for us but really good for those who were more embryonic. In that environment and seeing where the teams when they joined the program and the changes to get a better market fit was really interesting.”

Because Blottr has been around the block a few times, Baker chose to make the most of the early weeks of the course. “We didn’t spend as much time on the program. The first 4 weeks were really intensive mentorships and we saw a lot of people and got a lot of good feedback. The next weeks were about shaping the product and we already have a product so we cracked on with what we were doing.”

As an established business, you might wonder what Blottr would get from an acceleration process. Don’t be fooled, it seems that incubators are not just for those who are starting out. “I met a lot of people, from a networking perspective it has opened a lot of doors. We went to Dallas and SF as part of the program and that was really good. I met a couple of great people there including some at Yahoo! and consequently we have something going there now.”

Though connections were made, Bake admits he had second thoughts about the process, “Initially I was a bit skeptical, I hadn’t considered it before, all the other teams were at seed or idea stage and not many had a product. We’ve been around for more than a year so I was unsure if we were too mature,” he says. “Jon Bradford is a well networked person and we tapped into that to get some good advice and unlocked a few doors more quickly. It worked out really well.”

But it was not just connections that helped Blottr along with this course, the company has been focusing on user retention too. “We’ve worked hard on that and now we have a lightbox which pops up at the bottom of a story to see if they want to sign up to a subject for more stories,” explains Baker. “We’ve had 13,000 sign ups to them in the last ten days. So now we are able to push emails to people based on what we know they want and what they’ve asked to receive. Our retention is going through the roof.”

Baker also took away some helpful advice that he would share with others, “Keep an open mind,” he says. “One of the biggest traits of a founder is their focus and stubbornness to stick to what they believe in. But you need to be open-minded, you need to take criticism well and then use it in a positive way. Be open to change and don’t be blinkered to your own strategy.”

Nicolai Watzenig Founder & CEO Birdback

“It was a fun three months and it was perfect for us. We were based in the US before and arrived in London with no network or connections and no office space. It pretty much set us up with everything.”

Birdback is a cash back system that works with existing credit card accounts and is based around customer loyalty. The company is hoping to move to London and so the Springboard acceleration course was a good fit for getting to know the terrain.

“The meetings were really good. To make the connections really helped us and we made some key contacts. Now we don’t need to spend a whole year networking in London,” he says

Birdback takes on a lot of new ideas around tech and finance in one go and it is the scale of this undertaking that was tamed through the acceleration process. “We were quite ambitious about what we wanted to achieve through the three months but we sat down and had to be more realistic about what we could do,” says Watzenig.

All three founders came to Springboard and the company is now scaling up to six. Watzenig thinks it was a good idea to bring all three founders to the UK from Denmark in order to manage what was involved. “Our CTO was focused on making product and I was meeting mentors,” he says. “It’s important to divide the tasks and it was beneficial to have three of us there.”

Though the company gained a lot in the way of networking, Watzenig is cautious about time and advises new startups to be the same, “Be careful who you spend time with and who is valuable to your business,” he says. “If you have a strong vision and understanding of your business, then an accelerator is a good place to be. But if you’re coming from nothing and want to figure out what product to build you can get sidetracked. You have a 100 people telling you can build a hundred different things.”

Matthieu Vaxelaire Co-founder Kicktable 

“It was an amazing experience for us to move to London from Belgium. Springboard was a good opportunity to gain the credibility of a UK startup. It can be hard to move without any structure or guarantee of security.”

Kicktable is a service that allows users to share, discover and book activities, hosted by passionate people. Vaxelaire is very enthusiastic about his time with Springboard, “All the mentors we met were very valuable and all the other teams that we worked with were extremely encouraging. There’s a great sense of energy to see everyone working and helping each other. In every sense it was a great experience.”

He also notes that being a part of an accelerator can be very hard work, “It was very intense,” he says. “We were used to the long hours but this was very intense emotionally. When you meet someone and they don’t agree with you you’re defending your business.”

Vaxelaire’s advice is good but hard to take for those founders who are passionate about what they do, “Never fall in love with an idea,” he says. “It’s about how you build, gain traction and customers. An idea alone is not very valuable.”

He also notes that for all the good advice mentors can throw at you, taking a risk can be a good thing. “Nobody knows,” he remarks. “We spoke to some amazing mentors but in the business world you don’t always know what will work and what won’t. Sometimes it’s good to be crazy even when the mentors don’t agree. You get some really conflicting advice and there’s no one secret equation that will make it work.”

Kicktable sees Springboard as a beginning. For the moment Vaxelaire and company are back in Belgium and hope to return to London in September to release a new product.

Michael Willmott & Andy Bennett Cofounders Knodium 

“It was cool but exhausting. Thirteen weeks and it was worth it, we got a lot done and the business developed a lot through it.”

Knodium is a platform where students can study collaboratively. It enables students to create work with scientific notation and other features that can be hard to find in the online academic space.

The acceleration process can be a bit of a shock to some and it seems to require an ability to hit the ground running. Willmott and Bennett noted that the change was a tough one to start, “It took a while to get into the swing of things. For the first four weeks we had meetings until three or four in the afternoon. We only got into what people might call proper work when other people might be going home from work. We didn’t get as much building time as we thought we would be we had a lot in the way of business development.”

Prioritising time and meetings was a valuable skill, Willmott notes, “Quite near the beginning one of last year’s teams told us that not everyone can get to every meeting. We quickly realised why – otherwise nothing gets done. We met everyone once and then only one of us would meet with the mentors while the other worked on something else.”

Though the company idea didn’t change too much in the process, Willmott says that having room to try things out was helpful, “We took some wrong paths but we returned to our idea,” he notes. “The difference now is that we are so much more confident, we know what we’re doing and where we’re going with it.”

The company is currently fundraising for the end of July and launching in September/October in time for the academic year. The team is looking for £200,000 and has half of this amount already committed.

One thing the team advises is to keep hold of your ideas, “Try and remember why you started the vision,” says Willmott. “Don’t forget that and stick with it. Ultimately if you have a 20 minute mentoring session with someone you’ve never met before they might say things that can derail you or help you. But only you know more about it because you’ve been thinking about it for months or years.”

Jody Orsborn & Patrick Elliot Founders The Backscratchers

“It’s a different vibe. You come into work knowing you have mountains to climb but that doesn’t put you off it, if anything you feel encouraged by the other companies. it’s a good environment.”

The Backscratchers is a service for the creative sector where people can find others with the skills they need to get a project working.

Orsborn and Elliot are relatively new to the startup scene and it was on the advice of past participants that they decided to take the route into an accelerator. “We’ve never done anything like this, it was startup 101 for us,” notes Orsborn.

Elliot adds, “We were doing okay, but through a tech meetup we met some of the teams who did this last year. They said it would be a good fit and challenge some fo the assumptions you have so we decided to apply.”

The process got the company to focus, “We were trying to do other jobs, so we were dividing our time and it was difficult to give it the attention it needed. To be able to quit our jobs and focus for three months straight and work out how we’re going to roll it out is worth it. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without a program like this.”

The Backscratchers was at an embryonic stage when it came to join Springboard. The intensive system helped the company form and find out how to make the best of its initial idea. “We developed the business a lot more,” says Orsborn.  “We came in with more of an idea, we thought it was a business but it needed some work. It really made us have to focus in, test and challenge and really get down into the details of what can make this business successful. If we had not done the program it would have taken us a year to get here.”

The pair learned that advice is very valuable when starting out with a business, “Other people know a lot more than you,” says Elliot. “But remember that you know your idea better than anyone else. So it’s important to talk to people but it’s up to you what you do with that advice.”

The company is in closed private beta for now and hopes to open up in August. From there it will start to do financial transactions on site and later in the year there are hopes to open up to the US market.

To get the business off the ground, The Backscratchers are looking for £200,000 through investors and is also open to the idea of partnering and working with brands.

Nicola Hillhouse Original Founder & Hasan Veldstra Technical Founder Vidiowiki

“We had reached revenue and we were making enough to sustain ourselves but we wanted proper investment to scale properly and this was a good way to into the right sorts of networks to do that.”

Vidiowiki is a platform where scientists can talk about their work in their own words. The company came from Edinburgh to work with Springboard and has been using the system to increase its network.

“We met with literally over a hundred people in the first four weeks,” says Veldstra. “Without it being organised here that would have taken a long time.” Hillhouse agrees, “Springboard allowed us to compress that networking into 4 weeks.”

For Vidiowiki, the acceleration process was an affirmative one, “It verified our assumptions,” says Veldstra. “We came into the program with one thing and then tested a few ideas out. We then returned to what we had initially. It has made us more confident that we know that we’re doing.”

Though the pair found the process useful, they also saw that the hectic pace can be hard to manage. “You have a lot of meetings and get a lot of conflicting advice,” says Veldstra. “You need to come up with a way of filtering that. Everyone had problems with conflicting feedback. There’s no way of knowing if something good will come out of a meeting. Sometimes you go in with hight expectations and nothing comes out, in other meetings you’re skeptical and it’s massively useful.”

Veldstra also notes that it pays to take care of yourself as part of the process, “Get some exercise and take some time off,” he says. “Don’t eat too much pizza and get plenty of sleep”. Wise words in almost any situation.

The company is now looking for £300,000 investment for expansion. “We’ve built a strong brand and built our concept in Scotland,” says Hillhouse. “Now we’re keen to scale that into the UK and across the US. We toured the top colleges in the US and had a good response so we’re keen to get over there as soon as possible.”

Phil Woodward CEO HipSnip

“This is the busiest period I’ve had in my professional life.”

HipSnip is a Q&A platform that helps businesses build a shopping community on any website. The company had firm ideas about what it wanted from the accelerator experience and concentrated on sales throughout the process.

“We made many new contacts and also tested our pitch for others,” says Woodward. “You meet a lot of people in the first weeks and they have been able to introduce us to a lot more people who are interested. It’s been very positive.”

Woodward has had some experience learning about startups in the past, “I’d just been on an education program about startup leadership but that was a bit different. Being in an accelerator with other businesses and being very intensive, it was an interesting and worthwhile experience.”

Though the company didn’t feel the need for much in the way of evolution, Woodward feels that the course is one that has done the company a lot of good. “We went for the accelerator experience literally because of that word, to accelerate the business. By going through this program we knew we would be more than three months ahead and it has done just that.”

For others considering acceleration, Woodward’s advice is to go for it. “The first thing I encourage everyone to do is apply to these programs,” he says. “It will accelerate you through the amount of conversations you need to have. There are potentially difficult conversations to ahead where you have to articulate why you are doing things the way you do. You can do this yourself but it’s harder and takes longer without the accelerator.”

Though Springboard has been helpful to Woodward and his business, he feels that not all startups necessarily need acceleration, but that some people could do with the guidance they can bring. “Some individuals can do with an accelerator,” he notes. “Running a tech startup is a very particular skill, it takes time to learn this. You can do this quickly in an accelerator and it can boost people’s trajectories. The cost is so low, you really can get stuff done.”

So, in starting a business and considering an incubator, there’s plenty of food for thought.  These eleven companies have been through the experience that you might be about to sign up to and hopefully it will be a process that develops good startups into great companies.

We’ve been covering the Tears, Tantrums and Tech throughout the Springboard process in our video series. That said, it’s not all hard work, take a look at a few of the out-takes in the video below:

Image Credit: Wot nxt