What happens at a startup bootcamp, and why?

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In 2015 the New York Times published a process that allowed strangers to find their soulmate in 90 minutes.

The article, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”, explained the hypothesis of the original psychological study: that asking and answering 36 probing questions with someone could accelerate the feeling of intimacy. The final activity, staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes, leaves both parties feeling incredibly vulnerable – I know because I’ve done it.

That’s how Xcelerate Bootcamp started for the founders of the 40 startups accepted into the final selection stage. Before they sat down for the first session of the day, Program Director Megan Flamer asked everyone in the room to pair up and stare into the eyes of a stranger. It made us all feel uncomfortable. Uncertain. Vulnerable.

It was also really hard to not laugh.

Those few discomforting minutes were to help set the scene. Over the next two weeks the BlueChilli team was going to push the founders to get out of their comfort zones and talk to customers, challenge their own assumptions, and pitch their business to a panel of judges.

Not all accelerators have a bootcamp, and two weeks is a long commitment. So what was the point?

The BlueChilli Bootcamp is an opportunity to Learn, Impress, and Assess.

Warren Pickering and Gary Scott from GlobalWhere (left) with BlueChilli’s Claire Sawyer (centre) and Max Onishi (right)

This goes both directions. BlueChilli wants to demonstrate the knowledge and experience it’s staff, advisors and partners can offer to the founders; and the founders want to assess whether BlueChilli and the program are right for them. After all, this is a 6-month commitment (at least) on both sides.

The Xcelerate bootcamp was also an opportunity to hear from the accelerator partner, Amatil X, and to look for connections between the startups and the Coca-Cola Amatil environment. Partnering with Amatil is a huge competitive advantage for these startups, getting early traction by undertaking pilots with CCA and their network.

“Amatil has 270 million consumers and 950,000 customers in the region.” — Chris Sullivan (left), Group Director, Partners and Growth at Coca-Cola Amatil

The bootcamp was broken into three core topics:

    • Problem validation,
    • Solution validation, and
    • Pitching.

The first week was all about problem and solution validation. With a series of masterclasses and with mentoring support of Entrepreneurs-in-Residence and Product specialists, bootcampers learned to consider these independently of each other and from all angles, before getting out of the building to talk to customers. We challenged the founders to talk to 100 customers to validate their problem and then another 100 to validate their solution. Insights gained in this week can often trigger a rethink and we definitely saw some new directions explored as a result of customer responses.

Bootcampers get business model advice from Rebekah Campbell (centre), founder and CEO of Zambesi.com

“Unfortunately I feel as though I’ve confirmed the suppliers but not the customers,” said Jasper Spira (WareSpace) after a few days of customer interviews. “Might be time to look at the problem in a different light.”

“I’ve pivoted revenue models from pay-per-use to a subscription and it’s worked out better for all parties involved,” said Josh DeNutte (Spark). “I reached the conclusion through carrying out interviews throughout the bootcamp and the decision wasn’t very difficult to make because it made so much more sense – I just couldn’t see it until I conducted the interviews.”

Get out and talk to customers

Week 2 was all about the pitch. At the end of bootcamp, each startup had 5 minutes to convince our panel of judges that they have identified a problem worth solving, and they have the hustle and passion to build a successful business around solving it. To get them ready for that we held masterclasses and workshops with BlueChilli master storytellers Nicola Hazell (Program Director, SheStarts), Collette Grgic (Chief Innovation Officer) and Brett Geoghegan (Head of Entrepreneurs in Residence). Founders also had access to StartupU, BlueChilli’s guide to creating a startup business, and StartupU’s pitch deck template.

“The story is not a ‘nice to have’” reflected Simon Menelaws (Humanise Culture). “It’s the fuel in the tank of the rocket launcher. Embrace, lean into, and live the story of your startup.”

Elle Pacholski from GetOutdoors (right) on pitch day

We demanded a lot from the founders over an intense two weeks, and while we gave them the tools and support they needed to succeed, it was up to them to demonstrate they had the hustle and determination to build a viable business. How did they find the experience?

“Wonderfully HECTIC!” said Genevieve Griffin-George from PicMi. “I have learned so many things, met amazing people and been able to work on my idea full time. It’s been challenging but also so much fun! I can’t believe the amount we’ve all got done in such a short time.”

“The past couple of weeks…. intense, fun, consuming, enlightening, GREAT!” reported Trish Hyde from PlastX. “We are passionate, committed, and now, better pitchers.”

Trish Hyde and Murray Hyde from PlastX (centre), with BlueChilli’s Filipa C. Araujo (left) and Megan Flamer (right)

At the end of NYTimes’ To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This, the author reveals the outcome of answering the 36 questions on a first date. “You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love. Well, we did. Although it’s hard to credit the study entirely (it may have happened anyway), the study did give us a way into a relationship that feels deliberate.”

The purpose of bootcamp was a deliberate two-way assessment of the relationship and, honestly, not all of the founders felt we were the right fit for them right now; about 10% opted not to pitch for a spot in the accelerator. And that’s great! We didn’t want the same things, it wasn’t going to work out, and maybe we can be friends.

As for the other 90% of our startups? After spending two weeks staring into our eyes how did those founders feel about the prospect of spending the next 6 months in a relationship with BlueChilli?

“Everyone has been so helpful,” said Josh DeNutte from Spark, a startup that keeps couples excited throughout their relationship by helping them create awesome date nights together. “From the Entrepreneurs in Residence, the product teams, marketing, legal, etc – everyone wants to see us succeed. It’s a breath of fresh air to be surrounded by so many people who can see your vision.”