Something is rumbling on Vilamarí and Gran Via. It’s 11:30am and as I approach the frosted glass doors, I hear shouting, laughter and the Soca Boys ‘Follow the Leader blasting from within. My first visit to Never Alone, a new spin on a startup accelerator, is not going to be my typical morning meeting.
Now before you roll your eyes and sigh, “Seriously, please don’t tell me another accelerator is launching in the Barcelona ecosystem,” these guys are seriously into something new.
First of all, Never Alone is quick to point out that they are not a startup accelerator. When I asked co-founder, Merche Sánchez, to define their initiative she said simply: “We’re a startup factory.” The concept came to life in November 2012 when Merche, along with Guillermo Sarrias and Carol Lyon, finalized the details to flip the standard accelerator model on its head.
Instead of pouring their focus on securing the first class of entrepreneurs, Never Alone has spent the last 5 months scouring Spain for committed private investors willing to put their faith in a new model of idea creation. The difference is simple. The first 12 chosen startups will begin their life with the hardest part of startup lifecycle already covered: their seed investors are already on board.
It’s a simple paradigm shift, but securing the fundraising on the front-end rather than after six months of blood, sweat, and tears allows the investors to follow the progress on a weekly basis and become intimately familiar with the projects. In addition, it’s aligned with the lean startup method, which Never Alone will follow religiously.
It works like this: Never Alone will begin sourcing applications and narrow the selection to 20 viable startup projects. Together with their 25 private investors, they will interview each entrepreneur (or team of co-founders), and choose the final 12 projects to enter the six-month program. The twist is that each investor puts in a healthy investment upfront just to be included in the interview process. Throughout the six month program, they will be updated regularly with video reports and 1-on-1 meetings in order to choose their 3 favorite projects. Ultimately, each investor will choose the projects they’d like to invest in and, if the entrepreneur agrees to the terms, they close the seed round.
Now, the investor isn’t forced to invest at the end of the semester and they can walk away with a full refund after the initial interview day if nothing piques their interest. In fact, they can still walk after the six-month program is completed and only sacrifice a small entrance fee. However, since they are actively involved with several teams throughout the semester, chances are high they will be molding their favorite projects along the way so there are no big surprises come demo day. It’s a very “lean” approach to raising seed capital.
In order to get buy-in from early investors wary of this new approach, Never Alone partnered with Catalunya’s resident idea-man and Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur, Xavier Verdaguer. “Getting Xavier on board early on was crucial to recruiting the 25 private investors,” explains Merche. “Xavier brings more than a decade of experience turning ideas into companies and offers a unique opportunity to connect our graduate startups with Silicon Valley if it makes sense.”
After that, the rest of the pieces started falling into place. They found their workspace, finalized their model, and went hunting for the mentors and “inspirers” to coach their teams through the lean startup method. They did pretty well too, securing accomplished entrepreneurs, academics, and business people like Angel María Herrera, Jaume Gurt, and Javier Megías.
The perks of the program include a collaborative work environment, weekly presentations and learning sessions, and free access to the gym next door when the stress builds up.
Getting back to the Soca Boys concert when I walked in, it turns out, the team was simply taking their daily “Happy Break,” a 10-minute refresh session to get out of your chair and dance to recharge the zeitgeist necessary to survive the rollercoaster startup life. They even let me be the leader and I have to say, my zeitgeist is strong today.
To learn more about Never Alone, Barcelona’s Happy Startup Factory, and fill out your application, visit them here.