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Issue 13

3 Months of Springboard

Bogdan Iordache
Co-Founder How to Web
OTHERS

In December 2012 I accepted a very interesting challenge: to become the programme manager of Springboard, one of the best (no modesty, I know, but that"s a fact) European accelerator programmes. The 2013 edition also brought an element of absolute novelty: it was the first European programme dedicated to hardware startups, a very interesting movement which followed a 2012 year full of news for the hardware developers.

The 3 months have passed at high speed and the work amount was sometimes overwhelming. To be in charge of the Springboard programme while you give a helping hand to launch TechHub Bucharest, while you help your colleagues from Conectoo and you start organizing How to Web 2013, that is the definition of a busy schedule. This is also the reason why I have no longer had the time to write on the blog, which I hope to make up for in the following period.

After 3 months spent in Cambridge, I can say that this has been one of the most interesting professional experiences I have lived in the last few years. I had the opportunity to work with Jon and Jess, the ones who have founded/ led/ developed the Springboard accelerator during the last 3 years, but also with 8 fabulous teams, gathered from all the corners of the world (UK, Spain, Portugal, Canada and Bulgaria). Footnote: the Springboard team will be in charge, from this year on, of TechStars London, the first extension outside US of the most important accelerator programmes network and an extraordinary significant development for the European eco-system, which thus gets an open door towards the US market.

Cambridge is one of the key points of European hardware (if not THE key point), a city of 100.000 inhabitants, where important companies appeared, companies such as ARM (the producers of processors for almost all smart-phones and tablets in the world, having delivered 9 billion processors last year), Raspberry PI, Acorn Computers (for those who have a passion for history), but also the newer Neul and Weightless.

I accepted Jon"s proposal (my first real job since I was 21) because I was eager to understand how an accelerator programme is organized and which are the key elements that make such a programme successful. Besides many practical considerations (among which the most important is that an accelerator programme must be led by entrepreneurs and/ or investors), it is now clear to me that the most important ingredients are the quality of the teams and of the mentors, or, in other words, the context that one creates around the programme.

When among the mentors you have personalities such as Hermann Hauser, David Cleevely, Eben Upton or Peter Cowley, together with representatives of (without any exaggerations) tens of first class investment funds/ groups, as well as corporations such as Unilever (income of 51.32 billion EUR in 2012) or Bosch (income of 52.3 billion EUR in 2012) which make their top executives available for meetings and presentations with the teams, combined with a global selection area, well, things cannot be bad for you.

All these interactions build a context that can help you from several points of view: you will get a valid feedback for all the development alternatives that you analyze, you will get a ton of interesting information that is relevant for what you are doing and you can, ideally, meet your future investors and partners. But nothing is more concrete than the fantastical tension that floats in the air when the discussions heat up and the debate challenges you to find solutions and alternatives near people that are excellently trained from the professional point of view, because those are the moments when, just like an athlete that runs in the company of some better athletes, you professionally outrun yourself.

I feel that, after only 3 months there, I need other 3 more months to fully understand the experience I"ve been through and which, one way or another, I wish you to live, too.

What does an accelerator programme for startups look like from the inside?

In the two weeks since I returned to Romania I keep getting, in almost every discussion, questions such as: "What exactly is Springboard?", "What is it that you did over there?. Here are some additional explanations.

Springboard is (was?) one of the most important European accelerators, surely placed among the top 3, besides (my 2 cents) Seedcamp and Startupbootcamp. The 2013 spring/ summer programme was dedicated to startups from the "Internet of Things" domain and represented the last Springboard batch in the near future.

In February, Springboard announced its fusion with TechStars and the Springboard team will manage, from this month on, the TechStars London accelerator programme (the Springboard - TechStars fusion is an extraordinary success which brings the best network of accelerators to Europe). The Springboard brand is, for the time being, laid away. The overlapping of the two programmes (TechStars London began to be intensely prepared from May) made that the Springboard team (Jon and Jess) need a helping hand. This was, in short, how I got to work for Springboard as a programme manager for 3 months. I was eager to see what an accelerator programme looks like from the inside (and not from the perspective of a startup).

Springboard IoT had the classical structure of a mentor-driven accelerator: 3 months of programme, in the first half of which the teams meet more than 80 mentors, then, in the second half, the teams order the information they received, make strategic decisions regarding the target market, the typical client and the development strategy and they iterate the products in the desired direction.

Even though the title of programme manager sounds somewhat high-flown, Jon Bradford, the founder of Springboard (also an Irishman having a downright manner) and an old friend of mine (the first official Springboard T-shirt appeared in How to Web 2010) put me through all the possible tasks that someone can perform within an accelerator.

So, what does a programme manager do? Well, first of all, a lot of logistic work:

  • Organizing and managing the meetings with the mentors, which are surprisingly complex because of their great number (over 80 in Springboard)
  • Organizing workshops on different subjects, from business modeling, connected issues, marketing, financing, to campaign creation on Kickstarter
  • Organizing pitching meetings, which prepare the teams for Demo Day
  • Organizing Demo Day, the final event of the programme, where startups present their progress to the investors, media, etc.
  • However, my favorite part was working individually with the teams:
  • The (almost) weekly session of Office Hours, where we individually talked to each team about the strategic problems they were facing
  • Show and Tell, the weekly meeting where the teams presented their previous week"s progress and the following week"s challenges
  • (A little bit of) Competitive Analysis, analysis by strategic investors from an upright angle, etc.

Because our role was not that of giving advice (unless it was explicitly asked for), but that of facilitating the process the startups were going through, the debates that resulted were sometimes of a spectacular refinement. The role of facilitator was a new and extremely useful experience, which helped me better understand the decision making processes.

A quality accelerator programme surely has an impact on the teams that attend it, but its quality depends a lot on the mentors and the involved teams. Equally, it is extremely easy for the programme to be replicated as a structure, but it may not have any kind of consistency from the point of view of the results. Look carefully to whom you are going to meet when you choose the accelerator to apply for!

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