Maybe the past years have not been the most normal setting for the world and business. We did go through rather many social, technological, and political changes in the past decade that took a toll on planning and predictability. But maybe the normal does not exist at all and the winner is the one who adapts to changes the fastest. Now, looking in retrospect, it seems amazing how we (all of us!) are capable of finding solutions and paths to continue our road, no matter what.
This bumpy and unpredictable road of a founder’s journey is exactly what inspired our brand refresh (have you read the story yet?) But here are the biggest things we have learned from all the bumps over the past 11 years.
1. Crisis makes you stronger
Along the way, we have not won public tenders amounting to probably good 50M EUR while being the most experienced candidate. A week before Covid broke out in the whole world, we had brought on-site startup teams for the launch of the new program. We invested in 40+ Ukrainian startups heavily impacted by the still ongoing war. And these are just to name a few.
The thing is, having to deal with these crises has always led us to new paths that we wouldn’t have otherwise taken.
When we lost one public tender, it helped us re-focus entirely on private investors and launch our bigger Challenger fund. That probably was one of the big catalysts for our recent growth.
When covid hit, we rethought our entire business model and accelerator programs. It helped us to finally launch a program in Africa – a region we had been eyeing on for years, but couldn’t yet handle an on-site program there. Now our Africa program is the only one that is purely online.
Regarding the war in Ukraine- we saw an incredible power of our community that has never been as strong as in the early days of the war, when the team and portfolio founders, mentors, and investors created a helpline and network to support those fleeing from the country with housing on the way, donating money and army boots, gathering job listings for Ukrainian tech workers and more. This brings us to our next lesson learned.
2. Community beats an exclusive club
10 years ago we were playing around with this northern European’s hypothetical idea of a mafia and how badass it sounds. Mafia and the exclusive club seemed cool in 2012, but not in 2022. What we actually learned is that community, openness and genuinely helping each other is what works and is highly welcomed in the startup scene. Startup Wise Guys has grown a global, supportive network of more than 700 founders in 60+ countries. We see how important an active community is not only for early-stage founders during accelerator cohorts, but maybe even more so after graduation from the program and on their growth journey. The startup culture has become increasingly prevalent, demonstrating the effectiveness of collaboration and an abundance mindset that prioritizes win-win outcomes over the cutthroat competition. That is why we are opening up our community. Our new tradition of regional local get-togethers is to invite not only our team and startups we have invested in but also mentors and investors. And who knows – maybe this should grow into a full-blown public experience and inspiration exchange event series.
Also, over the years, we have participated in various projects, where we coach others on how to run accelerator programs. We share our knowledge in various networks, like Google for startups, and we learn from others, too. At the end of the day – if the overall practice in the market is good, that means everybody wins – startups are more successful, they make their products better and create more impact.
3. Do we need so many unicorns?
We all get the startup’s temptation to be called a unicorn someday, but we also see the trap set in this kind of thinking. A unicorn mindset too often concentrates on valuation and fundraising and neglects other measures such as impact, work environment, footprint, and a sense of purpose – to build for the customer, not for the investor. There is nothing wrong with companies growing big and successful if they actually have substance, purpose, and customers. However, becoming a startup unicorn should be a consequence, not a purpose! Thus we should also celebrate the hard-working founders with smaller growth metrics or less invested capital that potentially have a bigger or better impact, too. For example, there was a large mobility startup that failed and just dumped all of their e-scooters to rot in a landfill, whereas, some of our African startups are building apps to help poor people collect scrap metal and get fair money for doing that. We work with startups that often are not exactly your usual suspects for a regular investor and they might not grow into unicorns, but they do it for the right reasons and therefore they have all the potential, too. We dig and search and find the diamonds in the rough- startups that often even themselves have no idea how big and amazing they can grow. Often those are humble, hard-working, and insanely talented people who are ready and open to being coached and we can help them think bigger.
Herty Tammo, the co-founder of Startup Wise Guys believes that the product is the key: “ What I have learned by becoming a top 3 accelerator in the world for EU VC-s is that if you build 10x better products than the ones that exist in the market you will experience pull from the market that creates traction. With great traction, you can raise money from customers and investors and if you don’t give up in the first 10 000 hours you will definitely build a great business.”
4. We are here for the founders
Our program used to be about coaching techy founders about business and sales. Business is what it’s all about, right? Now we are in the field long enough to see that we need to be stronger support for actual founders rather than faceless businesses to see their growth and success. Now our program is more about teaching founders about leadership, and company culture and boosting their confidence and skills to grow the company. When we started, the accelerator market was very different. Due to the scarcity of early-stage investment, startups were lining up for the programs and satisfied with a ticket as small as $10,000 or below. Nowadays the dynamics have changed and the investors are the ones who have to line up with better deals, higher tickets, and, most importantly, a better understanding of founders’ needs. We currently invest 65/100K eur tickets, but the market is still very dense and competition is fierce. We understand that the support a founder receives during and after the program is often more valuable than the financial assistance provided. And this brings us to the next point.
5. Less is more and focus is better
When Startup Wise Guys were born, the program was pretty broad and it took in any kind of startup. Later on, a clear B2B focus was chosen, mostly due to Estonia being a small market to test and scale B2C projects, but a perfect playground for B2B ones. Nowadays – we have split the program into verticals (SaaS, Fintech, Cyber, Sustainability, XR, and more coming this year) and provide way more dedicated and focused help. In the past, all program participants were required to complete all the content, but as the program has evolved, we now offer more optional and personalized support. Starting from zero implementation time 11 years ago, our program has expanded to include additional weeks for startups to implement what they have learned. We have also added various elements to better prepare participants for the “after-accelerator” phase. These include simulated advisory board meetings between founders and our top management, progress days to review traction, and active use of the Google sprint methodology, which has been highly valued by our founders.
As our Global CEO, Cristobal Alonso says: ”I believe that being true to our day one purpose of helping founders become entrepreneurs and build great international companies is the most incredible testament to Startup Wise Guy’s own entrepreneurial spirit.”
In conclusion, it’s safe to say that it’s pointless to wait for the normal in the constantly changing world. But it’s highly important to remember that both obstacles and solutions will present themselves whether you are ready or not. We, at Startup Wise Guys, are framing these lessons learned for future reference to remind us that as long as we stay true to our purpose, we will always find a way forward.