Top tips for startups from the companies that got funding, and the VCs ready to invest

At this year's Slush startup conference, businesses big and small shared their wisdom on how to make it big with the Helsinki crowd.
Written by Jo Best, Contributor
The main stage at Slush
The main stage at Slush. Image: Jussi Hellsten

At Slush, northern Europe's largest startup event, the region's investors, established players, and the startups themselves took to the stage to share their wisdom on how today's small businesses can be tomorrow's tech giants.

Here's some of the advice that Slush speakers handed out to the Helsinki crowd, as well as hints and tips from Finnish startup execs:

Stefano Mosconi, CTO at Jolla

With its first smartphone poised for release, Jolla is now one of the most closely-watched startups in Finland.

"Start with an idea and don't change it. The moment you start to change, you're going to lose – you're going to lose the idea, lose the enthusiasm, even lose the money," Mosconi told ZDNet.

"If you believe in what you're doing, if you have passion for what you do, nobody will stop you. There are big CEOs and big CTOs and big names, but there is nothing special in what they do — they are human beings with one goal. If you grab the goal and stay connected to the goal, there's nothing that can stop you — that's the leitmotif for big companies and startups. The only difference is when you're a startup everyone knows that it's the leitmotif."

James Perkins, principal consultant at Helsinki-based Koala Consulting and Training

Perkins works with startups to help them polish up their presentation skills for their all important pitches.

"Be prepared. The number one reason people fail while presenting is they don't prepare. You have to practice. Look at [late Apple CEO] Steve Jobs — when you saw him presenting, it was like he was making it up, and that was the result of a lot of practice," Perkins said.

"Know your product — you've got to be able to explain it well. Don't write a script though — if you have a script, your presentation will look rehearsed.

"Know your audience. A lot of startups haven't even been to look at investors' pages on their website. Try and anticipate the questions you'll get — [VCs] are busy people and they want good answers."

Ben Holmes, partner at Index Ventures

The economics of financing a company have changed thanks to the advent of Facebook, outsourcing, and open source software, according to Holmes, a London-based VC — meaning even the smallest startup can achieve big things on a limited budget.

"Now you can spend $20,000 and lots of sweat producing what people would have made with $20m 12 years ago," he said.

The models of how startups should seek investment are also in flux, the VC said, and those who want to build a stable business for the long-term, but don't want to want to take over the world, may be better offer steering clear of venture funding altogether.

"If you as an entrepreneur don't necessarily want to build a $1bn business, you may not want to go for VC [money]," he said.

Roberto Bonanzinga, partner at Balderton Capital

For those that do want to get involved with VCs, Bonanzinga's advice is simple: "Use social media as a way to interact with VCs," he said, suggesting Twitter as one route to direct contact with would-be funders.

And while Europe seems to have no shortage of cities pitching themselves as Europe's Silicon Valley, there may be no need to cross borders in search of investment — Bonanzinga recommends startups shouldn't worry about where they're located.

"While there are some hubs of concentration — London, Berlin — everything can happen anywhere in Europe," he said.

Jason Whitmire, a partner at Earlybird, agrees. "I like Prague, Istanbul... [but] we see interesting inbound opportunities all over the European map."

Tuomas Wuoti, CEO of Walkbase

The chief exec of indoor positioning startup Walkbase, newly funded to the tune of €3m, recommends finding some good advisors.

"The biggest thing is to have someone that's done it before around you — someone who can pat you on the shoulder, someone who has made all the same stupid mistakes before you already so you don't have to make them again. We've been very fortunate to have a really good advisory board and investors helping us out from the beginning."

Good mentors can "tell you not to worry about the little things," he said. "There will be bigger things eventually."

William Wolfram, CEO of DealDash

DealDash has received $1.5m in funding since its was founded in 2009, and now notches up sales of around $100m a year. According to Wolfram, its founder and chief exec, the individuals that don't invest in a startup can be as important to the company's development as those that do.

"Use VCs as a sounding board," he said.

"I would argue the people that didn't invest in DealDash gave us $3m of free advice. We'd ask what their concerns about the company were, we'd write them down and we'd go back to team and work out how to deal with them."

Teemu Suila, COO at Rovio

Suila formerly directed Nokia's Bridge programme, which helped ex-Nokia staff build their own startups after leaving the company.

His advice for startups was simple: "Focus on building something great and unique." With that in the bag, companies will find it easier to find both top talent and funding, he said.

Tomoko Namba, founder of DeNA

Namba set up Japanese web giant DeNA in 1999, and the company is now best known for its mobile and social gaming.

She recommends startups should push themselves from the get-go.

"Have unreasonably high goals, both qualitative and quantitative, and make the team believe we can do it," she said.

Namba cites the company's push for revenue growth between 2003 and 2006 as an example of how high goal setting can motivate a team. In 2003 with $16m in revenue, Namba told the company it must aim for $100m in 2006 — a target her team believed they would struggle to meet. Three years later, DeNA hit $141m in revenue.

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