[VivaTech] The start-up learning curve: 6 lessons from the experts at VivaTech

VivaTech is a great place to create new business, but also a choice opportunity to learn. The VCs, accelerators, multinational corporations, and business visionaries in attendance amount to a staggering weight of experience for start-ups, entrepreneurs or students with great ideas. Let’s spread the wealth of expertise with 6 lessons learned from the experts.

#1: Be passionate about your idea

This one sounds like a truism, but it’s worth unpacking. Being passionate about an issue is a kind of safety net: remember that you will likely pour entire years of your life into a single issue. Investing that time into an idea you might get bored with after 2 years is, therefore, quite dangerous. Similarly, you are more likely to try and give the best possible solution to a problem that you are passionate about. When asked for advice during his “fireside chat” with Maurice Lévy, Mark Zuckerberg opined that “you really should focus on something you believe in first. There were a lot of people who had this idea that they wanted to start a start-up. That’s not how I started Facebook – I built something that I thought was important at my university at the time.” Whether you build something durable will also depend on your effectiveness and expertise, which leads us to…

#2: Solve what you know

In his talk with the self-explanatory title “When Things Got All F*cked”, Plato (opens in a new window) CEO Quang Hoang charted the course of his first start-up and how it ended in complete failure. While their initial concept for a mobile app—and then chatbots—to process expenses reports landed them a place at Y Combinator and $2M in funding, the entire developer team quit. “We lacked big-picture vision and, most importantly, our core founding team wasn’t passionate about what we were doing,” Quang recalls. “There are only 2 ways to get the kind of knowledge required to succeed: being passionate about your objective and having significant experience of the problem you’re trying to solve.” They only had the latter.

#3: Define who you are—early

Lacking a clear vision, Quang believes he was unable to communicate it to his team. The result is a hard lesson learned: even with funding, people who aren’t happy to work for you won’t stick around.

Vision matters all the more when your company, by its nature, is likely to grow very rapidly if it succeeds, which will place it under stress. During “How to Manage Hypergrowth”, a panel discussion dedicated to dealing with rapid growth as a default state, Bloomber journalist and moderator Brad Stone quickly noted that “hypergrowth might not be as desirable as it sounds—it’s a bit like a Formula 1 car: there’s danger in going too fast!”

The challenges outlined by the participants included making sure the company vision translates to new employees. “When there’s just 6 of you, the group vision is implicit,” noted Caroline Vion of BCG Digital Ventures (opens in a new window). “That is not the case when there are 120 of you 3 years on.”

#4: Your identity needs to be scalable

Speaking from a place of experience when it comes to hypergrowth, Instagram Director of Product Management Robby Stein noted that “vision and values, like everything else, must be scalable. You should try to find ways to deploy the things that were special about you at the outset. At Instagram, we are about experiences, connection over shared moments, and we are visual. So we chose some trade-offs accordingly; our experiential side means we might move a bit slower than others, but that’s OK.” Asking oneself whether values are scalable can be extremely important—as Brad Stone pointed out, Uber was arguable a victim of its values when they grew beyond a certain mass.

#5: Expect—and plan for—failure

A healthy level of paranoia is warranted, which is why the growth-at-all-costs strategies should be avoided, adds Robby Stein, saying that “your user curve could suddenly drop, or the political or VC environment could shift.” From his own experience, Quang Hoang believes the most important quality to recover from failure was humility, to look objectively at the causes of failure—and to seek mentorship on how to change.

#6: Seek mentorship, but know what you’re looking for

Rose Lewis, of the UK accelerator Collider (opens in a new window), insists on this need to be “coachable”, noting that “if start-ups ask for support but don’t take our feedback into account, that’s a red flag.” Similarly, Saeed Amidi, CEO of Plug and Play Tech Center (opens in a new window), advises entrepreneurs to define what they need from an accelerator early on—whether it’s money or business development support within specific verticals. “Remember that big corporate partners can offer R&D funding that few industry-agnostic accelerators can match! Although, ideally, you should aim to go through both kinds.” Jag Gill, whose own start-up Sundar (opens in a new window) followed this kind of trajectory, warns against overthinking the funding component of accelerators: “Don’t think of equity as ‘giving something up’, you’re growing your business!” As such, it should be treated with the same care as any other business decision.