Fast forward

March 2015

Fast forward buttonIan Merricks is Program Director for Fast Forward (FFWD) London, a three-way partnership with Accelerator Academy, City University London and match funding from the EU ERDF (European Regional Development Fund).

FFWD London was created in response to an issue in the accelerator community about what to do with the applicants that apply for accelerator programmes that are considered too early. To do something FFWD London united 16 different accelerators with this common challenge of getting hundreds of applications for typically 10 places.

As Ian explained they did this because they could see that there were interesting businesses not being given any additional support. However, the reason they are not being given that support is because they are not at the commercial end of the market.

The goal with FFWD London was to create a programme of support from the accelerator community to give the startups applying to the accelerators, at the early stage, more structured support to help them get to the next stage quicker.

They felt that the support should come from industry experts and trade bodies and, as they were developing the proposition on behalf of the 16 accelerators, they reached out to a range of different industry partners, including BCS.

The support consisted of providing seasoned technology experts from its community of practitioners to provide basic support and guidance and best practice from industry to inspire startups coming in. They replicated that with industry trade bodies for different weeks and different themes. Each week had a different theme.

BCS was the tech week partner and they did something similar with ICAEW, the institute for chartered accountants, on finance and forecasting and worked with other partners for different themed sessions.

As to what it was about the companies that was too early, Ian says that they were just too early in their journey. 'They hadn’t got enough proof points of their business opportunity, maybe the team wasn’t fully formed and quite often some of the goals were a little naïve. From an accelerator’s point of view you only have 12 weeks to work with these businesses to get them to the state where they are credible to raise £300,000 - £500,000.

‘You are deliberately very selective in the businesses that you work with. You have got to be confident that you can get to that end goal of being investor-ready and for market pressure within those 12 weeks. Some were still finding their way around their core proposition and were perhaps undecided about their best route to market; it might be through partners or retail, it might be direct.

‘All the things that entrepreneurs are faced with are the common reasons that accelerators looking at a company might say that they would be happier to see them in six months, when they have made a bit more progress.’

In order to deal with this issue they reverse-engineered the syllabus to address common concerns.

The syllabus covers:

  • building out good quality teams,
  • understanding route to market,
  • developing a viable product,
  • understanding your market segment.

Once they have received this over the six week period, companies are in a much better shape to pitch to accelerators or grant providers, loan providers, seed funds and get to the next level of support that they need.

FFWD London developed six workbooks, 12 page, A4 booklets, each week, that consisted of a broad understanding of the subject theme, a reading list to support that, a set of assignments each week for the entrepreneurs to benefit from the learning, and to apply practically to their startup idea. They then delivered that in the form of bringing in an industry keynote speaker in each of the weekly meetings.

There was also a selection of workshops and group tasks and a pitch back to the other companies to encourage peer-learning and knowledge-sharing each week. Then the teams would leave with their workbook and work on the extended assignments that week, which were again more about putting that into practice. So it was a structured and syllabus-driven programme.

FFWD ran every Tuesday from morning to six at night, only one day a week, so they had to cram a lot in so they could go away and know where to go to get additional points. The first pilot group ran from May to July 2014.

In September they had a pitch day where they were pitching to 80 guests in total; 16 accelerators, three incubators, grant providers from the Technology Strategy Board, the European Union and the UK TI, angel syndicates and funds, and startup loan companies. There was a range of carefully selected guests in the audience using the FFWD output as an opportunity for the sector.

On the back of that pilot programme FFWD London was invited by the EU to re-run it. The plan is to run it in summer 2015 and they are currently considering whether to increase the frequency because the demand was great from startups coming through and from the accelerator community and the willingness to support from industry, including BCS.

One of the development potentials is not just increasing the frequency of FFWD in London, but to roll it out to other cities to incorporate accelerators in cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and also Scotland.

Ian said that there is also a good opportunity to roll out FFWD regionally in the UK and then potentially across the EU member states as the EU is looking to run best practices across the EU. One of the reasons FFWD chose to work with BCS was because they didn’t want the companies to be advised by other startups as they didn’t feel that would lend itself to good practice.

What they were after was an industry-led bias and they felt that it was something that didn’t really exist before as, typically, there hadn’t been fantastic engagement between mature industry practitioners and the startup industry.

By working with membership organisations the companies got the benefit of the best practice that these organisations are evangelical about. This is what they do with BCS Entrepreneurs, to raise the standards and best practice of the industries that they represent.

It’s that enthusiasm and the commitment to best practice and high standards, and also the education piece, where they are looking to educate their future members that was an important value-add. It’s also an incentive for these organisations to get involved.

Ian cited an example of the skills and experience that BCS members brought in. ‘Some of the conversations in the BCS meetings involved a debate around the use of proprietary code with open source code. ‘For the entrepreneur hacking together their startup with minimal resource it’s quite tempting to blend open source and proprietary IP to get their technology built.

A BCS perspective was that it precludes the business to own and properly exploit its intellectual property in the future. That was quite an easy thing from a seasoned CTO to say: “don’t do that”. ‘Whereas for an aspiring first time CTO that’s a quick hack that saves them a few weeks of time. However, getting it right at day one is quite an easy pivot to see the benefit of those two week’s extra work. Roll on two years after that if the company is being sold that issue could cause a huge problem in that valuation.’

This was the kind of experience that FFWD wanted BCS to bring. They wanted to apply how not to do it right at the early stages so that the companies could avoid having to fix mistakes later. As to the general situation for startups in the UK, Ian believes that the country has the best tax incentives for early stage investment in Europe.

It has SEIS (seed enterprise investment scheme) and EIS (enterprise investment scheme), that are good sources of funding. In addition there are also loan companies that provide startup loans to entrepreneurs, there is mentoring sponsored and subsidised by the government and also the Technology Strategy Board (now called Innovate UK), which is a grant provider for early stage development, hardware and software.

‘I have no criticism of what’s out there,’ Ian said. ‘I think part of the challenge is just that the breadth of services that are available to support startups are probably not that well known and they are definitely not that well joined-up and unfortunately that’s a classic from government.

‘I think that by surrounding these practitioners with experts from industry gave them the opportunity to find out how things like the startup loans work, or how do you get startup visas or loans if you’re too early for equity.’

Image: AbleStock.com/87714619

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