Three learnings from the 3-day Salto Growth Camp

The participants


The first-ever Salto Growth Camp just wrapped itself up. It was an amazing 72-hour accelerator for early-stage startups where I had the luck to participate as a mentor.

There were 14 companies from martech, transportation, fintech, edtech, and other industries from across the world. The startups were chosen from more than 150 applications.

The event took place at Fabrika in Tbilisi, Georgia. It’s basically a uber-hip mini-city (similar to Telliskivi in Tallinn) with a hostel, designer shops, co-working space, restaurants, and bars. If you’re planning to visit Tbilisi, I’d recommend considering it as your base.

A few other things to note about Tbilisi:

  • It’s safe;
  • Taxi rides and haircuts cost around 1.50 eur;
  • A steak will set you back around 3–4 euros in a good restaurant;
  • It’s easy to get by with English;
  • The nightlife is decent (check out Drama bar for pre-party and Khidi for techno until 9am);
  • It’s still warm (20 degrees) in November.

The event itself was intense. If you also participated in the morning runs then basically the schedule ran from 7am to 1–2am. There were presentations, roundtables, and workshops on topics as diverse as pitching, growth, and hiring. And, of course, execution time.

Now, the three biggest lessons for me personally.

It’s easy to lose focus

It didn’t matter what stage a startup was in or what their specific goals were for the event. The startups I spoke with all had problems with focus — whether it was how to find their niche, how the messaging (including the pitch deck) reflects what they offer or how to get things delivered.

It’s also understandable — early-stage startups are still hustling a lot and trying to find their market-product fit (or product-channel fit or channel-model fit).

But by changing one thing, you have to also change all the others. By changing prices you need to rethink the product, channels, and target group; by changing the target group, you need to rethink the product, channels, and business model. This was missed by a lot of startups.

Hackathons work*

Hackathons work. But they only work when you have very clear goals for the hackathon (or accelerator).

If you’re unclear about your exact goal, then talk to mentors beforehand. You will both get a deeper understanding of the problems. The pitch decks are usually not informative and clear enough, so, it’s hard to know enough about the business to give advice.

It sometimes took me 30 minutes just to understand the business well enough, so, I could start looking at other, more specific problems.

As a mentor, it was actually very useful to also reach out to my own network when looking at startups from industries where I personally didn’t have much experience.

Note that hackathons also work for more established companies (such as Pipedrive — we run hackathons once or twice a year). So, if you’ve already got a roadmap, ask yourself how could you verify each thing on the roadmap in a couple of days instead of weeks or months. You’ll save loads of development work. Time limits work.

It takes a village to raise a child

This old proverb is truer than ever when it comes to startups. A startup is like a child that is trying to learn how to walk, how to speak, and understand where she fits in society.

So, having different mentors taking care of different areas was the best way to get that child up to speed.

Each mentor had different viewpoints — from technical framework to team dynamics (for example, are they sitting separately or as a team) to the business model (do they even have a business?) to messaging.

This was the biggest learning point for me as well — witnessing how each mentor thinks about the participating startups.

I heard again and again from the startups that because of this diversity and quality of mentoring they were getting, they got more out of the Growth Camp in 3 days than from 3 months working on their own (through trial-and-error) or being in an accelerator for 3 months.

It was also great to witness startups helping each other out. Aligner was used by several startups to get same-day translations for quick international expansion projects, Bouncer was used for verifying email addresses and Automizy offered free email marketing to other participants.

Bonus: Georgians have their own wine-making method

I’ve been drinking Georgian wine for a while but never bothered to find out more about it. So, when the organizers announced a field trip to some of the wineries in Georgia I signed myself up immediately.

We first visited Shumi Winery and got a tour of the winery and the mini-museum. Turns out the first traces of wine-making were found in Georgia. About 8,000 years ago.

The second interesting bit was around wine-making methods. There’s the European method — this is how most of the wines are made. And there’s also the Georgian method or the Kvevri method.

In the European method, the wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks where the temperature can be regulated — ie the fermentation can be stopped, so, that the sugar levels stay higher, thus making the wine sweeter.

Georgians, however, ferment their wine in clay pots (they do use the European method as well, of course). They dig the clay pots (kvevri) into the ground in cellars and seal them to let the wine ferment. The temperature down there is a stable 15 degrees.

This means that only dry wines can be made with that method, all the semi-sweet wines (popular mostly in post-soviet countries) are still done with the European method. I guess I’ll be sticking to European-style wines then :D

We then visited a small home-brewery as well. Not much to tell except that it took a long time to leave that place…

All-in-all — lots of positive emotions, new learnings, and inspiring new contacts. So, a big thank you to all the organizers at Salto (a private founder network) who made this event possible.

Head of Growth @ Ex-Pipedrive and ex-Amazon. Will occasionally comment on growth, product, marketing, and tech. @teemast on Twitter.

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