Last week I was in Berlin to attend this year's EU-Startups Conference. The Conference is an event for aspiring entrepreneurs aiming to build global companies from within Europe. An occasion for founders, startup enthusiasts, corporates and investors to come together, network and discover opportunity.
During the event, there were some great speakers and excellent pitches, including a pitch from Italian startupVino à Porter. Based in Milan, Vino à Porter makes wine more accessible by helping you choose wines that match your taste. Fortunately, I wasn't on the judging panel being somewhat biased toward a five question algorithm that matches me with my ideal bottle of wine.
I believe Jesper Buch, the Danish founder of Just Eat, had an especially important message European startups. When asked by a member of the audience, 'What about janteloven?' (Janteloven or Jante Law essentially means: you are no better than anyone else), he replied, 'Fuck janteloven! In my bedroom, I have a picture of my Lamborghini with these words written across the picture.'
Some view Janteloven as an excuse for mediocrity, certainly not a characteristic of the people attending the event. But, it also speaks to the bureaucratic and social barriers many European startups face. The message is simple, don't let these obstacles hold you back. You can overcome just about any obstacle if you have an absolute determination and are prepared to make enormous sacrifices.
Aside from this sage advice, five things really stuck with me that I hope all entrepreneurs at the event took to heart:
1. The team is everything:
Ferry Heilman, who co-founded DailyDeal (the first European couponing portal), puts great emphasis on creating a triple-A team. A team that knows each other well and can pivot when required. Jasper Buch echoed this sentiment saying: 'Team is everything.'
To attract excellent people in a competitive environment, you need to have a sexy product, and one of the founders must to be able to tell your story and where you are going with passion. The resounding message from the speakers: Invest in people; people drive everything.
2. Processes, never make the same mistake twice:
When Buch decided to expand beyond Denmark and into the UK, he realised that he had to protect his Danish cash cow. Making a mistake isn't the end of the world, but you should never make the same mistake twice.
So he took off for forty days and created a 450-page manual, documenting all the processes at Just Eat. Every role, from Secretary to CEO, was defined and every time Just Eat expanded into a new location, he handed the country CEO a copy of the manual. Once they had familiarised themselves with the 'Just Eat Way', he would visit and mentor them in their location.
3. Always be ahead of the competition:
The majority of successful companies are highly dependent on innovation for success. Just Eat, created the Just Eat Box to help restaurant owners control and manage online orders. They needed a way of getting into the restaurant to facilitate the online ordering process to make sure customer orders were fulfilled. In this chicken and egg situation maintaining a balance between the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) and customer choice was essential to scaling up.
Buch attributes much of their success to the Just Eat Box, describing it as the innovation that helped them create the Unicron. He also emphasised the importance of relationships, describing how he called his '800 friends' in Denmark just about every week to deliver this message: 'Don't leave me, I know there are no orders, but I'm working hard for you'. Certainly an innovative personal touch in the information age.
4. Get to break even, whatever it takes:
Once you break even, you can start doing things, and that means putting the company above all else. Tell your girlfriend (or boyfriend) that they might not see you for the next 5-years. Instead, they should send you vast amounts of positive energy and leave bolognese in the fridge. In exchange, you will place a kiss on their forehead at the edge of the night, and if all goes to plan, there will be the potential for high reward. While I think there may be an argument to made for a healthy work-life balance, I do believe working toward break even is sound advice. Many entrepreneurs tend to focus on too many opportunities simultaneously and run out of resources. Perhaps balance lies in resisting distraction and focusing on getting to breakeven.
5. Choose the right investors:
European startups face a significant challenge in finding funding. According to an article in Startus Magazine, 'Raising large rounds of capital is still a major challenge in Europe.' Ferry Heilman advised startups to take this into consideration from the outset, advising startups to seek Tier-A investors that have a network which extends beyond Europe and who can help you go from Angel funding through to accessing large rounds of capital.
Unfortunately, Vino à Porter didn't walk away with the €17,500 pitch prize package; it went to the equally innovative and deserving B2B Pay, a German/Finnish startup offering virtual bank accounts for exporters receiving payments.
The event offered great speakers, excellent advice, positive energy and a great networking opportunity. I look forward to seeing the impact EU-Startups has on the EU entrepreneurial community for years to come.