Chasing Unicorns and the Start-Up Dream. By Anna Nadolna

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Anna Nadolna explores the startup experience with past finalists of the annual Discovering Start-Ups Competition, showcasing disruptive projects that prove the start-up dream is totally worth pursuing. Want to get involved? Share your story at @CambWireless #DSrupt!


“Kids & a mortgage? No thanks. A startup with no direction? Why not.” Mathew Carpenter (Twitter). Is this twenty-three year old worth citing? Absolutely. He’s the kid behind the notorious 2015 e-commerce hit that went viral on social media and gained press coverage from pretty much every tech and trend-watch title, TechCrunch, The Washington Post, Venture Beat,  Huffington Post to name just few. The website* (crashed within hours from launching) offers “glitter” services aimed at friends and enemies, with a guarantee that the shimmering stuff will go everywhere for mere $9.99 Australian dollars. Two days after the launch Carpenter tried to put his site up for sale – “ShipYourEnemiesGlitter with 1m visits, 270k social shares, $xx,xxx in sales, tonnes of people wanting to order. 24 hours old. For sale”, he tweeted, which was dubbed “the fastest attempt exit ever”.

This sparkly story represents pretty much everything I find compelling about start-ups – the risk, the wit, the boldness, the playfulness and finally the execution (not on the Carpenter’s part, though). A bit of chutzpah, too? Sure, but it’s also a mechanism for survival, making it through the hours of hard work spent on taking the business off the ground, raising seed funds, pitching, networking, crowdfunding, you name it. And there’s the Unicorn Club (U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors) and stories from the likes of Slack and Uber (about to become one of the most valuable venture-backed start-ups in history) streaming in on regular basis that just add to pressure and all.

“Exhilarating and frustrating” are the times, commented Benedikt von Thüngen, CEO of Speechmatics (a start-up providing cloud-based, multilingual speech recognition wrapped in an easy to use interface) when I caught up with him six months from winning the Discovering Start-Ups Competition (DS14) and asked about the billion-dollar start-up reality dubbed the “age of unicorns”. “The exhilarating component comes from being part of this wave and having a shot of becoming one of the very, very few billion dollar companies coming out of the UK!” he added. “We have already managed to break-even and are strongly cash-flow positive, which allows us to hire and expand very rapidly. Further, we are taking a very diversified approach and have multiple revenue sources from different applications and markets. Thus hopefully in a crash, we are able to keep our trousers on!”

Benedikt was among the shortlisted finalists I had a real pleasure to meet during the Pitching Workshop in London last year organised ahead of the DS14 final that saw some of UK’s most promising start-ups and entrepreneurs including Gerlinde Gniewosz (KO-SU & DS14 Winner), Nick Hatter (Giftgaming®), Ash Samy Hegab (PLAYIR), Donatien Garner (AppNearMe Ltd), Matt Celuszak (CrowdEmotion), Steve Marsh (GeoSpock), Juma El-Awaisi (Braci Ltd.) and more.

It was the energy, the intelligence and the earnest belief in the product/solution that made their start-up pitches so gripping. It was also great to gain insight into the most difficult phases of their businesses, their first big breakthroughs and the philosophy that drives them: “In order to win you have to be prepared to fail”, commented Rob Symes, the CEO at The Outside View (a predictive analytics start-up that uses complex algorithms and machine learning and the DS14 Winner), echoing the much hyped Silicon Valley’s ‘fail fast’ mantra, teaching wannabe entrepreneurs perseverance and resilience. When we exchanged emails, Rob was just days away from his movie venture premiere – “The Big Mo”, an intriguing documentary anticipating the future of marketing and powerful capabilities of “the man and machine (algorithm) symbiosis” captured in one of the “greatest marketing campaign on earth: the race to become president”.

You’ve got to walk the talk” added Jessica Auton, Marketing Director at Aseptika (Activ8rlives), a healthcare company developing and marketing an integrated suite of self-monitoring devices and services under the Activ8rlives brand and the DS14 Winner. “So we make it a point to engage with our users and volunteer patients and share our health insights with our experiences of self-monitoring of our own health and wellbeing. And do 10,000 steps a day and monitor our vital signs on a daily basis”.

It’s fascinating to watch these companies grow and take on their next disruptive projects proving that the start-up dream is totally worth pursuing. I honestly can’t wait for the launch of the 6th Discovering Start-Ups Competition on 1st June and the first submissions from the international start-up scene. As the unicorns no longer seem to be the creatures of myth, who knows maybe it’s you who owns the next billion-dollar tech idea?

To strike up a conversation about DS15 @CambWireless and feature your tech innovations, please use #DSrupt

* Mathew Carpenter sold the website to “a man named Peter from the U.S., he runs a few different companies”


About The Author
Anna Nadolna is Events and Marketing Executive at CW

Follow her source of inspiration: @StuffandStories

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Keep the conversation going on Twitter: @CambWireless

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