TECHCITYINSIDER100: Start-up accelerator Springboard is helping to bring through the next wave of digital innovators. Co-founder Jon Bradford, responsible for setting up accelerators across Europe, talks about the burgeoning London tech scene. Interview by Andrew McDonald
Springboard, now one of our most prominent digital startup accelerators, launched just two years ago as a Cambridge-based mentor-led programme designed to give seed funding and advice to fledgling digital business. Inspired by US accelerator programmes like Y Combinator, the growing London tech scene has seen Springboard take up a residency at Google’s east London Campus, where this summer it completed its latest full-time, 13-week mentoring programme.
Springboard co-founder and MD Jon Bradford explains that, by the end of last year, it became “very apparent” that there was a demand to be met in London, with many of the teams taking part in the earlier Cambridge schemes travelling from the capital – and even further away – in order to do so.
“In Cambridge [last time] we had 10 teams participate. Of those 10 teams, seven went on to get funding and the average funding size was just over £300,000. In that mix we got teams from Estonia, the Czech Republic and New Zealand.”
It was the latter, a New Zealand-based kid’s virtual world called MiniMonos that was the most high profile in that round, says Bradford. The Moshi Monsters-esque environment, where children can create their own monkeys, was founded by entrepreneur and environmental activist Melissa Clark-Reynolds and since taking part in the scheme gone on to open a London office and take a new round of funding.
Other success stories London-based crowd sourced journalism platform Blottr. “They’ve raised I think just over £500,000, got about 1 million users a month hitting their website,” says Bradford.
Though these two firms already have a firm online presence, there is no firm template for the types of companies and ideas that Springboard chooses to work with, other than they must be rooted in the digital space. “We had stuff in education, we had stuff in e-commerce, we had stuff in all sorts of weird and wonderful things,” says Bradford.
“There are very commercial reasons for doing what we’re doing but there are very strong altruistic reasons to help support the development of the Tech City region, and bring the smartest people we know to the UK and more specifically to London,” he adds.
With a wide range of mentors signed up, Springboard can also draw on a wealth of knowledge about different areas of the business. Mentors include venture capitalists, industry experts and executives from major tech firms such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft and PayPal. However, the “vast bulk” of participants are “other entrepreneurs from the Tech City area,” says Bradford. “People who have been there and done it before.”
Among the startup mentors are Alicia Navarro, founder of affiliate marketing firm Skimlinks, Boštjan Špetič from blogging tool Zemanta, George Berkowski from live video conferencing firm WooMe, and Ian Hogarth from personalised concert listings service Songkick. It is their expertise, rather than the financial incentives, that is where the value of the scheme lies.
“Essentially a lot of the process is about peer-to-peer learning,” says Bradford. “It’s not a structured so that on a Monday morning you come in and you do a something about PR for three hours, and then you go and do a thing about finance in the afternoon. This is much more about actually trying to get people to articulate and to share best practice.
“Because the mentors tend not to change, but the teams do, clearly the advice will change from cycle to cycle, but it’s very tailored. All of the discussions are one-to-one,” says Bradford.
“In terms of the money invested, he claims that Springboard provides “enough just to keep them [the companies] alive.” Firms consisting of two people receive £10,000, teams with three or more people get £15,000. Springboard will not work with single-founder businesses.
In exchange, participants will cede 6% of their business, or if they want to take part but forego the funding, 3%. The financial burden and also the return stakes are shared between 10 of the mentors, though they prefer to remain anonymous.
“There’s no point in running a 13-week boot camp if people can’t afford to go on it, so you write them a cheque,” says Bradford. “What you’re doing is not just giving them a random cheque that you want the money back on. You actually invest in the businesses so you have an ongoing interest and make sure that they build and develop themselves. We don’t get any money back in the short term. We put money in and maybe four or five years down the road they’ll turn into something interesting.”
Though it is early days, Bradford claims that the scheme is showing encouraging signs of good financial returns. “We pick 10 teams. Some will do very well, some will fall off a cliff. But that’s the whole idea. We’re trying to support entrepreneurs who are trying to make a difference. We just hope that the ones that are winners far outweigh the ones that are losers.
“Seven of the 10 got funded last time out. Of those remaining three, one just chose not to raise money and has continued to trade. The other two, I think the polite way of putting is stationary,” adds Bradford, claiming that this ratio is “pretty good going.”
Looking ahead for the rest of the year, Springboard has recently closed the application process for its next 13-week bootcamp, and is in the process of whittling down nearly 300 hopefuls to just 10.
September’s event, which will also runs at Google Campus, will be the first Springboard Mobile, tailored specifically to firms working in that corner of the digital space. Bradford says that working within a “vertical niche” could potentially add more value to the process.
At the end of that bootcamp, Springboard will also take the participating entrepreneurs on a short tour, holding investor days in London and for the first time New York and Silicon Valley.
“There’s been a growing interest in what we’ve been doing overseas, specifically in the US,” says Bradford. “It’ll be interesting shipping 30 people between those three cities over five or six days, but it will be exciting nonetheless. Hopefully we’ll create a real buzz.”
Jon Bradford – CV
Since February 2012
Startup Wise Guys, Estonia