I was fortunate enough to travel to Moscow, as one of a handful of MassChallenge mentors, to deliver a week-long startup “bootcamp” to Russian entrepreneurs. We were hosted by the the Skolkovo Foundation, a Russian non-profit attempting to help create & commercialize advanced technologies, where its Skolkovo Innovation Center is comprised of startups across five speciality “clusters” (IT, Energy, Nuclear Technologies, Biomedical, and Space Technologies), in various stages of development. Twelve of those were selected as part of this “Super League” program.
Overall, it was an incredible experience to work with them and I wanted to share a few takeaways from that experience.
1) Strong technology tackling “serious” problems
Across every single venture we worked with, I was blown away at the calibre of the technology they had all developed. You wouldn’t find apps like “Yo” or “Push for Pizza” here, rather hardcore algorithms for image recognition & search, or data mining, as well as multiple robotics companies, and even an “operating system” for the Internet of Things. The engineering pedigree was exceptional across the board, almost entirely focusing on “enterprise” markets, rather than consumer ones — which is no surprise since much of the underlying tech was borne out of academic, or other non-commercial applications, so the enterprise sector makes sense.
2) Hungry and humble teams
All of the entrepreneurs we worked with were extremely bright, and had a hunger for knowledge. So many of them look to the US for entrepreneurial advice through blogs and any other resources they can devour online. Their passion and humility was most inspiring to me, as we watched how they deeply incorporated the concepts we delivered in our workshops each day, in how they thought about issues they were facing the very next day. As part of the program we gave out nightly optional assignments, and without fail every team would do the optional “homework”, where most of them would submit around 3AM in the morning, and be back for the 9AM session start.
That said this hard work and humility sometimes that humility held them back, which brings up the next point…
3) Opportunities for collaboration in sales / marketing / business development / PM
While every venture showed strong technical underpinnings, coupled with smart & humble entrepreneurs, shaping these ventures into fundable, breakout successes (by US standards) is still an uphill battle.
First, market knowledge in the global sense seemed to be an area for growth. While language may have been an issue, few teams could coherently articulate their competitive differentiation, “unfair” advantage, and how they could win on a global scale. Also underlying this was a fundamental understanding of core business models, and how to build truly scalable product-first (vs. service driven) ventures.
Second, we found that sales, marketing, and business development experience were all areas that we could help coach them on. Whether it was in the positioning of their product in the market, or how to engage prospects and tell their story in sales process, or building key partnerships and distribution channels.
Finally, cultural norms may have been at play in that so many of the accomplishments that the companies had already achieved were downplayed in their pitch decks, such as key customers wins, technical accolades, or other accomplishments they’ve achieved. Sometimes we can go too far in the West to “self-promote”; however, perhaps we could give a little of that to our Russian friends, who could certainly use it!
4) Geopolitical concerns aren’t trivial
Recent events in Russia, that have caught the attention of the international community, cannot be ignored; and more importantly, those issues weren’t lost on any of the teams. Concerns around how potential customers and investors abroad would perceive working with (or investing in) a Russian company were very salient concerns. For instance, would you be willing to put your sensitive company data into a Russian cloud? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these issues. All we can hope is that there is a way for the government to appreciate that the future economic engine of the country has all the potential and requires their enablement to be successful.
5) The potential is vast and we can work together
What was clear to me, is that despite the geographic, cultural, and market differences, so many entrepreneurs face the same challenges. Whether it be, finding PMF fit, selling to early customers, raising capital, or growing the organization, much of these experiences are common, and there is an opportunity to build closer ties through mentorship, coaching, and access to mutually beneficial markets.
Thanks again to Skolkovo and MassChallenge – this was an incredible experience and I’ll continue to work with a couple of the companies in an ongoing capacity.