From the top · 21 June 2017

Pitching at 186mph: On-board the Eurostar startup masterclass

blinkx co-founder Surranga Chandratillake closed the masterclass with advice on becoming investment-ready
blinkx co-founder Suranga Chandratillake closed the masterclass with advice on becoming investment-ready

Ahead of France’s premier Viva Tech event in the heart of Paris, a Eurostar startup masterclass was arranged for founders selected to pitch their ideas to the cross-Channel rail network at the conference – with a trial up for grabs at the end.

Travelling at high speed (up to 186mph to be exact) between two entrepreneurial cities, experts from three of Europe’s most prominent venture capital funds helped prepare the successful applicants with advice on scaling a business, attracting investment and growing a company either side of the channel. Business Advice went along for the journey.

As the entrepreneurs waited in the Kings Cross Eurostar Business Lounge for the 09.26am to Paris, Antoine Baschiera, co-founder of Early Metrics, a startup rating agency for investors, began the first masterclass by explaining some of the differences between how the UK and France do business.

While France’s primary investors and decision-makers are centralised in Paris, Baschiera applauded the UK’s plural model, with several cities chasing London for a stake in business.

There are less public and private sector partnerships in France, Baschiera said, suggesting the UK startup scene had a greater emphasis on storytelling through a brand’s community. 

His message to the founders present was to appreciate different practices but not to try and replicate the French model when taking a company into Europe.

Baschiera concluded by predicting a pro-small business approach from France’s recently-elected president, Emmanuel Macron, which would be beneficial to entrepreneurs on both sides of the channel.

Anatomy of a UK entrepreneur

With everyone settled on board, Justin Cooke, founder of digital agency Fortune Cookie, stepped up. Now a venture partner with Northzone, which has invested in Spotify since 2008, Cooke knows a thing or two about putting startups on an international platform.

He began by emphasising the importance of focusing on international clients from the outset. “Then, it makes it easier to grow outside the market. It’s about building collaterall,” he said.

Cooke said this pan-European attitude was a crucial factor for him when identifying new investments.

Economic resilience, he added, could be built by constantly looking for that next market. “Don’t just focus on the UK – use it as a springboard to the US”. The investor highlighted the weak pound as a strong indicator of exporting potential for startups in 2017.

Justin Cooke shared his wealth of experience with the startup founders
Justin Cooke shared his wealth of experience with the startup founders

Reflecting on early experiences taking a startup stateside, Cook recalled walking into a meeting with investors and asking his co-founder: “How do you talk New York?”

The deal wasn’t sealed, “but after the sucker-punch, it’s about having the energy to ask what went wrong,” he told the audience.

After fielding questions from up and down the carriage, a slightly surreal environment for a business masterclass, Cooke took the empty seat next to Business Advice and offered up further pointers for scaling a company.

“It’s vital to play a role in the wider industry. The more you put in, the more you get out,” he said.

“When meeting important people, ask what their own biggest challenges have been in business”, Cooke added, “it’s a disarming question that helps build a rapport”.

Using the Eurostar startup masterclass to illustrate how the new business landscape has shifted during his 20 years in the game, Cooke pointed to the carriage full of ambitious business leaders “heading to Paris to change the world with something that hasn’t been done before”.

“In 1997, the concept of a startup didn’t exist. Access to capital is larger in every single way now. Raising money was difficult back then. Access to investment advisors has also widened, and of course the progress in infrastructure.”

If we’re to take the advice of our experts so far, what are the qualities of our home-grown entrepreneurs?

“We’re born shopkeepers – buy a pound and sell it for two. It’s in our blood. We’ve always been traders. Look at who we all are – we’re a melting pot of different cultures and societies.

“And, we’ve got a good track record of going out into the world and inventing things that don’t exist. For me it’s just natural that we have that outlook and philosophy.”

Attracting investment

The final startup masterclass was delivered by Suranga Chandratillake, founder of online video platform blinkx and now a partner at Balderton Capital.

Chandratillake took the microphone after an informal on-board networking breakfast to provide guidance on building an investment-ready venture that can succeed internationally.

Working with investment budgets worth up to €7m, Chandratillake was able to outline the characteristics he looks for in a startup.

“We want to see a global vision,” he said. “Those who start local but with sights on the world.”

For Chandratillake, the greatest barrier for a founder is a lack of commitment for the journey ahead. “We won’t invest in a startup if the team aren’t in it for the long-term,” he added.

He ended the journey’s final masterclass by telling his audience to focus on a market, not their product.

It was in a meeting with former search engine AskJeeves, one of Chandratillake’s first clients with blinkx, when he was advised a search tool to rival Google would never succeed. In search of a rich market, Chandratillake took blinkx into a different direction to harness the video expertise within the company.

Reflecting on this, Chandratillake’s parting advice was to let your current product act as a proxy, while maintaining a borderline obsession with your target market.

As the train arrived in Paris, Business Advice managed to catch up with Chandratillake while passengers filled the platform at the bustling Garde du Norde.

Chandratillake had already told the audience of the importance of building a company around the people involved, from employees to investors, so we asked him what key early decisions shaped the future of blinkx. 

“You’ve really got to think about your first recruit,” he advised. “Your first three or four hires effectively become co-founders.” 

“They are very formative in what your product actually is and how it’s used and deployed. It’s also very important from a culture perspective – those first few people go a long way to setting the tone of your company. Getting that right is crucial. When you’re bigger it’s hard to change.”

As we boarded the Metro to Viva Tech in the south of the city, Business Advice spoke with the co-founders behind Hoxton Analytics, one of the successful applicants travelling on Eurostar’s startup masterclass.

Having found some success already in retail and commercial real estate sectors, the entrepreneurs were looking forward to pitching their unobtrusive recognition technology to Eurostar the following day.

Rounding off our high-speed day, former Google CEO, and now head of parent company Alphabet, Eric Schmidt addressed a packed auditorium at Viva Tech’s opening afternoon, sharing with entrepreneurs from all Europe his optimism for the coming years.

Citing the rise of Uber (a taxi firm with no cars), Deliveroo (a takeaway company that doesn’t cook) and Airbnb (a property startup without any real estate), Schmidt said disruption was something to embrace, brushing aside fears automation could soon lead to jobs shortages.

“Your future is you with your computer, not you replaced by a computer,” he added.

Meanwhile, Macron confirmed his startup credentials and commitment to cross-Channel trade at the following day’s headline talk. The new president announced a new four-year “Talent Visa”– which stretches to employees and family members – to encourage international startup founders to bring their business to France.

With Eurostar’s startup masterclass under their belts, and a firm invitation from the president, a Franco-British future looks bright for these entrepreneurs.

Find out which UK constituencies are producing startups at the fastest rate – and which political parties need to strengthen enterprise opportunities

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Simon Caldwell is a reporter for Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and communications from the University of Liverpool, and previously worked as a content editor in the ecommerce industry.

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