My Experience Entering the Startup World
April 2014, I was in a period of transition. I moved back home, applied and got accepted to graduate school, and decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur (I figured I could do both). For the last 24 years of my life I was a student, and now I wanted to be an entrepreneur.
I didn't know any entrepreneurs, I wasn't exactly familiar with terms like "startup," "pitch decks," "VC's," "co-working space," and the nearest startup community was in Boston, which took 1.5 hours to get to with my local commuter rail.
I was still very optimistic, despite the little resources I had. I transformed my room into a mini office, I rampaged through my mom's basement and found a nice wooden desk, a comfy chair, and white boards; I found an extra computer monitor so I can have two screens when I worked; I reached out to a professor and managed to convince him and his business partner to join my startup; I found a programmer, graphic designer, and friend to help with social media marketing; took some online coding courses, and started reading more about the US startup ecosystem.
I was very proud of myself and wanted to build a platform connecting the "Natural Hair Community," an online community of Black women around the world returning to their natural hair. Many women started businesses from this community: building YouTube channels, organising events, creating their own cosmetic lines, I thought why not connect all these women?
But after 2 years, the startup failed. And failed for many reasons.
The startup failed because I wasn't "on the ground" interacting and talking with the women I was trying connect (I moved to Israel at the end of 2014), I didn't take time to know all the members of my team before hiring them, I didn't have a clear vision, I didn't really know how to build my startup, and there wasn't really a demand for connecting the community.
However I did learn from this experience and the importance of connecting with my customers offline, I learned how to listen and give my customers what they wanted (not what I think they wanted), and I became more active in the local startup ecosystem (Haifa, Tel Aviv, Bangkok, pretty much where ever I travelled) so I could learn the success and failures of other entrepreneurs.
And over the last 4 years, I've learned how to "navigate" the startup ecosystem, I've learned how to socialise and build relationships, and I've gained new skills.
It's all practice! And I've been fortunate to travel to a few different startup communities, despite the language and cultural differences, ratio of Angels & VC's to entrepreneurs, and successful unicorns, the startup communities around the world are quite similar.
How the Startup Ecosystem is Changing
As an entrepreneur I've learned to constantly pivot, evolve, and transform my brand because if something is not working changes need to be made.
Now, it's easy for me to make changes because I'm still small, I don't have "real responsibilities," such as a mortgage, children, or partner, and the only thing that's holding me back is my student loans. Essentially, I recognise I'm in a privileged position. As I can pack my bags, move my startup, travel, explore, and write.
I still have a lot to learn, and have met incredible people in different startup communities. Since being in Korea I've noticed a very big shift of people leaving the corporate world becoming entrepreneurs. Even further, how the corporate world is starting to enter the startup world.
Now, I want to note that I've never worked in the corporate world, but I've met a lot of ex-coporate people, turned entrepreneurs, and seen the rise in more CVC programs, so I would like to offer some advice :) Because the days of working at a company for 25+ years are over.
1. Building an idea to product, is NOT the same as working on a project at a company.
2. Your former job titles (VP, manager,etc.) don't really matter, what matters is creating a great team of people.
3. Expand your network to include developers, engineers, designers, digital marketers, bloggers, YouTubers, and other entrepreneurs.
4. Communicating with entrepreneurs is quite informal, there is very little hierarchy.
5. Ditch the suits, heels, and overall corporate look. Dress comfortably, people judge you by what you can do.
Case Study for Corporations Interested in Startups
Earlier this year, I learned that a beauty giant (clues: French, top 5 beauty brand in the world, in business for over 100 years) has decided to enter the startup world, by creating an accelerator program at Station F, the largest startup campus in the world located in Paris. Now, this is exciting news!
Because most accelerators focus on FinTech, hardware, software, food, transportation, healthcare,etc. And for the first time, there is a program specifically for BeautyTech entrepreneurs. Awesome right?
First Red Flag
So I check out the website, watch their video promotions, and all I had to do was send an email to apply. This was the first red flag, because normally for an accelerator program the application process includes a lot more: pitch deck, website, team information, stage of the startup, location, etc.
Second Red Flag
There was not much information on what the accelerator program entailed such as, would there be seed money, does the company want equity, and other benefits of the program. The only information was the length of the program and the type of BeautyTech startup they were looking for.
So I went ahead to find the people behind this program, and I went on LinkedIn and Twitter to find people on the team, and asked direct questions about the program. Once I finally received an email, they scheduled me for a 15 minute interview (first call was cancelled, at the last moment) second call lasted exactly 15 minutes.
This was the 2nd red flag, not even a video call, just a brief call in which I provided basic information (something I already included in my email application), and the person referred to my pitch deck as a "presentation." No one in the startup space would ever call a pitch deck for a presentation :/
Third Red Flag
Now as an entrepreneur I've learned how to be flexible and first became an English teacher so I had time to experiment with my startup, and left my last teaching job, to work full time on my startup. So in the email and whatsapp exchanges with the key person I was communicating with, she shared that she was "hesitant" given that most of the applicants where based Europe and not sure how I would be able to pitch in person, given that I'm in Thailand.
Ever enthusiastic, I gave suggestions about pitching to their office in Singapore (it's a global company), or have the accelerator program send me a plane ticket (I'm not being entitled, many jobs hi-paying jobs fly in job applicants). Skype or video conference I guess was not an option :/
This was the 3rd red flag, but I did observe that the accelerator finally created a website and proper application.
"The Nail in the Coffin"
After back and forth emails, I finally talked with the key person and head of the accelerator program, who politely explained that the program is very new, they don't have the resources in Asia to help my startup, but they are interested, and for now they will focus on European BeautyTech startups (despite the message of calling all BeautyTech startups around the world).
So the next steps was to continue communicating over the next few months once the program matured.
Summary of the email:
" As discussed, "Un-named Beauty Company" cannot invest into any of the startups in our accelerator programs...Today, our accelerator program doesn’t have the market specific mentors that would be needed to create a successful program if you were chosen"
I'm just going to let you read that. There's many things wrong here.
(Just want to note that this beauty brand made $10 billion in the Asia market in 2017 according to their latest financial report, and by 2020 Asia is set to be the largest cosmetic market) So, I decided to withdraw my application.
Though this didn't work out as I hoped, the possibility of being accepted motivated me to create this blog, and to look for opportunities in the Asian continent.
My advice to the Corporate World
1. If you're going to create an accelerator take a look and learn from these accelerator programs: Y Combinator, 500 Startups, and Techstars
2. Entrepreneurs are not regular people, we're quite exceptional given the risk of failure, informality, confidence, and we work at a fast paced(no time for bull sh*t) so hire people that have experience communicating and dealing with entrepreneurs.
3. Time for entrepreneurs is valuable, so we don't have time for bureaucracy and "office politics," our customers demand a lot from us, so please don't waste our time.
4. Be very clear about your message, if you say you're global and looking for startups around the world, then be prepared to get applicants from all over the **world.**
5. Entering the startup world, you have to play by our rules. Customers and teams are our priority, not your shareholders and the board.
What I love about the startup world is the informality, little hierarchy, and empathy from people, because successful entrepreneurs understand how hard it is to build something from scratch.
As always, thank you for reading!