On four years of Seedcamp — and why you should get involved
It's been over 4 years now since I have been involved with Seedcamp, as investor, board member and mentor. In the early days was a group of entrepreneurs thinking about how to leverage the scarcest of resources (talented people's time) and today we are two funds into a promising international initiative that is starting to deliver results.
Looking back to July 2007
Seedcamp emerged out of conversations between a bunch of UK-based entrepreneurs trying to lever the talented resources around them into a formal project that could actually help seed stage entrepreneurs across the UK, Europe and sometimes beyond get their projects off the ground.
The project was formalized by Saul Klein, Reshma Sohoni and team into what Seedcamp is today, with phase one funding from people like Rosemary Forsyth, TAG, Mattias Ljungman's Atomico Ventures, Saul's Index, Brown Rudnick and Atlas Venture. It started with an online form and a bunch of applicants, as well as some immediate help from Mike Butcher at Techcrunch, theNextWeb boys and Imperial College. We owe a debt to Robin Klein who got us involved at the start. Off we went, official launch July 2007 !
By the first Seedcamp week that September there were around 270 applications and 80 mentors. Our first batch of 20 was ready to go. We had also added a bunch of investors like Sean Park, DJF Esprit, Balderton, Amadeus and others over time to make this as inclusive as possible. I have been on the board of Seedcamp since the outset and have watched the team and initiative evolve over time. The beg/borrow/steal mantra is alive and well (Reshma originally got office space from us, then Atomico, then Brown Rudnick and so on, and is today camping out at EDITD) but Seedcamp has steadily increased both its reach and its quality.
There has always been a natural tension between the desire to go broad and touch as many entrepreneurs as possible and the need to keep the quality of the events and in particular the mentoring high enough. From our initial base of London, Kiev, Berlin, Paris, Seedcamp went broader and in particular unleashed a real following in Eastern Europe, where a new generation of eager young entrepreneurs was looking to create deeper connectivity with the money centers of London, Munich or Paris.
I am asking myself the same question over and over: how do we raise quality whilst embracing as much of the community as we can, with (by definition) a tight team and a tight budget.
There seems to be a kind of marketing war going on between all of the incubation/acceleration programs, what with YCombinator getting 600 applications a minute or Techstars providing some awesome TV. At some level you could argue all these are fighting for a limited crop of A+ entrepreneurs, but I tend to take a slightly more prosaic view on this. Each of these initiatives serves a defined community and tries to rise above transience by building sustainable processes of value creation for startups. Each has a unique place and role to play in improving the early stage ecosystem, as was well argued by Jonathan Wegener.
Beyond any marketing spin, the only thing that really matters is whether startups go through these programs and come out at the other end stronger, funded, ready to go win in the marketplace. For my money, well-supported, locally backed, collaborative initiatives are the only real way to go. There is no shortcut to generating real engagement between startups and mentors and spending quality time together on problems that truly matter to entrepreneurs and limit their chance of success.
I have been lucky enough to be involved in both Seedcamp and Techstars Boston, and to see how these two initiatives deliver value in different ways. Techstars as a 3 month residential creates a real furnace of entrepreneurial emulation. Seedcamp, designed for a more distributed European ecosystem, is very efficient at creating connectivity and access. Both usually get very strong reviews from entrepreneurs. I also wrote recently about 500Startups, another impressive initiative.
Maintaining quality is a sustainability challenge for all accelerator programs, which is why I think they are fundamentally hard to scale. Quality primarily relies on getting high quality mentors and designing formats that deliver real value to entrepreneurs. It's tough to scale good mentors, and god knows I have witnessed some pretty awful mentoring. But I have also and mostly seen companies get real breakthroughs in strategy and execution thanks for the variety of views and quality of probing that they are subjected to.
By the Community, For the Community
I have firm belief that you get the ecosystem you deserve. The benefits you derive from heavily involving yourself in these types of initiatives are a bit like those of blogging: they are not immediately obvious. But they are no less real. I cannot count the number of valuable relationships with entrepreneurs and other mentors, investors and doers I have built over the years through involvement in these programs. Exposing yourself to teams that are usually before the stage where you might fund them is not only interesting, it's also healthy. It forces you to go back to the basics of company creation and launch, that vital act of latching onto a concept or an idea and turning it into a company. There is also something very gratifying about giving back, contributing some of what you learned, or just being the best sounding board that you can be.
Building a succesful incubator program is hard. You do it with limited resources, hacked together tech, small teams. Both Reshma Sohoni and Katie Rae can testify to that. None of them can do it without the involvement of the community, not expecting thanks or flowers but getting a virtuous circle of involvement going. Pick one, and go help out.