Getting to Base Camp
A little over a year and a half ago we barely understood the definition of a ‘start-up’. Our collective entrepreneurial experience was limited to Dorothy’s village recycling scheme she organised all by herself at the age of 8.
Three recent graduates from university in England, we shared a passion for travel and for not playing within the lines. The world of corporate and sophisticated jobs held no allure for Dorothy, nor for Dean or myself, and we were eager to set ourselves a challenge on our own terms.
So, in January 2012 we took the leap headfirst into ‘Start-up Land’ when we were accepted into the ‘Start Up Chile’ (SUP) incubator program on the back of a video we hacked together in Dorothy’s living room. We somehow found ourselves in the midst of this exciting Chilean entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Riding on the back of this exciting success we then managed to convince Jianshi, a software engineer from Japan with far more experience, to spontaneously leave his well paid job and come join the Maptia team in Chile as our fourth co-founder. Miraculously, when he arrived – a perfect fit for the team from halfway around the world.
It wasn’t until towards the end of the SUP program that we then made the bold decision to climb the imposing mountain that is the TechStars application process.
Feeling intimidated by the scale of the mountain - We quickly came to the sobering realisation that the odds were stacked against us. Less than 1% of applicants make it into the final batch of 10. Many successful companies are already demonstrating traction and some have seed funding. What chance did we have?! Nevertheless we resolved to give the application our best shot. We knew that if we could make it, the mentorship we would receive would be absolutely world class.
Enjoying the journey - We wanted our application video to be a genuine reflection of us as a team. It began with a brief explanation of our concept and then Dean, our second technical co-founder and singer/songwriter played a song which he’d written for the occasion. It included the lyrics ‘situation prototype, nearly made it overnight. Still it’s looking pretty tight, just ask my mum she likes it’. Yes, it’s a little cringe-worthy looking back, but we loved making it at the time.
Narrowly averting an early disaster - Despite our assiduous efforts at time-management , it was a mere three minutes to the deadline for submission as we inserted our answers into the application form…and then the website crashed. Presumably as plenty of other teams had been working hard until the very last second. The ensuing 120 seconds felt like a bomb defusal attempt. Dorothy drew in a deep breath, hit refresh and proceeded to deftly copy our answers back in. We hit submit with literally seconds to spare.
Almost turning back - Being invited to TechStars for a Day (TS4AD), a pre-selection event, was a great confidence boost. However, our $40k grant from Start Up Chile was being used up fast and Seattle was more than 4000 miles away. We’d been given just 5 days notice and it seemed crazy to spend so much flights when our odds of getting accepted were so slim.
Crowdsourcing ideas - The combined ingenuity of other Start Up Chile participants helped us find a loophole in the American Airlines flight change system. With two days to spare we got our hands on a pair of flights to Seattle. We realised that in fact, it was crazy not to go.
Surreal highs of optimism - It felt good to cross back into the northern hemisphere and proudly fly the Maptia flag. TS4AD was a fantastic experience. We met legendary entrepreneurial characters – guys like T.A. McCann, Keith Smith and the King of SEO himself Mr. Rand Fishkin.
Going to all lengths - We used some fairly comfortable cut-offs of soundproof matting that were lying around to camp out for 3 nights in the TechStars offices while we were visiting for TS4AD. It was a little extreme, but we were saving money and definitely getting more done.
Two steps forward - The upside to the soundproof matting plan was that we were able to set up 15 meetings during the 5 day period post TS4AD. We were embracing the TechStars ‘Do More Faster’ mantra wholeheartedly. The mentor feedback we received was exceptionally useful, and whether we had been accepted or not, it would have been a hugely valuable experience. It felt like we had the wind at our backs and were making progress towards the summit.
The summit appeared in the distance - Then, excitement! We were told to prepare for a final interview, to be held at an undisclosed location. It was totally unexpected and involved flying Dean and Jianshi to the US all the way from Chile.
Intimidated by the last steep climb - Before the final interview wer were struck down with fears that we were struggling to articulate our product use case and that our inexperience would let us down. Fortunately, Jianshi, told his inspiring story of how he felt ‘too comfortable’ in his old job in back Japan and how we had convinced him to fly halfway around the world to join the three of us, who he’d never met before, in Santiago. We walked out feeling that our personalities (and accents) had shone through, but that ultimately our product was still at an early stage and that our chances remained very slim.
Euphoric ‘on-top-of-the-world-nothing-can-beat-this-feeling’ - Then unbelievably, almost out of the blue, Andy told Dorothy that they would love to accept us into the program. When she told us the news the four of us jumped around in sheer bewildered joy. Everyone hugged Andy. Tears were shed over family phone calls home. Everyone felt that adjective-defying sense of elation which will forever be etched in Maptia’s history.
Below is an interview with Dorothy about halfway through the TechStars program.
NB. In comparison, the climb of getting into TechStars feels like a small hill compared to the mountain of Demo Day and ultimately of building a successful startup. It was a phenomenal peak to conquer so early on in our entrepreneurial lives, but there are many more arduous climbs and summits to come – some that we will conquer and some that will defeat us. Yet, the thought of that dazzling summit drives us on.
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