Techstars Berlin through the eyes of CTO

    Hi, readers of Megamind! My name is Dmitry, I am a co-founder of the Preply educational project, in which I am responsible for the technical part of the product - I write the code myself and manage the development team. This summer, the team took part in the Techstars Berlin incubator program, the European division of the largest US startup accelerator. At one time, Techstars helped grow such well-known technical companies as Digital Ocean, GrabCad,, Next Big Sound, Sengrid.

    PreplyIt is a platform for search and personalized tutoring. The platform works in the CIS and Poland, and now plans to scale also on the German market. Preply has been developing since 2012, and is growing steadily both in terms of product quality and number of users. Techstars helped to reach a qualitatively new level, and the use of innovative technical solutions played a significant role in this growth process. If not decisive.

    Techstars Business Card

    From a business point of view, the main value of accelerators is to provide mentoring support, with which it is easier to find Product-Market Fit and a good investor for the next stage of growth. Since in our team our CEO Kirill Bigay is more involved in the issue of attracting investments, and Sergey Lukyanov is in marketing and product, I would like to tell in this article what the program is from the point of view of the co-founder-techie and what new it allows to learn.

    Techstars program structure:
    • The first week of Mentors Madness - 50 meetings of 15 minutes, 1 on 1 with mentors from different areas of the ecosystem of Berlin and beyond.
    • The second week - reflections after meetings during the first.
    • The third week is a continuation of Mentors Madness or another 50 meetings.
    • All the subsequent time, the teams are engaged in product development and marketing to demonstrate good results at Techstars Demo Day. This event is attended by investors from all over the world, and Techstars and teams present their products and results. Those who need investments receive an additional chance to receive them.
    • The last three weeks before Demo Day, the teams have been rehearsing the pitch almost all the time, preparing pitch decks and presentations.

    Buns for CTO

    For all the teams that fall into the set, Techstars partner companies give various buns. Below is a list of what we are currently using as program participants:
    • Amazon Web Services payment
    • Platinum plan for SendGrid project management system;
    • free subscription for communication platform;
    • Processing without commissions from Paypal (until the limit on turnover volumes is exceeded);
    • server quota from Digital Ocean;
    • Microsoft product licenses and Azure hosting.

    The logic of distributing elephants for partner companies is as follows: 10 teams were selected from 1000 applications, therefore, the likelihood that several of them will become millionth businesses is quite large (according to Techstars statistics, somewhere around 70%). If at the early stage the company chooses some technical solution, then the switching cost to another solution in the future is often too big. Accordingly, it is beneficial for Techstars partner campaigns to give their decision to a startup free of charge in the hope that it will most likely “take off” and begin to generate enough profit in the foreseeable future to start paying for a product or service.

    Techstars Connecting Vessel System

    Internal communication between Techstars teams is organized through Slack. This messenger has a channel for programmers where you can chat with other teams. I expected to meet with them weaker technical training, but I was pleasantly surprised to meet very strong co-founders of service stations and programmers in our set. Among them are two doctors (PhD) from Cambridge, former programmers of the Israeli cybersecurity service and simply cool professionals with great experience.

    In the second month of the program, we managed to start organizing weekly CTO breakfasts, where we met in the morning for a cup of coffee with rolls and discussed the technologies, problems and solutions that each of us had to deal with during the week. Finding out who uses technology and why was very useful.

    Based on the Conspire solution, Techstars teams have the opportunity to ask for an intro to any person in the industry. This works as follows: each participant in the program gives limited access to their mailbox, and based on its contents, a graph is built of the relationship with whom the user corresponded (according to the headers of the mail messages). According to the graph, you can find the shortest path to any person with whom you need to get in touch. It looks impressive: for example, we looked at how to get an intro for Ilon Mask, and it turned out that the program director in Berlin knows the co-founder of the startup in Boulder well, he, in turn, often corresponded with Mask. If needed, the founder of Tesla would succeed in marrying two “handshakes”. Of course, this is not quite a magic wand, since all intros are based on the principle of double opt-in,

    A closed internal social network like Quora provided answers to questions from a community of former Techstars members. We haven’t actively worked with her yet, but the content there is of high quality.


    The mentors of our recruitment were more than 100 people. About half of them are investors or work in venture capital funds, a quarter are the founders of large and not very startups, the rest are management or early employees of large successful startups like Delivery Hero, Soundcloud, Wunderlist, Zendesk, etc.

    There are not many techies in this environment, but those who came were quite useful. For example, it turned out to talk with CTO Wunderlist by Chad Fowler about microservices, about how they make immutable deployment and support the zoo of solutions with a multi-density technology stack. Buffer talked to Leo about the motivation of programmers and the transparent structure of the company - what are the pros or cons. The guys from Rocket Internet shared how they run and measure 10 A / B tests per day, and the team from Soundcloud talked about how their localization and internationalization process was configured at the product level.

    Moreover, many mentors helped solve our previous problems. For example, the Stripe regional manager helped to instantly unlock an account that was mistakenly blocked, PayPal provided access to some internal APIs, and mentors from Google Europe gave feedback on the reasons for closing Google Helpouts. And it's great that mentors can continue to communicate regardless of what we are going to do next, and despite the fact that the acceleration program has ended.

    Berlin startup ecosystem

    Berlin is a great place to build and scale up a startup. Thanks to Rocket Internet, many great tech experts and marketers have appeared in the German capital. It was very surprising that right in the middle of the city or at some party you can easily meet people you know before you travel to Berlin.

    A high standard of living and relatively loyal migration laws attract many of our programmers to Berlin. The guys have their own experience, which is worth learning from, we regularly went to Techstars events together and discussed the technological challenges of each of us. Thanks to acquaintances, you can discover Berlin in a new way and get to the most important events. Several really cool mitaps take place on the day.

    We were also lucky that during our stay there was an AWS Activate conference, which, thanks to Techstars, managed to get tickets. We were fortunate enough to listen to Amazon's CTO presentation on industry development strategies, Foodpanda service stations on how to scale a product technically in different markets, Netflix guys talked about how they use microservices. In general, for us, as active AWS users, everything was super useful. During the conference, several meetings were scheduled with Amazon consultants, where they discussed the use of their stack in our product in a comfortable environment.

    Investor contacts

    CEOs Kirill Bigay was more involved in negotiations with investors, but the technical team regularly received related tasks to collect various statistics for investors. German investors are rather conservative and prefer to invest in operating businesses that generate profits. Berlin also has a very strong School of Business Intelligence, where, by the way, many former graduates of Soviet universities work, and fund analysts prefer to deal with real company numbers rather than ideas on presentation slides.

    Before Techstars, we collected quite a lot of metrics, did RFM and cohort analysis, but we had to go to the required level of sections and detail already. Through communication with mentors and potential investors, we have significantly improved our level of data processing and business understanding. Before Techstars, reports were generated in the internal admin panel, during the acceleration program we first evolved into Google Spreadsheets spreadsheets integrated with the database, then we started using the and Amazon Redshift links (yes, we have a lot of data :)), but refused because of the high cost and lack of control capabilities. We finally settled on the PowerPivot tool from Microsoft - we are building in it such analytics that before Techstars we could not even dream in a nightmare :).

    In addition to solving technical problems associated with collecting statistics, I also had to participate in several negotiations with investors and stand near the stand on Demo Day. CTO, which can talk about the product, and about metrics and marketing, builds investor confidence perfectly. The feedback received has only strengthened the opinion of how important it is for the startup team to have comprehensively developed professionals.

    Go beyond what is possible

    In my opinion, for the service station in a small but fast-growing startup, it is very important to keep up and grow in competencies just as quickly. This is sometimes difficult to achieve when you are working on one project, as opposed to outsourcing, where projects, technologies and teams often change. In order not to “dry up” and minimize technical lag, we are moving to the microservices paradigm and using new modern technologies.

    The Techstars program itself allowed us to grow professionally and form a circle of potential mentors from whom we can continue to study further. Being in the startup ecosystem of Berlin gave a lot of motivation to work even harder on the product and think globally, because in reality all the boundaries are only in the head.

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