Key insights from training of “Microsoft for Start-ups program”

Key insights from training of “Microsoft for Start-ups program”

Inspiring, thought-provoking, motivating, full of energy and wisdom. These are some of the words that I can use to describe the guest speaker talks organised by the European University Cyprus, as part of the second cycle of the "Microsoft for Start-ups program".
Ten Cypriot start-ups have been selected to participate in this program, having the opportunity to receive expert training and mentoring over a 4-month period. On the 17th and 18th of March 2023, a two-day training programme was held for these start-ups. The guest speakers and trainers were all selected with great care, after a lot of thought, aiming to offer the following to our participants: honesty, down-to-earth approach, experience in running or consulting successful start-ups, knowledge, inspiration. 

As one of the organisers of these training sessions, I was lucky enough to hear all these amazing presentations and keep notes at the same time. I would like to thank whole-hearterly all speakers for the time they devoted, not only in presenting but also having meaningful one-to-one discussions with our start-ups during th break sessions. We hope we have all contributed in adding value and offering new knowledge to our start-up founders. 

Here are the main insights from each guest speaker:

Yiannis Gavrielides, COVVE:
Relationships nowadays have become very transactional. We should stop approaching them in this way, we need to be human. Also the word “networking” has turned into a bad word but it shouldn’t. For some reason, people think that networking means going and talking to everyone in an event, even if there are 100 people in this event. That is why a lot of people hate the whole process, because it is very stressful in the way they have framed it in their minds. This is not networking. Networking is all about building meaningful relationships: understanding what other people do, being genuinely curious, really listening to what the other person has to say with interest, not pretending that you care.

Besides dreading the whole experience of going to complete strangers and talking to them, other people hate networking because they use the excuse of being “introvert”. In reality introverts are really good in building meaningful relationships because they can concentrate on one person at a time and have a good discussion with them.
There are also all other people who think they are really successful at networking because they know a lot of people but in reality this is not the definition of building meaningful relationships. It is not about meeting a lot of people. It is about being open, saying something personal to make the other person connected with you and it is about not talking too much about yourself. Giving the space to the other person to also open up. A great way to connect with a new person you have met is to really listen to their problems or frustrations and offer to help out. By helping out it creates a need for reciprocity. You can take notes while another person speaks and then follow up after the first encounter, as many times you miss the momentum when you have a good introduction with a new person and then you never follow up.

For people who are anxious about going out and meeting new people, the advice by Yiannis is to look at it as a habit, like going to the gym or exercising daily. 
Yiannis described three stages of networking: meet, nurture, grow. The best way to reach another person is through a face-to-face meeting. Then if this is not possible you can call them, text them and the final resort should be the email, as it is the less personal one. The email can be the tool you use to set up the first meeting, after you follow up with a new person you have met. The technology is there to help us, it is not the actual method of building relationships. We need to be human first of all.
Before reaching out, we need to do our research, find out as much as we can about this person and the organisation they work for. This is also true if we haven’t talked to a person for a long time. Check their profile to make sure that no major changes have happened professionally. A great way to connect with a person is through their passion. Find this and connect by talking about this specific passion. If you are also an expert in a specific field, you need to expose this as it creates connection points with other people who are looking for this kind of expertise. It is like you are building a social cloud around your expertise. 

Maria Terzi, Malloc:

After participating at the IDEA incubation programme and winning the Cyprus Entrepreneurship Competition (CyEC) of the University of Cyprus, the co-founders of Malloc received the first offers for investment but they refused them all, as they were aiming for something bigger. They found out by accident about the YCombinator and submitted their video at the last minute, without careful consideration and preparation. 
Of course people around them (family and friends) shared their opinion and considerations, even if they didn’t know a lot about entrepreneurship and start-ups. It is good to listen to your close family and friends but the decisions concerning your life are yours only.

The ladies managed to win the PRE-SEED funding by the Research and Innovation Foundation (RIF) and then Maria quitted her job and became a full-time employee at their start-up. 

They started investing very small amounts of money in advertising, just to see what works, what doesn’t work. When they hit very good numbers and good traction through online media, they immediately informed YCombinator about this success. They always emphasised in their email the numbers they were hitting. Numbers are important and start-up people should study them and emphasise any good numbers achieved (showing traction) in their pitching and demo day with investors. 

Once the Y-Combinator training and mentoring started, they needed to inform their mentors about weekly improvements and how well they were doing in terms of in reaching these goals. This creates a mindset of consistency, being disciplined and accountable, and exerting continuous effort to reach your goals.

A start-up should not receive as much money as possible when there is interest from investors. They should select their investors carefully and go only for the amount of money that they need until the improve their product and then go for another bigger round of investment. In this way you improve your valuation each time and thus you lose less of your own equity. To achieve this, you need to keep the growth metrics up in order to lead you to a successful Series A funding round. Also you need to have a low burning rate of the investment money received, you should be conservative and not give high salaries to the co-founders and your employees. A good percentage of investment money is usually spent on marketing. 

When you select your co-founders, these should be people that you trust and you should feel comfortable in disagreeing with, having honest conversations, have intense discussions the one day and then the next day you work with them again next day like nothing has happened. You need to choose your co-founders carefully.

Michael Antoniou, Hellas Direct:

Michalis first explained the special characteristics of the insurance industry, as this is a highly regulated industry and you cannot start from your garage as other start-ups can, you need to have enough money in advance as you need the licenses to operate in this industry. He then explained the pros and cons of the insurance industry and gave emphasis on one success factor: each start needs to know the special characteristics of the industry well, they should do their homework.

A fundamental characteristic of a successful entrepreneur is resilience. They should be able to handle failure, getting up after problems arise, not giving up, being ok with failure and setbacks. There is a lot of anxiety and stress when you are running a start-up, even if things look great from the outside.

It is better to have a co-founder, as there are many emotional burnouts, you can share your concerns and frustrations with each other and have a shoulder to cry when things are not going well or celebrate together during your first wins. It is also very important to build a team that members can disagree with, have mutual trust between them and being committed to the same goals and vision.

Michael also talked about those start-ups that the customer is not the same as the user (e.g. application for kids, where the customer is the parent and the end user is their kid). This is an extra complexity that you need to take it into account when developing your marketing and outreach plan. 

Petros Andreou, BSM:

Petros talked about the shipping industry, its unique characteristics and the challenges they are facing when it comes to digital transformation. He emphasised the need for every start-up founder to have a good domain knowledge in the area that he/she will be operating in.

Petros also explained that for large companies from the shipping industry it is imperative and at the same time challenging to build a digital culture, as this will be a key differentiator. Thus start-ups can find different ways to develop digital marine solutions, by talking to people from the shipping industry, getting their ideas and their feedback and then developing something of real value.

Petros also presented Mari Apps (digital solutions for the shipping industry developed by BSM) and BSM Innoport fund, their investment arm in innovative and high-potential early-stage start-ups. Petros gave practical examples of the kind of start-ups they are looking for to invest at a global level and described the start-up solutions that they have already invested in, so that the participants in our “Microsoft for Start-ups” programme can get an idea and see how they can become more investable through the BSM Innoport fund. 

Daniella Chrysochou, EY:

Daniella talked about the agile fundamentals and the importance of understanding this methodology in today’s rapidly changing professional environment and business world. 
Daniella gave practical examples of how you can utilise the agile methodology at work, through the structure of your team.

She also explained the design thinking principles and gave particular emphasis on the concept of customer centricity and how to really identify the profile (persona) of your customer and their needs, through practical examples from the banking industry. 
She also mentioned the “fail fast, fail often” principle of the lean start-up methodology, that also apply to start-ups and is closely aligned with the agile methodology.

Celia Hadjichristodoulou and Stephani Theophanous, GrantXpert:
Celia and Stephani explained the key principles of national and EU funds and explained the difference between the two.

The speakers emphasised to the start-up founders that if they want to utilise EU funds, they need to do their homework and work as early as possible in preparing a top-quality proposal, as competition at both national and EU level is fierce. They need to persuade the evaluators that they have something promising without over-exaggerating and they should be in a position to really implement the project, as promised in the proposal, within the proposed budget.

Also Celia and Stephani provided tips and insights on the success rate of each funding programme that is available for start-ups and gave a practical roadmap of how to best approach each programme now that these programmes will be opening in the following months, with a straight-forward time framework for each programme. 

Moyses Moyseos, Gravity Ventures:

One of the key difficulties they find in Gravity Ventures when working with start-up founders is their stubbornness, as they believe they know what the customer needs and that their viewpoint of how the product should look like is correct. Entrepreneurs need to be open-minded, accept feedback and they should be willing to accept negative comments and constantly find ways to improve their product, based on this feedback.

It is key to know your customer and have a complete and correct customer profile.
New entrepreneurs and start-up founders should always take into account that when a customer chooses their product, they are also buying the philosophy around that company, as they want to own the values of the brand.

Philip Ammerman, Navigator Consulting: 

The role of mentors and investors is to challenge you. Thus start-ups needs to do their homework, know their numbers, support their ideas and assumptions, based on evidence and reliable statistics.

Investors want to see the level of understanding of basic metrics in terms of financial, marketing, and sales issues, e.g. how you intend to go into the market, how you will grow this company (growth metrics), how each co-founder contributes in the development of the idea (what they bring into the table), how you will safeguard the funds they will provide you, what are your plans for growth or expansion in five years’ time, budget issues, etc.

Cyprus can be your sandbox for product launch and prototyping but you should aim in expanding your product/service in other countries as well, not stay only in the Cyprus market due to its small size.

When you start preparing your financial estimations and budget projections, you need to spend extra time in defining your basic assumptions, this is very important. The assumptions should be clear and realistic. As we are currently facing a financial crisis and this will become worse in the following months, the projections need to be very conservative.

There are different growth metrics (KPIs) that you need to study (do your homework) and be ready to give estimations on these metrics, whether they relate to revenue, market share strategy, retention rates, conversion rates, cost per click, click-through-rate, cost-per-mile, etc.

It is important for start-ups to find reliable/official statistics for the conversion rate per platform for their own industry and use those rates in their projections. Always use the most conservative rate from the sources of information found.

Panis Pieri, Startup Journalist: 

It is very beneficial to build a community when starting around your start-up, this will have multiple benefits for your start-up over the long-run.

Establish KPIs that relate to digital marketing and growth hacking.
Build marketing hooks, if this is possible, at the start of your marketing efforts. Panis provided well-known examples of such marketing hooks, like referral systems. 
Perform customer feedback loops.

A number of websites that provide examples and knowledge on new marketing tactics were provided to our start-ups.

Victoria Kostic-Nola, VIZ Ventures: 

If you manage to work in big brands (international companies), this gives you amazing insights before you start your own company and you can even develop your entrepreneurial skills as an intrapreneur, while working in these big companies.

A start-up needs to think carefully whether they want to go directly and receive money from VCs, as the monthly KPIs set by these investors will create great stress and anxiety. That is why it could be a good strategy to first start your collaboration with business angels, as you get better prepared and it acts as a critical bridge. That is why business angels have such an important role to play in a start-up ecosystem.

Start-ups need to understand that before contacting any business angel, investor or VC they need to be well prepared. Also to have stamina and patience, as this is a marathon. They should clearly understand from the start that they need to dedicate their next 10 years to make this company a success.

When evaluating start-up ideas, Victoria checks the motivation behind the business idea. Why are you doing this? Who is it for? How are you contributing? Of course, every investor has his/her own methods and filters when deciding whether to invest in a start-up. 

For Victoria it is very important for a start-up founder to be authentic. This also builds a clear personal and corporate brand. From her experience, through a portfolio of 20 start-ups that she has invested so far, it is very difficult for single founders to make it. It is not easy to be on top of everything, reply to all emails, handle operations, technical development, investor update and have a clear mind as well. Many times investors or business angels play the role of the “psychologist” when the founders are not feeling motivated or have lost hope.

An investor should not only bring money into the table, start ups should look for smart money: networking, opening important doors for them, industry knowledge, tech expertise, financial expertise, etc. It is preferred to have investors with different expertise and different networks of people than people with the same background.

Many times start-up founders are so focused in building their product, that they don’t see the big picture, like: what is happening around them that is influencing their business, opportunities for collaboration, new trends emerging, etc. They need to be able to do both.

Under-representation of women is still a big problem in the entrepreneurial and start-up world, as you need the diversification of thought and many start-ups have an issue with this. It is ideal if you can have different people in your team (in terms of gender, age group, area of expertise, diversity of backgrounds, etc.).

By Dr Celia Hadjichristodoulou, Founder and Managing Director of GrantXpert Consulting and Administrative Director of EUC Future Skills Hub

Publication Date: 05/04/2023