Techstars Fintech Demo Day: Challenges of the startup story

Having spent time in the thriving, frothing, exhilarating, exhausting, terrifying, illuminating world of tech startups myself at Tradeshift, I think Augur is lucky to have insight and a perspective that many agencies don’t.

Because it’s a world full of people doing the next wave of interesting, important work, Augur proudly dedicates time to mentor programmes for both TechStars Barclays Accelerator and the Canary Wharf based Level 39. It sometimes feels about as close as you can get to being a VC without being a millionaire.

Today’s Techstars demo day demonstrated a complex side to this world that particularly leaps out at us: the difficulty of telling a distinct and compelling story.

Here’s what we noticed from the ten presentations.

1. Where’s the depth to your story?

My guilty habit is trying to find the thing a founder doesn’t want to tell you. In real life, it can make me seem like a cold bastard — but as a mentor, I think that’s one of the most valuable things we can provide.

In practice, what this also means is if you don’t tell me the very serious things, I’ll suspect there’s a reason you aren’t. God knows, your story and communications are going to be scrutinised from every angle at this stage of the company. We can help plug those holes (even if it’s possibly by bashing at chinks in the armour.)

This also extends to how you construct that story. It’s all too easy to fall into the generic — size of market, challenge being solved, team and experience. Sitting ten presentations back to back really reveals the underlying genre. Naturally, fitting a model helps and often works. But maybe there’s an opportunity to lay the icing on the cake and gain a memorable advantage. Don’t miss it.

2. Differentiator difficulty

Is it enough to be so close to existing, great companies but be on mobile or on the blockchain? In the latter case especially, there’s a weird chasm where what you’re describing can be so so simple (a marketplace for Bitcoin) that it seems both a bit meek — and curiously impossible. I.e. If such basic things haven’t been done yet, what’s the big looming challenge I don’t know about?

One of the most interesting companies that spoke today let its advantage via blockchain remain almost entirely implicit. This is because there was a match between the concept of the company and blockchain as the tool to solve it. That makes a big difference vs saying you’re simply building a tool/ service for that platform.

3. Is technology the solution?

When you have to set up a challenge and solution for slides, you can easily set up a straw man and knock it down. In the real world, resistance to technology is an everyday and sometimes near insurmountable nightmare.

There’s no doubt buyers are more advanced than they were in years gone by but this journey still feels work in progress. There’s also something intriguing in how technology can become a panacea for those with a mildly entrepreneurial mindset, sitting in their job and wondering “why is this harder to use than Facebook”?

Having just the right balance of understanding how technology businesses are different and also having spent years in a particular vertical where you see a specific and non-obvious problem is rare.

Both today and from speaking with her previously, Everledger co-founder Leanne Kemp was a remarkable demonstration of this. Market specific experience advantage in her background, already working to the bone to get the work done, already working with the right kind of people, history of previous companies. A definite one to watch.

In a world where you hear confident setup slides, market value etc you start to rely on these kinds of things as indicators of the real ones to watch.

The Game of B2B

Despite all these challenges,the companies really demonstrate why unsexy B2B tech, including fintech, retail tech and more, is thriving right now.

Even with the potentially weakest of these concepts, they are speaking an ultra clear language. It’s not about getting 100m consumers to download an app or buy a fizzy drink, it’s about targeting a clear and specific group of valuable companies and helping them make or save 100s of millions of dollars.

That’s a game of value we’re really delighted to see continue to thrive and play our own small part in.