Bootcamp for your brain

The muru-d bootcamp weekend is complete and it’s been amazing. I stand in the kitchen with a small group of fellow entrepreneurs, all of us hopeful to make it through the final pitching round tomorrow, and one asks me what kind of development I do.

As I fumble to articulate an answer, I realise that my brain is exhausted from the intensity of back to back sessions of pitching and getting feedback and fielding questions and sucking up the knowledge and experience of people who have been through similar experiences and so somehow, must have all the answers, until you realise that nobody has actually done this before in exactly the same way and that’s why we’re here, we need to focus, get traction, and jeeeeeeezus where did this weekend go and can I go to bed now?

This weekend started in the same way as most: with three cups of tea in front of my laptop. At 9am we joined the queue of bright-eyed, hungry start ups for visitor passes at muru-d, then filed in to the office space to listen to Annie, Mick, Rachel and Gordon tell us what we were in for.

In the office, a mosaic of huge screens for presentations greets you as you walk through the door, whiteboard walls are everywhere, and there’s a nod at the destition of start up life with the cardboard stools piled up in the corner for guests. This is more like Atlassian in it’s current day than its early days though, with a fridge stocked full of beer, table tennis tables in a huge kitchen, a small gym and a newly refurbished outdoor space with two shiny barbecues and lounging chairs. Sadly, it’s so new that it’s still out of bounds for us this weekend, and we’re quickly told that the beers are reserved for events and people who make it in to the program. Being here is a very special kind of start up life, in more ways than one.

The first thing that happens is that everybody has to do a one minute pitch for their start up. Liz had warned us about this, and that either Phil or I may have to pitch since everybody’s seen her do it before, but luckily we’re let off the hook and she stands up. Annie asks if she’s going to sing – I still think that we need to write a musical pitch one day, but since we haven’t done that yet she sticks to the basics. Amazingly, everybody manages to pitch in less than a minute – Gordon, who has been waiting to play the bad cop and cut somebody off mid sentence, is probably the only one who’s disappointed.

There are 22 start ups that have made it this far, and 15(ish) will progress through to Monday, with 10(ish) making it on to the program. There’s quite a variety in the types of businesses, although there are four based around recruitment. We’re the only ones in the food industry. There are just seven women among the startups: Tripalocal is formed of two female founders, 100 Foxes and Freight Exchange have female CEOs and one more start up has a female Chief marketing officer.

Over the next hour, we get the rundown of what to expect from this weekend and beyond, and get some advice for our pitches. Annie advises us against demos. She highly recommends that if we want to do a demo, don’t. And if we still want to, she says, have a plan b that you will probably end up using. Luckily for us, we don’t want to demo.

For the last hour before lunch, we have a Q&A session with some of the “graduates” of Class 1. We dance around the question we all really want to ask: how do we get in? We’re told – not for the last time – to expect an avalanche of advice and feedback, all of it sensible and probably right, much of it conflicting, and that if we incorporate all of it then we will end up with a camel instead of a thoroughbred. I decide it’s probably best not to think too much into that metaphor.

For the afternoon, we meet with a series of mentors – I lost count but I think it was about ten in all. We are assigned a meeting room as our space, which is delightful because 22 start ups in animated discussions with mentors creates a lot of noise, and being able to close the door against the cacophony makes up for the rise in temperature.

Our meetings start, and I can feel excitement and a touch of nerves, the adrenaline’s building and we’re waiting anxiously to see what we’re in for. Our first mentor is an ex-colleague of mine from Atlassian, and we unleash our energy in a bombardment of ideas, pitch and waffle. He looks slightly stunned and correctly points out that we may want to narrow our focus.

Next up in Jeremy from Vistr, and we take the opportunity to sound him out on how to get in and what their journey was like. I berate Liz for not giving people chance to speak, then feel guilty, but there’s no time for niceties here. It’s like speed dating – intentionally – at the end of each 15 minute session Gordon pushes the door open and waves the bell at us, we all stand up, frantically trying to finish answering that one last question as we’re shaking hands and they’re leaving the room.

Many of the mentors already know Liz, and they are not shy about telling us that they’ve heard the pitch too many times and want to talk about something else. We encounter one in particular who appears to have been briefed to be a bad cop and shoots down our scalability ideas one by one. He throws in a couple of random questions about the technology and asks if we are in the cloud, and I get quite excited for a moment thinking that I might get a chance to talk about tech, but no, it’s back to scale again.

And so it continues. There’s no breaks, no reflection time, just bam-bam-bam-pitch-suggestions-questions. We know our biggest issue is convincing people that we can scale, and we pick a lot of entrepreneurial brains, some already believe we can do it while others simply won’t be convinced. It’s difficult sometimes to not take it personally and stay positive, and eventually it’s difficult to even take in any more information. We have a break when no mentor comes in for one session, but somehow it works against me, because I slump down from the high I’ve been on all afternoon and lose some of my energy. Luckily Liz can always keep talking, so we make it through the final sessions.

We finally head home, tired and feeling a bit cranky, and with several hours of pitch rewriting still to do. We throw up flipchart paper and post its on the windows and try to distill the things we need to say about scalability into a five minute pitch. We find the energy for a lively debate about repeatable customer acquisition and vendor procurement, and we are starting to sound like we know our shit. I go to bed happy. And knackered.

Sunday starts at 6am with tea – obviously – and keynote. I take the opportunity of being up early to get some time out, and go for a fast walk along the water in the early morning sunshine. At 9, we’re back on the cardboard stools, this time to hear from the legal eagles – we have a golden opportunity to hit up these experts for free advice on a variety of legal issues. Not surprisingly the Q&A could have gone on all morning, and all of the six lawyers are quickly booked out in 15 minute sessions.

We use most of the morning to write and rewrite our pitch and slides. At midday, we all file hungrily into the cafeteria ready to grab a sandwich and keep writing, but Mick has other ideas. We sit at the tables and look longingly at the cling filmed sandwiches as he talks – slightly ironically – about focus. Luckily, Mick is a good presenter and it’s an interesting subject, and one that You Chews certainly needs to keep in mind when we refine our pitch. As it ends, I grab three mystery meat sandwiches and scoot back to the desk.

We pitch to Annie at 1:30 for a spot in the final 15(ish). It’s still too long, which we knew, although Liz does an admirable job of fitting in about five hundred words per minute so that we get through all but one of our slides. Annie gives us a couple of areas to continue work on but generally positive feedback, so we walk out with smiles all round.

Back at our desks, and Gordon brings us a new mentor. Liz runs through the new pitch – again – and we have an indepth discussion. I get to talk a bit about the platform, and he asks me how long it will take to build, then why it will take so long. It’s the first time anybody’s actually asked, so I have to think on my feet – I’m used to justifying why things will take a long time when I need to convince my boss to understand, but this is a different ball game.

We meet four other mentors, all of whom are serious investors with decades of experience in business, and they all poke holes in our pitch and our business until we’re feeling wrung out and stacked full of information. I’ve barely had chance to digest and appreciate the calibre of people I’ve met over the last two days, but suffice to say this is why we are here – whether or not we make it into the final ten, it’s an unbelievable opportunity to get an audience of incredible people who we’d find it much more difficult to meet otherwise. Even as our pitch stands by the end of the afternoon, over time and incomplete, it’s a world away from what we’d started with on Saturday. This is what will happen to our company if we get in to this accelerator, week in week out for six months, and we’ll be unrecognisable by April. Bring it on.

The final part of the evening was when we were told who was in the final 15(ish), which I can finally confirm turned out to be 16. Gordon sends each company into a room as we sit patiently waiting until he has finished, then remind him that he’s forgotten us. We’re not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

We sit down across the table from Ben, who is wearing a serious face and I wait to hear him say sympathetically that we’re out. I feel like a reality TV show contestant, but thank goodness he doesn’t milk it for too long and tells us straight up that we’re in to the final! Hooray! And now we have to come back and pitch tomorrow …

I’ve quit my job to join a start up.

A few months ago, I remember having lunch at work, chatting with my colleagues about working in start ups. I was reminiscing fondly about my first job out of university, working as a developer in a small web design agency, in a team mostly made up of graduates or people a couple of years out of Uni. There were times when it was frustrating and hard, but I look back fondly on it being a lot of fun, the steepest learning curve, and among the most pride and ownership I ever felt in my work.

I left that job to go and find out how bigger companies worked, then I went on to work in a consultancy because I still didn’t have enough of a breadth of experience. And then the start up bug came knocking.

Somewhere along the way, I had got used to earning a good salary, travelling, living well, got financial responsibilities; then I moved to Australia and became dependent on having an employer to sponsor my visa. Those things aren’t really conducive to working in a start up. And yet, that bug was still there, nibbling away at the corners of my brain.

The perfect opportunity turned up … at a decidedly inconvenient time. I was waiting on my new visa, and had just taken on a management role in a team that was taking on a new project with all kinds of demands for learning new technologies as well as leadership skills – and so, it nearly passed me by. Somewhere deep down though, I couldn’t let it go – I had to try, and if I failed, at least I’d know it wasn’t right.

I had fallen in love with the idea behind You Chews almost instantly – a catering company providing quality, artisinal food for corporate events and meet ups – probably because I’d eaten pizza at so many meet ups, and encountered the mystery meat sandwich at many training courses, conferences and meetings. Or perhaps it was just the idea of being able to sample new suppliers … mmmmm.

I just had to convince them that I was worth waiting for …

Fast forward a little, and here we are: in two more weeks I will finish up to go and dedicate myself full time to You Chews. We’re in the final 20 for both muru-d and StartMate, so the next six months could take us anywhere. It’s exciting, and scary, and it’s pushing me to learn and do things at a speed I haven’t experienced in a long time. It’s bloody fantastic.

We’re part of a community of people who all know what it’s like, and even though they’ve probably got to do lists as long as both of their arms, they’re willing to spend time to talk about our difficulties and lend their advice – from investors, to fellow founders, nobody is too superior or too busy to lend an ear.

I’m on board the crazy start up ship! Let’s start the next adventure :)