“You believed in us and completely changed the trajectory of our startup” A startup that I’d been working with once told me this after they’d come through an accelerator program I was involved with. This startup almost didn’t make it onto the program because they couldn’t clearly articulate their business model or value proposition. But I took a chance on them even though I didn’t really understand their solution, because I had a gut feeling the founding team were something special.
This got me thinking, how many start-ups in the past have invented complex hardware technology with the potential to solve some of the biggest problems we face today, but never succeeded to commercialise? There are a multitude of reasons why startups fail, but it pains me to think that incredible technology is out there sitting dormant because its technical founder couldn’t quite pitch it right, or understand the right market to target or the angle for the value proposition.
More support is needed for early stage technical founders who are struggling to get the business side right. Particularly for climate and energy tech, where the technology can be highly complex and it’s higher risk for investors and industry to get commercially engaged without demonstrated traction.
So what can the startup support ecosystem do more of to help these founders succeed?
Over my past 5 years of being involved with energy-tech startup accelerator programs, below are the top three responses on the things that had the biggest impact on accelerating their growth:
- Learning a structured method for customer discovery and sharpening the value proposition: This was the number one most impactful outcome for startups. It’s traditionally been an area only taught in marketing degrees but education in this space is highly needed for technical startup founders. Early stage founders have often told me hiring a marketing person is something they can only afford once they start getting decent revenue, but getting to that point is so hard without the skills to talk to customers in a way to understand their pain points, then frame your value proposition in a way that directly addresses those. I’ve seen so many ‘aha’ moments from founders who started out overloading on jargon and buzzwords when trying to sell, then swap to a message that clearly addresses a customer problem in simple terms.
- Relentless pitch practice and feedback: During our programs, founders deliver their pitch to different audiences 10-15 times, each time getting valuable feedback from our pitch coaches and adding new learnings. The main takeaway is that they should be able to go into any investor or customer meeting and have a clear and compelling story that they know back-to-front and can deliver with confidence. Early stage founders can’t outsource sales, so it’s critical for them to learn this skill as they will continue to struggle to make a business out of their technology if they can’t sell the vision for it.
- Connections for mentorship: There are a lot of intelligent and successful people out there who are willing to help founders, they just need the right channels to find each other. More dedicated channels to aggregate mentors and startups in specific verticals, and oversee the success of mentor matching are needed. Having access to corporate industry experts to help validate assumptions in a no-pressure environment has been instrumental to helping accelerate the startups’ growth.
The elements I’ve described above don’t take millions of dollars to implement but can make a huge difference in helping to accelerate getting game-changing technology to market. So, if you’re in any capacity to support startups, consider these areas to focus your efforts.
And where is that startup from the start of the story now? They’ve done over 30 customer interviews, completely overhauled their value proposition messaging, their pitch is unrecognisable from the first version and they’ve just been awarded the ‘Most Disruptive Renewable Energy Startup in South East Asia’ by a major publication.