Advice from one startup to another – before you seek funding

bello denmark Inside Scandinavian Business

writer icon Sillas Poulsen     Bello   |   Startups     🕐 10. Jan. 2018

In August 2017 Sillas Poulsen and his two co-founders of Bello went to California to pitch in front of the world-renowned investment firm Y Combinator. They did not get the investment they had hoped for, but they learnt a lot from their experience.

We met up with Poulsen to ask him if he wanted to share his new-found insight. Here is what he learned in his own words:

Launch Quickly
You have to launch your product fast, even before you think you are ready. When we turned up at the YC interview, our beta had been live for just six days. The app still had a lot of bugs, but we found 25 users who were hopefully able to see past the crashes and jankiness to give the app a proper try.

Those first users started adding their contacts and by the time we were in front of the partners, we were up to 50 users. It wasn’t exactly viral just yet, but it helped to prove a point: users wanted to use it.

YC’s philosophy is that you can never launch too soon. It feels weird to release something that barely works, but the feedback is much more useful than spending months polishing something nobody wants. From the first line of code to our first users, it had taken a little over a month. Perhaps that wasn't soon enough, but we had certainly not spent time on heavy coats of polish or squashing bugs.

In the interview, one of the partners wanted to try the app. It crashed. Perhaps we proved we didn’t launch too late.

Get Real Customer Feedback
From before our team even started developing the thing, my co-founder and I were conducting interviews, learning about the problem, the industry, and the tools they use today. We were testing the user experience too, getting our interviewees to click through mockups of the sign-up flow or onboarding before we implemented it in the code.

It didn’t stop once we had launched either. We continue to talk to users, listening to what they need, what they like, what they hate.

In fact, many of our decisions in product and strategy are strongly tied to the insights from user interviews. This made many of the YC partners’ questions less daunting, allowing us to ground each answer in user feedback rather than untested hypotheses and guesswork.

Paint a Vision of Tomorrow
Y Combinator is looking for the next billion dollar business, not just another app idea. But on the flip side, they are also looking for real opportunities, not just crazy pipe dreams and unrealistic moon shots. For YC applicants, it is a balance between selling their long term vision and demonstrating they know the steps in between.

At times, I think we focused too much on what we are now: a messaging app for freelancers. We forgot our vision about how we want Bello to become the place where the freelance economy happens.

YC likes bold claims, but only if you can back it up. Getting that balance is an art in itself.

Remember what you want to say
One of the places we went badly wrong in our interview was that we did not discuss some of the really important aspects of our business that make it an interesting investment case. We had some great ideas about our business model and market strategy, but we never got to talk about them.

The last thing you want to do is come out of that interview room thinking “Damn, we forgot to mention x or y”. Make sure you go into the interview with a list of three or four things that you need to get into the conversation come hell or high water.

The YC partners know what they want to ask and will not let you dodge questions, but it does not mean you cannot steer the conversation a little. One strategy is to use your three points as framing devices for your answers. With a little luck, it might influence the partners’ follow up questions. It is not as easy as it sounds though.

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