Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Our Learnings from Startup Sauna

Startup Sauna just published their schedule for Local Events, and are welcoming applications for the 2014 autumn batch. To help you make up your mind on whether to apply, we decided to share some of our experiences from the spring batch.

We had a hard time deciding on whether to even apply. When we did and managed to get in, we still weren't sure whether that's the right move.

For us, the main question was timing. We had graduated from the Protomo startup incubator some time earlier and had our business model and financials together in some form. But we weren't really fully satisfied with them and thought we could improve.

On the other hand, our product required development as well, and we knew Startup Sauna wouldn't help us much with that. We were also in a process of including a new member into an important technical role in our team, and being present in two places at the same time would not really be possible. Concentrating on product development seemed to us to be more important.

When making the decision, we thought it would be awesome to concentrate on business development for just five weeks really intensively, so that we'd get all of that figured out and our materials ready for a long time ahead. After the accelerator period we would really be able to concentrate fully on product development. If there was a pitch event somewhere we could just attend and deliver our fine-tuned pitch, and when a potential investor would ask for some material, we'd have all those in stellar condition and could just send them.

We talked with some teams from previous Startup Sauna batches, asking what they had gotten out of the program. Everyone spoke highly of the spirit within the accelerator and praised the amount of contacts you get, but some also warned us that the time spent with coaches may not be enough to really develop the business of the company.

In the end, we decided to take the opportunity. We had gotten so much out of Slush, and it was organized by the same people.

The program consisted of lectures by experienced startup entrepreneurs and professionals in the field, pitching training, and one-on-one sessions with investors and coaches. The lectures were of high quality, but not that different from the ones from our incubator. Same with the training. The one-on-one sessions lasted typically 20 minutes, which is certainly not enough for any coaching, but is really good for getting to know a bit of each other and see whether it would make sense to meet again separately from the accelerator program. In our incubator, we typically got a longer time with the coaches, from an hour to two. These are clearly different approaches, Startup Sauna way being much closer to matchmaking than coaching.

Our company is located in Tampere and Startup Sauna resides in Espoo. We decided not to move to Espoo for the five week period, rather commute by train (around two hours in one direction, but almost all of that is efficient working time) and stay overnight occasionally at friends or family members who live in the capital area. This way we were still able to meet as a team in Tampere every once in a while.

Our hopes were high, but the biggest ones did not materialize. Our pitch surely improved during the program, but that was never one of our main problem areas. We also got a lot of contacts that could help us forward at some point. But we can't really say our business plan and investor materials improved that much during our stay at the accelerator. And the five weeks certainly had a negative impact on our product development and also damaged the team. We ended up losing the potential hire.

So if you're considering applying to the autumn batch, there are a few things to consider. Don't expect too much development to happen over the accelerator period. The thing our batch spent most time developing was the pitch, so if you think yours is in a bad shape, this might be a good opportunity. Of course you need to find a way to get in with your poor pitch, which may not be easy.

I would also suggest you make it extra clear to yourself what it is that you're expecting to get and communicate that clearly during the application process. Tell the coaches what it is you want to achieve and push them to help you make that happen. For our batch, there was no real per-company curriculum, rather the program was pretty much the same for all of us. And it was hard to get one-on-one time from the head coaches. After all, there were 17 teams, and even the head coaches seemed to be present less than two days per week. And a significant amount of that time was reserved for scheduled activities. So again, perhaps 20 minutes of one-on-one time weekly. You really need to think how to use that time to communicate what you think makes sense for your company.

Finally, these are just experiences of one team. Also remember that the Startup Sauna is different each time. I'm sure they have analyzed the feedback from the teams in our batch, and made many changes for their autumn batch.


  1. Mikael, thanks for sharing your experiences! It´s really valuable for other startups. Ystävällisin terveisin, Petteri

  2. This is great, Mikael! This is how I see it: think what makes sense for your company. Sauna is not for everyone the best use of their time. Same with OPM vs. Bootstrapping etc