Shani Cohen: How my dinner conversation turned into a startup company
Our baby, UpMarket, is already two months old. It’s been an incredible experience from the point I joined Antler as a founder, only a few months ago, to now being ready to go live with our product and first customer. In this article I will share my experience on the rollercoaster that started with an idea I originally came up with during dinner.
All companies begin with an idea. That idea usually follows the sense of wanting to solve something, make things better or connect the dots in and materially change the way we do things.
My idea came to me while having dinner with a close friend and a fellow passionate traveller. With COVID finally subsiding at the end of winter 2022, we were talking about how travel has completely changed. Human interaction with your accommodation provider, be it a hotel or an AirBnB, has been reduced to virtually nothing. Digital smart locks, self-check-in guides, and online tips have become the new normal and while we loved the efficiency and convenience, we both agreed the experience has become cold and generic.
Having been a host on AirBnB myself for the past 5 years, I have witnessed this change firsthand. I reflected on the way travel has changed and thought about the questions and requests my guests were making, and then I realized - there is a real need for managing the guest experience in the digital space and it is as true for small-time AirBnB hosts as it is for large hotel chains.
Back then I was working as the Chief Commercial Officer for a rapidly growing scale-up in Amsterdam and my mind was constantly occupied with the challenges a growing company faces. But over the weeks and months after our dinner, there was this idea in the back of my mind that was craving attention. I would spend time over the weekends looking for someone already providing a great solution to this problem that I had overlooked. But as nothing really stood out to me, that something in the back of my mind kept on popping up from time to time.
One day, I spotted an unusual LinkedIn message hiding in the flurry of sales people messages claiming they can change my life. It was Matteo from Antler and he was inviting me to join the next cohort of founders in Amsterdam as part of an early-stage startup residency.
I was genuinely excited. I had heard about Antler before and realized this would be a great opportunity to explore my own entrepreneurial ideas and potentially find a co-founder with technical skills that I was lacking. That idea at the back of my head was also getting excited about this opportunity.
Antler is a unique company. They focus on bringing together high-potential entrepreneurs from very different backgrounds and put them through an intense program helping them team up with co-founders, work together, validate a business idea, and pitch their business plan. Antler then chooses and invests in a number of teams and essentially helps them get their business off the ground, where the ground is usually nothing more than a slide deck.
One thing that is not a prerequisite for being accepted is - a business idea. As strange as that sounds, Antler does not require its founders to have a concrete business idea, as it knows that sometimes the right team comes first. I knew Antler and early stage venture capitalists in general are looking closely at the founders’ background and searching for a good fit between them and their skills. In other words, having founders from both business and tech backgrounds is ideal.
Taking the plunge
Mid-October was rapidly approaching. Having had only a couple of weeks between leaving my previous job and the start of the residency, I had little time to think about what was to come. I was excited to meet new people and learn about their ideas. I have decided to embrace the notion that people come before the idea and was curious about other people’s passions and perspectives.
My first impression of the Antler cohort reminded me of my first days with my MBA cohort. It was a diverse group of smart, driven people from a very international background. In the first couple of weeks we listened to speakers from top companies, learning about their journey and collecting tips and insights about building and raising. A big focus was on getting to know our fellow founders. Through design sprints, presentations and informal events (aka beers) I quickly got to know 60 people in about two weeks.
It seemed to me that everyone had an idea (or two!). This was, after all, an ambitious group of aspiring entrepreneurs and almost everyone was quick to tell me about their idea, their passion, and how they intended to grow it to a massive unicorn in no time.
There was a dazzling array of world changing ideas - from changing the way people own houses through crypto exchanges to revolutionising couples’ sex life.
Through the various opportunities Antler created for us, I was taking note of people’s working styles, their character and their potential fit with my own character.
Some designs sprints went better, with the team really coming together, effectively collaborating and creating a convincing presentation in a matter of hours. Others were not as good, with the end result being far from what I would have liked it to be. However, the intense working environment and time pressure quickly revealed peoples’ working styles and highlighted who might be better in a real-life working environment.
After the first two weeks, our schedule became lighter and we were encouraged to start “tracking out”. This is Antler’s term for allowing people to team up and start working on a specific business idea together.
This phase of the residency felt a bit like being back in high school. Who got together? Did anyone break up? Some people have already paired up before the residency started or during the first two weeks. Some people have “broken up” and were available to pair up with other people. One of these people was Nino.
I met Nino early in the residency. We got along well from the very beginning and over time realized we also worked well together. Nino had a very extensive technical experience in the digital world, which made a potential partnership between us very complimentary. Nino had paired up with another founder prior to the residency starting, but they ended up not agreeing on a joint business idea and “broke up”.
From our chats, I knew Nino had his own idea focusing on the last-mile delivery business and as I had some business experience in last-mile delivery at Uber, I was excited about his idea. At the same time, I wasn’t sure if I should abandon my own business idea.
Looking your idea in the eye
With the intensity of the residency and everything that was going on, it was hard to deep dive into ideas. Many ideas sound good on paper, but a deeper understanding of the competitive landscape, technical feasibility, customer demand and market size is needed to truly assess a business opportunity.
Nino and I came to a realization that we didn’t have a clear view on how big our ideas might be. Can we build a sizable company with either of these ideas? Is there a competitive advantage that can be sustained?
We decided to help one another with an initial validation.
Arriving at Antler's offices on a Saturday morning was a wholly different experience to the one we’ve had in the weeks prior. It was wonderfully quiet and we had all the space we needed to research and whiteboard as we were deep diving into each other’s ideas.
We started by clearly fleshing out the solution, focusing on feasibility and high-level costs and then moved onto looking into potential competitors and existing solutions. We then moved on to a high level calculation of the total market size, and finally landed on the attainable market size in the first three years. We used comparable companies in the same industry to sanity check our work.
This exercise took a little over half a day and it was surprisingly fun. This was the first time we worked together as a team and the first time we were able to really debate our business ideas at length. I learned that I really liked working with Nino and he was good at giving valuable feedback.
We eventually came to the conclusion that while Nino’s last-mile delivery idea was feasible and would probably provide value to companies in the space, the market size would be too small. As Antler would say “this is not a VC play”–we couldn’t find the explosive growth VCs look for when deciding to invest in startups.
Taking Nino through my idea also helped me articulate the business value and market potential. This was probably the first time I realized just how big the global travel industry is! (it is actually >10% of global GDP!). It was also great to see Nino getting excited about working on my idea together, as he could understand it better and see it coming to life.
After finally deciding to work together and over the weeks that lead to the Antler Investment Committee, I could see my new partner, Nino, getting deeper and deeper into the world of what was used to be my own idea. I could see him getting excited about the business and the tech we were about to build. It takes quite some mental effort to let go of the idea you were passionate about and go on to fully pursue someone else’s idea and I was excited to see Nino making that switch very quickly.
We focused on validating our initial idea through both customer and desk research. In 5 weeks we got to know the major players, startups and mapped the relationships between the players in the travel industry (and there are many, many players). We leveraged our networks and launched a travel habits survey that gave us important insights to shape our business model and proposition. We also reached out and spoke to over 20 accommodation providers to understand their needs, pain points and learn from their success stories.
As we were validating and shaping our proposition, we were also building our pitch deck. Through weekly meetings with Youri from Antler, we were able to spot issues and address points we missed in our research. This was a relatively short and very intense period in which we developed a very deep understanding of the problem world we’re trying to address–a one that we still refer to in our conversations about the business today.
Like all couples, we had our ups and downs. As we were under time pressure with the end of the residency quickly approaching, emotions sometimes ran high. I tend to want everything to be done perfectly and in the shortest amount of time possible - “be bright. be brief. be gone”. Nino wanted to dive deeper and develop a better understanding of the competition, features and their strategy - “give me the details!”. The inevitable differences in approach and style led to some tense situations, but we were always able to rise above them and create common frameworks that allowed us to collaborate effectively.
Finally, the big day came. It was time to formally pitch to Antler and other VCs on the Investment Committee. While stressful, I was grateful for the opportunity to pitch after only 7 weeks from the moment we joined the residency. I believed we had a concrete, good business idea and I believed we had the right team to solve it.
It seems like Antler believed the same thing. A day after our pitch to the Investment Committee we met Youri and Rosa in the Antler offices in Amsterdam and were told Antler loved our pitch!
It was that day that UpMarket was born.
It is not easy to come up with a good business idea. You need to innovate yet stay feasible. You want to change the world, yet you have to start small. You need to tap a large market, but need to focus on a specific customer segment. The list goes on and on.
For me, the Antler approach worked well - I first found a person with a complementary skill set who I enjoy working with and only then decided which idea to pursue. Thanks to the continuous feedback and direction from Antler we were able to team up, validate our idea and raise a pre-seed funding in less than two months!
I thoroughly believe in validating your idea as much as you possibly can, speaking to as many people from different parts of the ecosystem, and carefully thinking through the various risks that might make your idea irrelevant. At the same time, I believe it is important to do that under some time pressure. It is tempting to continue researching, refining your idea and speaking to more and more people, but time is of the essence when it comes to startup life. You need to be able to do sufficient validation, but validation should be just sufficient to provide you and your co-founder with enough confidence that this is the time to fully commit to this idea.
Finally, I would like to thank the Antler team for everything. It was an incredible experience, coming out of 20 years of corporate life and into the chaos of entrepreneurial life with Antler. The structure, people, support and the challenges they provided us with were, and still are invaluable as we are building our very young company into a mature business.
 We use the word residency or cohort.
 During the residency all “tracked out” teams get weekly coaching sessions with their own coach from the Antler team.
 Investment Committee (aka IC) is the last pitch teams give to Antler and experts in the space to determine whether or not they raise an investment from Antler.
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