Monday 24 August 2009

TechCrunch50 Rejection

[Update: We actually got asked to pitch!]

I started writing this post as a response to another person's blog post in which he talked about his rejection from TechCrunch50. It was turning in to a bit of a mammoth response, so I thought I would be better posting it on my blog and just leaving a link to it on his. So it begins as a response...

Hi, we had a similar experience, although possibly with more mishap and with our expectations even higher.

So we applied and were happy to be told we would be interviewed. Unfortunately the interview timings seemed pretty difficult to book and were timed for US West coast people and we are in the UK, so we had a bit of difficulty getting a reasonable interview time.

Eventually we got the interview time set, with the screen sharing and teleconference details sent out. My co-founder and I were waiting in the teleconference (separate locations) and in the screen sharing facility. Our interview was with Heather and we got an email saying she's running 5min late. Fair enough.

I had researched her so knew she was TechCrunch CEO and saw she had worked in corporate M&A, which is similar to my background so I thought we might have something in common.

After a few minutes we could see Heather in the screen sharing facility and she started chatting to us. She says she's in the teleconference but can't hear us. We're in the teleconference too but we can't hear her. Oh crap.

Anyway, we faff around for a few minutes but she says that she has to go and we will rearrange. Oh crap, we've just missed out on pitching to the Techcrunch CEO. :(

We do rearrange. Unfortunately the only time they can do the interview is when my co-founder is due to be hosting a big event for us. So it's up to me alone. I gladly take up the challenge! So I'm due to be speaking to Tyler from Mahalo. Ok, cool.

So in the run up to the meeting, I start getting a bit panicy that the teleconference is gonna mess up again, so I change our phone details to get them to phone me direct. I'm exchanging emails with various assistants to try and make sure they have the correct details. I'm convinced telecommunication technology is going to let me down again.

The time comes. And passes. I'm checking the online room. There's no-one there. No email this time saying anyone is running 5min late. I wait for ages. I have three phones so I keep dialing in to the teleconference rooms to make sure he's not dialed there by mistake instead of phoning me directly.

Eventually I get an email saying Tyler is running a bit late. OK, fair enough. So about an hour after our scheduled time I get the call. I try to demo, but he can't hear me properly. He asks if he can phone on another number. Lucky I have three phones!

So we get on to a decent phone and start the demo. It goes well. Tyler actually has a pretty cool idea for something we could do. I agree it is a cool idea (I'm sure we would have thought of it anyway ;) ). Towards the end of the demo, Tyler asks me to show something quite specific that I'm pretty sure is going to be impossible. I try. I was right - it was not possible (yet).

Anyhow, demo over and Tyler gives me his email address and says if we could rig up a demo of the "not yet possible" thing, then that would be pretty cool.

A few days pass by. Tuesday night at 8.50pm I get a call on my landline. Calls on my landline are either a) my g/f's parents, or b) recorded message spam. Tonight it is c) Michael Arrington's assistant from Techcrunch. Ooh, I wasn't expecting that!

"Michael would like to speak with you in an hour."

Crikey! I do know of him already as I read Techcrunch a lot and I follow his Twitter stream. However, there's always time for some obsessive Google searching and I find out he is no. 100 on the 2008 Time Magazine 100 most influential people list.

Wow. That's quite influential. I mean, granted there's 99 people above him, but there's around 6 billion people below him, so I'm thinking that's pretty good going.

So at 10pm he calls. First thing he says is he doesn't know my name. That's ok, I'm quite insignificant, he can call me Susan if it gives us a better chance of getting in to TC50.

I do the demo. Michael mentions the same cool idea that Tyler did. I presume Tyler mentioned it to him. I agree whole-heartedly that it would be a cool idea. As before I can't show the demo of what he's suggesting, but this time I can show him it in command line form.

He says he "gets it" and he "loves it". The most influential man in Web tech GETS it! He LOVES it! Woo-hoo!

He then says that he thinks we'll be an "edge case" because the other partners (Heather and Jason) have not seen us, but says that his opinion carries weight so we still have a good chance. In fact, he says he reckons we have a "75-80%" chance of getting in.

75-80% chance?! That's like, more or less 100%! I mean, nothing with a "75-80%" chance ever actually fails does it? I mean if someone tells you you have a 75-80% chance of winning the lottery tonight you'd be making friends with the local Aston Martin dealer PDQ. Dead cert! (Notice I quickly suppress the words "edge case").

We wait a few days in eager anticipation. Surely we're in - I wonder what I should wear on stage?

But then I notice a tweet from Michael saying they've made the final decisions on the last companies for TC50.

Oh, but some mistake surely? Our email has gone astray! Curse you technology and your missing emails!

So we wait. And then get the /other/ email.

“Unfortunately, we regret that we are unable to place your company as a TechCrunch50 finalist…"

Oh, bummer.

We also get the invite to DemoPit, which I would *love* to do, but unfortunately in our near-zero financing state (as well as being located in the UK) it is prohibitively expensive so we have to decline. It's probably a good thing in a way, because it would have been a lot of pressure to get the product ready in time and we might not have been as good as we would have wanted to be.

However I am a bit bummed and I can't help wondering what difference the failed teleconference with Heather made. :/

Still, it doesn't keep me down for more than a few hours. It was pretty good validation to have made it to the semi-final stage. It was also a pleasure to get the chance to speak with both Tyler and Michael. I was glad they at least liked our product, even if we didn't quite make the final cut for TC50.

We've had similar validation experiences, tempered with a hint of dissapointment. We got invited out to San Francisco to do the 15min interview for Y Combinator this year. That's a long way to go for a 15min chat. Although we didn't make the final cut, it was good to make it from the 600-1000 companies that applied down to the last 60.

We also applied to all the Y Combinator-like schemes, and all of them interviewed us at least once, so there was definite interest in our company. In fact, we actually got an investment offer from one of them but decided to turn it down in the end so that was an especially good validation.

Since then our company, Affect Labs, has had some funding from 4iP to launch our Phase 1 product FestBuzz and we did get mentioned on TechCrunch Europe, which was nice.

We also have some other very good irons in the fire, one of which is certain and others which we will find out about over the next couple of months.

So I'll be keeping my fingers crossed, but not getting my expectations up too high, because even when you've got a 75-80% chance of success, that's still a 20-25% chance of failure. I mean, if someone tells you you've got a 20-25% chance of dying tonight, you'd probably put on your best underwear...

Apologies for random tenses in this post. I can't be bothered fixing them. Photo from Flickr user KatieL366.

Thursday 6 August 2009

So what is it I'm doing now exactly?

I'd been wanting to start some kind of company for a while, particularly something involving Internet technology, but that idea was limited by my lack of programming skillz. My day job had given me experience of project managing the re-design and re-launch of a pretty complicated business information website/database so I was quite confident I could find my calling in the Web start-up world coming from the business angle.

It was a toss-up between trying to start-up a company and doing an MBA this year. And the start-up won.

Earlier this year I teamed up with Jennie Lees to start Affect Labs. The company is founded on sentiment analysis technology that Jennie had developed during her doctoral studies at Cambridge University. She has since moved to Scotland and the company is now established in Edinburgh.

Over the past few months we've been writing business plans, applying for funding and lots of other cool things. While this has been full-time for Jennie for some time, for me it has always had to be something I fitted in to my spare time and holidays. It also wasn't something I widely revealed at my day-job.

Well, the time has come where I need to apply more time to the start-up. We're starting to try to raise money in earnest and that means more work and meetings. There's only so many meetings I can arrange for holidays! So, I have told my employer my plans and they have very graciously agreed that I can go part-time from September. Eventually I hope to go full-time with the start-up, but only time will tell when we'll be in a position to allow that.

So the exciting news is that we've launched our first product. FestBuzz (with funding from 4iP) is crowd-sourcing Edinburgh Festival show reviews. What that means is that our technology is listening out for all the messages on Twitter that are talking about the Festival shows. We aggregate these messages (aka "tweets") and use our sentiment analysis technology to understand the emotion in the reviews - are people being positive or negative about the show.

The site launched late last week, and is not quite yet 100% operational. We've got a few features to switch on and we're waiting for the Festival to really kick off so the flow of tweets will start.

So if you're interested in getting started with Twitter and "tweeting" your reviews, have a look at this guide (or this much shorter one).

Or if you just want Edinburgh Festival recommendations from the "word on the tweet" please check out the site!

(Image taken from the FestBuzz on Flickr)