Last week I visited a huge tech conference in the Netherlands called The next web. Here hundreds of hungry entrepreneurs presented their businesses, their views on the world and made connections in the many networking occasions.
Normally when you go to an event like this as a startup, you are prepared with a clear goal in mind. For example: I want to speak to those 3 people, I want to connect to at least 10 prospective customers and get 5 follow up meetings. As the tickets to those events are often quite expensive, there is some pressure to perform, especially for a cash strapped startup.
This time however I went to the conference with a very different mindset. As I mostly have a bunch of activities around my own experience but not a clear new business yet, I went there to collect information around an idea I am discussing with some people in my network.
I’m exploring an idea for a new kind of accelerator in the startup space, and an environment like the next web is a perfect place to collect information around that. The people in the company booths are literally waiting to start a conversation, so interviewing people is super easy.
An accelerator is an organisation that helps startups accelerate their growth by providing them with access to a great network, some money, lots of training, a temporary office space and an opportunity to pitch to an investor at the end of the program. A program typically lasts about 3-5 months and selects only 10-15 startups out of the hundreds of applicants. In return they often want a 5%-10% stake in your company.
Even though all this information is still bits and pieces, I know from experience what the importance is of collecting them. One day they will inevitably fall into place to form a crystallized proposition for a new company.
I am definitely biased. In the past I have always had the desire to start an incubator or accelerator of some kind. We had established the Empire of Awesome as our holding company with the idea to quickly add many other companies to our portfolio, much like Meta for Facebook or Alphabet for Google and all its ventures.
The idea of being so close to the birth of a new venture, all the time, excites the hell out of me. However, as I said in my previous article, there is a great danger of simply being in love with the idea and not properly checking for the need in the market in the first place.
Getting a feeling for the established order
As my gut is pulling me in the direction of an accelerator, the first natural thing to do is to go visit the stands of the accelerator programs that were present at the event.
Here I immediately noticed that the corporate accelerators (for example ABN AMRO) are clearly looking for ideas that in first place benefit their own ecosystem of products. These are well funded programs and give an opportunity to scale fast within an existing environment of clients.
The original accelerators are more focused on a specific industry and less on themselves, Y combinator for example is a well established name in the Tech space and has helped many household names get where they are today.
Since there were also a lot of partners of the accelerator programs at the event it was also a perfect place to interview some of the typical partners of the accelerators (for example the Dutch government or investors) and get their impression of what it is like to work with them.
Typical questions would be: why did you choose to work them in the first place? Did they deliver on that promise? Why do they keep working with them? What are flaws of the status quo? Who is clearly outperforming the others and why?
I would then go by some of the startup booths as well and ask what their impression was of accelerator programs. Have they ever considered joining one? Why/why not? What were they excited about before joining and after? What made them choose one over the other?
Of course many of the answers can be researched on the internet as well, but those in person interviews always offer a much more interesting real life perspective. They can give you little insights that appear so logical when casually expressed by a frustrated client, but can be a massive help in building the core of a new idea around.
Making it concrete
Next to interviews, putting the idea down on paper is the next best thing I do to check if your idea actually makes sense. Since I have plenty of experience summarizing an idea in 1 minute or 150 words, this part is easy for me. Very simply put, if you cannot make sense of the pitch in 1 minute, it’s probably not ready yet, or you have not figured it out well enough. A clear pitch however is not everything.
I also need to think of a clear operating model, resources needed and partners. A business model canvas is a very useful 1 pager to quickly check if the idea has everything it needs to be successful. Since I am validating this idea with other people it’s also a quick way to see if we are all on the same page.
Once I wrote all of this written down, I will talk it through with a few people in my network.
Do they recognize the problem? This is really the most important part. Whatever solution I come up with matters far less, because finding new ideas is way easier than finding a well defined and recognizable issue that has not been solved for yet in the market.
Making bits and pieces into one idea
It can be frustrating when all the bits and pieces don’t clearly fall into an obvious slam dunk of an idea. But like I said before having a clear problem statement will be like my North Star to keep going back to the drawing board.
By going back to a clear problem statement over and over again, I can see that over the years my idea will make more and more sense, and before you know it, all those bits and pieces are one awesome idea.