Ten young companies connected with 92 mentors over nine days, aiming to build relationships that can help shape the future of fintech. If the potential unicorns at the Barclays Accelerator powered by Techstars were overwhelmed with the variety of potential partners and advisors on offer at the “Mentor Madness” event, they weren’t showing it.
"It’s been exhausting," says Adam St. John, of real-time travel advice app Sitata, "but what’s so fantastic is you meet all these people for twenty minutes, and they’re already willing to help out in some way, without even knowing you.
"The challenge, with so much potential help coming from so many different directions, is how do you not miss anything?"
The speed-networking style introductions were spread over the first month of this year’s Accelerator scheme for the 2018 Accelerator cohort at Rise, London.
The 13-week programme selects fintech and other companies that have potential solutions for 21st century banking problems and open up new commercial opportunities.
The companies are given access to the wide range of resources at Barclays’ Rise London Fintech hub in Shoreditch, are partnered with sponsors from key Barclays business areas, and benefit from an invaluable selection of mentoring advice from experienced investors, tech specialists and seasoned entrepreneurs.
One such mentor is Frederic Vander Elst, a veteran technologist who formed data mining company pH, now part of Experian, 30 years ago. “In some cases,” he says, “I might know technical or commercial solutions that can help these companies, and I’m happy to link with them going forward. I ask the mentees what their routes to market are, what their challenges are, their compliance issues, their technical issues, and I can suggest things to look out for and directions to go. Having an old hand in the b2b data game will be helpful for some of these companies.”
With the 20-minute sessions adding up to over 30 hours of diverse consultancy, the Accelerator companies have a breadth of experience to learn from even before focusing on longer-term mentor relationships.
These guys are bringing years and years of experience of working in the industry we’re targeting.
“These guys are bringing years and years of experience of working in the industry we’re targeting and also as mentors to start-ups,” says Nadeem Shakoor, of AI-based audit “turbochargers” AuditXPRT.
“When Mentor Madness and the rest of the Accelerator is put together and packaged this way it genuinely does accelerate our route to market, and also highlights any areas of weakness that we need to address.”
Shakoor, who says the sessions have allowed his company’s pitch to become “more focused, honed, and targeted on the market we’re trying to address” says he has pinpointed “five to 10 mentors we definitely want to work with during and after this process.”
Patrycja Strzelecka, of Warsaw-based SME accounting solution Cyber Productivity, is focused on "one particular mentor I’d like to work with going forward – the person who brought most insight and value to me."
Even considering that, Strzelecka says: "With every day that passes I’m getting a better idea of how to use the time with each mentor.
"Today I really got the feeling that I knew exactly how to structure the 20 minutes, when to ask questions, how long to talk, how long to listen.
"One thing the sessions are good for is developing how you present your business. Another is learning how to listen."
Our pitch has become more focused, honed, and targeted on the market we’re trying to address.
Meanwhile, for the mentors, how do they differentiate between companies they see, and figure out where they can most add value?
Christian Kent, who as MD of M&A firm Quayle Munro is well placed to advise companies on their positioning to investors, says: “Hundreds of companies are trying to focus on the sectors I’m seeing here at Rise, but with all of those here there’s a particular differentiation.
"They all have an interesting angle or perspective that makes them relevant to their potential customers.
"What I always think when I look at companies is how they differentiate themselves against existing competition, but also competition that may be coming from behind that we haven’t yet seen?”
Another mentor, veteran banker John Cavanagh, says: "The diversity of the companies here is really exciting. I’ve been at previous Accelerators, but the increase of diversity this year really reflects the evolution of the overall tech space and shows the tech sector touching different aspects of life.
"I’m really enjoying it and looking forward to working with a couple of these companies in the future – it’s a great group and I’ve learned a lot today as well."
St. John’s company Sitata is one of the less obviously fintech propositions in a cohort that includes AI and machine learning solutions in payments, compliance and cyber-security. Providing an embeddable app that provides information on travel-disrupting events, St. John is looking for a core group of mentors he can engage with each week.
One thing the sessions are good for is developing how you present your business. Another is learning how to listen.
He adds: "The Barclays team in particular has been incredibly supportive, and one of the things I’ve found most interesting about Barclays is that some of the people we’ve met have incredibly rich histories of either entrepreneurship or some other dynamic background. They’ve given us ideas of how we can fit in to their offering."
From Shakoor’s perspective: “We’re not getting a customer and supplier relationship with Barclays. It’s a collaborative relationship, and therefore we’re addressing real business problems that they have, and at the same time getting access to real live information that we can base our technology on. It’s a two-way street. They’re being very supportive, but we’re also addressing a need they have.”
Practising his pitch 92 times (“We’re turbocharging audit. In the time it’s taken me to say this we’ve done one day’s work of a compliance officer”), Shakoor also has an eye out for business opportunities with the mentors during and after the Accelerator: “We’re a small player,” he says, “but we’re not going to be a small player for long if we have the backing of Barclays, Techstars and their wider networks.”