We’ve just come to the end of another interesting pilot here at the Commissioner’s office - a 3 month New York virtual accelerator, kindly sponsored by Newstalk as part one of a two-part Newstalk Startup Executive Programme. The idea behind the virtual accelerator was to match 5 Ireland based startups with mentors in New York and see how access to on-the-ground mentors helped them to accelerate into the market. The participating startups Indigo Connect, LogoGrab, Love & Robots, LegalShine and Bizimply all had live products, funding and revenue when the pilot began, and we hoped, a truck load of invaluable US market knowledge by the time it was over.
To cut to the chase, the pilot was very successful: 3 of the 5 companies say they have a very different outlook on the US market as a result of the pilot; four of the five are seeking a longer term relationship with their mentor; and one of the mentors has invested in the company they mentored and become a sales partner to boot.
So what did we learn from this, first of it’s kind, 5 startup pilot? How much does it really help to have a US mentor while you’re still based fulltime here in Ireland? Should we or Newstalk spend the time and money to do this again? Here are 3 big takeaways from the programme:
1. A virtual relationship does work - as long as you’ve met face to face first.
Each of the 5 companies traveled to New York (at their own expense) as part of the pilot, so they did eventually meet face to face with their mentors, but in some cases that was weeks or months into the programme. All 5 of the companies agreed that they lost valuable time and energy trying to establish trust and connection over Skype when it could have happened in a half hour over coffee in Dublin or New York day one.
2. To succeed in the market you must spend time in the market.
I once joked on Twitter that there seemed to be a direct correlation between the amount of time Irish entrepreneurs spent on planes and how successful their businesses were, and through the pilot our 5 startups learned something similar. As one of them said: “We can sell online but it won’t work in a market like the US. You’ve got to be there, and benefit from the referral effect and the network effect. Customers won’t hear about us online, they’ll hear about us through others. What we need in New York is boots on the street”.
3. It may be a similar sized market, but selling into the US is very different to Europe.
Each of the 5 companies had stories to tell about this valuable lesson, from being advised by their mentor to stop wasting money on online advertising or expensive trade shows they weren’t ready for, to focusing on a more niche segment of the market as an entry point, to developing more sophisticated messaging that resonated in tone and language, while differentiating them from a myriad of US competitors. In fact, a lot of our conversations about the value of the Newstalk pilot came back to marketing and messaging, tone and language, and just how different it was in the US from what they knew in Ireland, the UK and Europe.
In late September we’ll officially launch part 2 of the Newstalk Startup Executive Programme. It’s ambitious, focused on accelerating SaaS companies, and this time all the action will take place right here in Dublin.