Back in June 2013, CapDigital announced the first edition of ScaleUp, a new Silicon Valley immersion program for startups, set up in partnership with US MAC. The program is divided in two parts, a preparation that takes place remotely and a trip to Silicon Valley / the San Francisco Bay area. I just came back from this trip which I made with the CEO of VA-Live, one of the selected companies that I was helping out. Would I recommend ScaleUp? I’m not 100% sure…
I think that people’s experience through such a program could be very different depending on their own situation. So before I move on to describe the program and give my thoughts on it, let me first stress that what I’m expressing here are my own views, and let me give you some more context on VA-Live. You can think of it as the iAdvize of Real Estate. It’s a “click-to-chat meets Google Street View” solution, with some patent-pending technology and a web application that has Skype-like features and 360° virtual tours synchronized in real-time. It’s a SaaS product for an industry that’s not particularly tech savvy. VA-Live is in private beta in France, discussions with high-profile partners are very encouraging, but the company does not have paying customers yet.
When in France, we had about 4 calls on GoToMeeting with the US MAC team led by Jeff Snider and with Michel Ktitareff who is making the connection between US MAC and CapDigital. The first objective was to make sure they understood our product and our business, who our targets were, and that they would have everything ready to start reaching out for meetings on our behalf.
We had homework to do in between these weekly calls, which we would then review all together: prepare lean canvases, formulate a Unique Value Proposition, come up with a mantra, write a one-pager description and prepare an email script based on a structure and examples they’d given us. We also had to polish up our English website and our demo video. US MAC’s homework was to populate a dream contact list and to line up meetings whose purpose was for us to learn about the US market (no selling, no fund-raising, etc.).
At our first face-to-face meeting near the US MAC offices in San Jose, we discussed what the top 10 questions to ask or things to take away from the meetings would be. We also discussed the “problem interview format” of the Lean Startup methodology, which we were to follow for these meetings: get the interviewees to talk about the problems they have, how they currently deal with them, check that what you thought was a problem is indeed one, show a 5′ demo in the end and, if it makes sense, propose a pilot program / private beta (“selling without selling”). By the way, Running Lean was recommended reading.
While in the US we had 12 meetings plus 4 internal meetings to debrief and review. We mostly met with 1st degree connections of the US MAC people, who seemed to be either friends, or friends of family, or very good acquaintances. We also met with some more people, that the first people we met introduced us to. The program ended with a Final Review meeting where we summarized key learnings/highlights/take-aways of our trip in SV. This was concluded with next steps for VA-Live for the next 90 days.
Feelings on the program
The most obvious way that US MAC helped us was with their external (and US) point of view. They helped us narrow down our early adopter potential targets. They helped us implement the Lean Startup Methodology. They challenged the product, formulated critical remarks, which in turn made us better formulate what the actual value of the product is. Besides, it was very useful to have native speakers review what we’d written and find the right expressions and phrases. At the end of the Final Review, we knew who exactly to target and we were left with convictions on what to do next.
I was particularly impressed with Jeff who is in charge of Lean Development. Strangely enough, he reminded me of my PhD thesis advisor… Maybe it’s something in the attitude of efficient and successful people? Jeff showed a deep understanding of what we do and always made very pertinent remarks. When he was able to come with us to the meetings, he really helped get the most information out of them.
If you think about it, this is general business consulting, and it’s not that specific to going to SV (or to any another region). I found it very beneficial to the company and I personally think that consulting shouldn’t be exclusive to large companies. Mastermind groups are great for individuals, but companies being larger and more complex by nature, they need more attention and that sort of professional services.
I was less convinced by the ability of US MAC to make us meet the right people in our industry. At some point when we were in the US, they actually admitted not knowing the Real Estate industry and how it works very well. We had quite a few meetings in the first week, but with people who were not representative of our target segments, or with people who weren’t decision makers. Then in the 2nd week, we had much less meetings. The 3rd week was ok, but it was only half a week because of Thanksgiving. It felt sometimes difficult to get meetings with people outside of Jeff, Michel and our mentor’s network of 1st degree connections. They told us that there are more early adopters in SV than elsewhere. I wasn’t totally convinced. In any case, I don’t think they did a good job of getting us in front of early adopters. As I said in another blog post, one hope was that it would be easier to find them in SV, but this wasn’t the case.
That being said, I should mention that US MAC made a lot of efforts towards the end, especially Michel, and we managed to get some interesting meetings on the phone for when we were back in Paris. Maybe it just takes time to get to meet the right folks…
On the organization side of things, it became quickly apparent that they weren’t totally prepared for this. We didn’t get to know how the program was structured until we talked with the US-based people at the kick-off call. For a long time we were wondering what would be the dates of that program. I think it started 4 months later than expected. The first plan had been to go to SV in october but then we had to reschedule to november (and change flights).
Some US MAC people seemed new to this in the way that they used the online tools (e.g. creating full day events in Basecamp with the time of the meeting in the title, or sending internal emails outside of Basecamp), or because they weren’t always sticking to the structure of the program for conducting interviews/meetings, preparing and debriefing. But I’ll say that this is understandable given that it was the first time they were doing this program, and I’m sure next editions will be better.
Should you do it?
One could argue that it was too early for VA-Live to go to the US. I don’t have enough hindsight to say. I wasn’t there when VA-Live first applied to ScaleUp, but I hope an honest discussion takes place with CapDigital during the application phase, and that they do tell you if it would be too early for you to think about expanding to the US. Also, there are things you should consider before making the trip to SV.
One of them is whether you want to give out equity and align interests with your US friends. US MAC do their job and they are paid for it in cash, no equity — so it’s only logical that they don’t have the passion and involvement of people who have equity. They have no incentive to spend extra time on your company. Think of them as consultants.
How much does it cost? Well, that depends: 8K€ if you apply through ScaleUp (and are selected), 24K€ otherwise. For 8K€, why not. For 24K€, I have more doubts. I’d ask US MAC to convince me they have the network. I would pay extra attention to who the people they can connect me to are. I would put together my own dream contact list and see if they have direct connections to these people, or 2nd degree, through whom (how good a connection is the person who can make an intro and how well do they know who you want to meet).
Finally, a word about the US MAC organization. I came onto the wikipedia page on them towards the end of our stay, and I wasn’t very impressed by what I found there… I understand, however, that things have changed since the summer of 2013 (which coincides with the beginning of the ScaleUp thing). US MAC was a non profit, but they have now incorporated a company with the US MAC name, they are now operating with this new structure and they are just relocating to Menlo Park. The new US MAC is led by 3 partners, among which Jeff Snider and Alfredo Coppola, who is with US MAC since the beginning of the non profit.