Seedcamp: Web-Era Support for Startups

As we reported earlier, 22 teams of European entrepreneurs gathered at Seedcamp in London last week to compete for a chance to win serious investment in their startups. ReadWriteWeb has been following these and other entrepreneurs on our ReadWriteStart channel, so you can get good background there on some of the teams selected to compete.

Seedcamp, however, is far from a simple dragon’s den-style pitch and panel investment company. The week-long camp included many hours of training sessions and mentoring from some impressive industry names: Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and a slew of other big-time companies and individuals. Alongside training and pitching, the teams also scheduled opportunities to mingle with venture capitalists and potential industry complementors. In the end, five of the teams received €50,000 each and will remain in London for three months for more training. But this single week is the tip of a Seedcamp networking iceberg.

Similar to Y Combinator, Seedcamp focuses on the beginning phase of a company’s growth, and it feels more like a “foster” organization than a traditional investment group. After speaking with CEO Reshma Sohoni (previously of 3i), we learned a bit more about the vision and context in which they work.

Sohoni explained that Seedcamp has two parts: a seed fund and a platform of support, which work together to get the most interesting companies past the initial hurdles. Seedcamp focuses on opening doors and translating a startup’s ideas into a marketable product. Its platform model leads on from a very Web-savvy approach to business.

“We’ve taken the best of what’s happened in the past 10 to 15 years in terms of the Web for finding great new investment opportunities and supporting them through a much more federated (not so much top-down) structure of working,” says Sohoni.

Seedcamp aims to put people in contact with a strong support network, so that after the €50,000 is spent and their three months of additional support have expired, the startups should be in very capable—and well-matched—hands.

An example of this “platform” mentality could be seen in the series of panels throughout the main event. The panel discussions provide a venue for attendees to question people who have “made it.” It seemed like a good opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of startups that are no longer new.

At the technical panel, for example, the audience posed questions about scaling applications and servers to some of the biggest names in scaling history: Blaine Cook (who built Twitter), Vijay Pandu (who worked at Google), and Matt Biddulph, CTO of Dopplr. This is a seriously cool idea, because it gives everyone a chance to ask about specifics: “What servers do you use?” “How can I stop X from happening?” Questions, in other words, that might take a long time to find answers to otherwise. The panel also presented little gems of advice, such as, “Don’t test too closely, sometimes. You’ll just get stuck in making red flags green and miss the bigger problems.”

Seedcamp sees itself as a startup, too, with a very active approach to business, and it has seen some significant changes to participating teams this year. For one thing, more teams are coming from further away, and one of the winning five (Talasim) came all the way from Jordan! This is an impressive step for an initiative that has always seen itself as pan-European. “In previous years, most of the applicants were coming from the UK, and most then only from London,” said one observer. “That’s changing.”

The quality of applications is also improving year after year, no doubt because of how startups are moving from conception to competitor so quickly. Many of Seedcamp’s impressive advisery groups (which mentor the next generations of ‘Campers) were themselves successful applicants.

The proof of any initiative is its success, and the success of Seedcamp will be found in the number and quality of startups it helps over the next few years. Tracking the next bunch of industry disruptors, and seeing which ones have come through the program, will be interesting. If the past few years are any indication, we should see quite a few!

This bit of advice from Blaine Cook on the technical panel seems an appropriate note to end on:

“If you’re not obsessed with your own product, you need to change what you’re doing. Keep changing it until you care about it. Then work on scaling.”

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