Lessons Learned Raising Capital in China

Get_in_Touch_Shanghai_shanghai city_1620x672.jpg
Shanghai financial center. Several investors have offices in this area.

As we recently announced Bluesmart‘s newest round of funding led by Tsing Capital – one of China’s largest venture firms – I have been asked by several entrepreneurs for advice on how to  raise capital in China. I am writing  this blog post to share some of my lessons learned with the hope that it will help other founders navigate the process. A growing number of cross-border deals have been announced recently, and I think it’s something that is just getting started.

I’d like to start by sharing that our round was actually a syndicate of a group of investors from almost every region of the world, which I find fascinating. While a Chinese firm led the round, it was followed by funds from Brazil (Monashees), Silicon Valley (XG Ventures and Endeavor Catalyst), Mexico and Switzerland (Nazca/Mountain) among other places. This comes to show that we are finally truly living in a global startup world where investors from different regions of the planet will come together to fund an idea if they see global potential.

In order to raise this round, I did a roadshow in both Silicon Valley and China. It’s been really interesting to watch these two worlds in parallel, how they differ, and where they converge. While Silicon Valley has historically been the epicenter of risk-friendly capital, Chinese investors have demonstrated that they are willing to play the venture capital game with their own style and thinking, sometimes making Silicon Valley look risk-averse. Silicon Valley is still much more efficient as it has standardized all agreements and terms for startup investing, but Chinese investors are learning quickly and increasingly accepting the “Silicon Valley” standards. While Silicon Valley investors are more connected in the US and can provide mentoring on how to build a US-centric company, Chinese investors provide connections to Asia and are developing knowledge on how to enter the attractive Chinese market.

Below are some practical tips for fundraising in China based on our particular and somewhat limited experience. If you have additional tips, please leave them in the comments.

1- Almost everything is done via WeChat

If you want to fundraise (or do any business) in China, download right now WeChat and learn how to use it. Introductions to investors are done through WeChat, which has challenges and opportunities. One challenge is that it makes it very hard to do your research on the person you’ve been introduced to. In the US, you can use rapportive to get the Linkedin profile of the investor or just search the name on Linkedin or Google. On WeChat, you can’t even “copy” names, which generally are comprised of Chinese characters, and profiles are generally blank. On the other hand, you have a direct mobile messaging route with the potential investor and can communicate more quickly and less formally than via email. From the introduction on, the entire relationship with the investors will be done via WeChat, except for document-sharing, which you still will do via email. But get ready to coordinate calendars, have conference calls, respond to due diligence questions, and even negotiate your term sheet via WeChat.

2- There are several strong hubs for venture investors

In the US, the Bay Area is THE hub for venture investors. (I know, I know, there are several great VCs in NY, Boston and other cities, but the concentration in the Bay is undeniable). In China on the other hand, there are several strong hubs. In my roadshow, I visited Hong Kong, Shenzhen, HangZhou, Shanghai and Beijing. While you can find investors with broad focus across all these cities, each one has a particular focus. In Hong Kong you can find more investors interested in FinTech, Media and Commerce. In Shenzhen, the focus is Hardware (btw, if you are interested, watch this documentary: Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of Hardware). HangZhou is where Alibaba was born and is headquartered and therefore there are several investors from the “Alibaba Mafia” with interest in ecommerce, payments and mobile. Shanghai and Beijing seem to be very generalist and you can find investors for any kind of venture. If you are serious about raising capital in China, you should plan to spend at least a full week in each city as coordinating agendas might be complicated (Chinese investors travel a lot!).

3- There is a more diverse pool of investors and LPs

In the US there are clear categories of funds for each stage of a startup: Angels, Seed Funds, Early Stage Funds, Late Stage Funds, Private Equity Funds. The LPs are generally “Funds of Funds”, Endowments, and Pension Funds. In China, these categories are more fuzzy, and, in addition to the typical investors you would encounter in the US, it’s very common for large companies (such as JD, Tencent, Alibaba) and mid-size companies (including factories, law firms and even malls) to invest in startups or in funds. The Chinese government is also often an LP or direct investor through different agencies. Finally there are a lot of wealthy individuals that invest in funds, in syndicates or directly into startups. Some investors have separate funds, in dollars and in RMBs. When fundraising in China you will meet with a more diverse set of investors who might often not be the right fit for you. Make sure you ask questions to understand the structure of the investors you speak with so that you can understand their incentives.

4- You need to have a “Chinese” story

While Chinese investors are increasingly opening to investing in global companies from the US and elsewhere, they will still ask you why you are looking to raise money in China. In our case, the answer was pretty clear: we manufacture our products in Shenzhen, have an engineering and logistics team in Hong Kong, and are starting to sell our products to the huge Chinese market. This is mostly true for most hardware startups. You will need to have a sensible story about why a Chinese investor can help you and why you could be strategic to them.

5- You need a “Western” story too

Why would they invest in you and not in a Chinese competitor, which would be easier from a cultural, geographic and logistical perspective? You will have to show that you have some of the unique skills that westerners can bring to the table in a global company. One of these areas for example is branding: American brands still have more global cultural gravitas, and westerners have a better understanding of how how to build global brands. Silicon Valley is also still considered top in the world at software and AI. Show why you are the best team in the world to build the company that you are trying to build.

6- Learn some basic cultural norms

As with any international business situation, it’s helpful to learn some basic cultural norms in order to reduce the inevitable cultural friction that will surface. I’m definitely not an expert in Chinese culture but had to very quickly pick up some basic cultural norms. Business relationships in China (and Asia in general) are much more formal than in the US. You need to show respect in the way you enter the room, greet, exchange cards (always with the two hands) and conduct your presentation and Q&A. Hierarchies have more weight – they will want to know who is “the boss” and will make clear who “the boss” is on their side. Generally, before going directly to business, they will want to have a warming general conversation over tea. Make sure that you allow for that space to happen. Personal relationships – “guanxi” – are very important so if you have people they might personally know who can endorse you, you should let that be known, as well as name brand recognition investors or advisors. In terms of language, you will do just fine with English – most investors speak it and those who don’t have someone on their teams who can be interpreters.

7- A lot of things are almost the same

While set and settings might be different than in Sand Hill Road, there are a lot of things that work almost the same as in Silicon Valley. The way to get access to investors is through warm introductions, and therefore you need to network with Chinese entrepreneurs and connectors. Firms have partners, principals and associates (who actually do source deals which get closed). Investors care about large addressable markets, strong teams, defensible technology, strong traction and all the other criteria that are important to investors in the west. They are familiar with Delaware corporate law and preferred stocks agreements (although they generally ask for more aggressive downside protection terms). Their due diligence processes are quite deep both in the legal and financial fronts but the data requests are standard. In terms of valuation levels it’s similar to the US in that it depends on the sector and the “mood” of the market. At the end of the day though, investors in China are pragmatic businessmen who follow their reason as much as their intuition, focus on building long term relationships based on trust and look for the common success of the venture.

I hope these tips come handy to those interested in exploring fundraising in China. I think that we will see more and more Chinese investors participating in western and global companies, which I think is very exciting. Despite backwards nationalistic rhetoric from populist politicians, we are in a super exciting time of global cooperation, where each region of the world can offer their unique contribution to collectively bring innovative solutions to our common global challenges. I hope to see more global startups unite the world through entrepreneurship and innovation.

Thanks Brian Chen for reading a draft of this post

The 3 Important Things to Do for Humanity

earth2I’m spending some time thinking about what are the most important endeavors worth pursuing for humanity, what should be on our “agenda”. I find that there is often confusion and conflict (when not oblivion) when it comes to these topics. Perhaps because many of the important things to do are interrelated and some are even conflicted with each other. To clarify this in mind, I have grouped them on three main categories. I know it might sound pretentious to suggest how to group humanity’s biggest challenges. However I believe it’s extremely important to think about these topics, so we can make better decisions on what are we going to invest our individual and collective time, resources and talents.

So, I believe that the most important things for humanity to do can be grouped in these three categories: to survive, to distribute and to progress.

1. Survive

There are many existential threats that endanger the existence of civilization, humanity and life on Earth. Despite the great progress that we made since our times as cavemen increasing our survival chances, there are still many big threats that are out of our control, and some that actually we created ourselves. Our most basic and important challenge is to insure the preservation of life and humanity on Earth, and there are many things to do in this regard. Some of the existential threats identified by experts are:

  • Environmental degradation
  • Climate change
  • Economic collapse
  • Pandemics
  • Bio-tech gone wrong
  • Nuclear war
  • Chemical war
  • A.I. gone wrong
  • Natural disasters
  • Asteroids and similar
  • Sun eruptions and lifecycle

2. Distribute

Despite the amazing progress that humanity has experienced, the gains are still extremely unequally distributed. Most of humanity still lives in primitive conditions, without access to clean water, sustainable food, healthcare, education, freedom and general wellbeing. Although globalization has been bringing technological advancement to the undeveloped world, there is still a huge amounts of work needed to be done. We must do this because it’s fair. The main areas of distribution include:

  • Clean water
  • Sustainable food supply
  • Healthcare
  • Housing
  • Education
  • Freedom
  • Peace
  • Justice
  • Material prosperity
  • Technological comfort

3. Progress

Accepting that what we have accomplished so far is the best that we can do would be sad, uninspiring and I believe against the nature of humanity, life and the Cosmos. If we think about the progression of events in history, we can see a clear trend towards more complexity, higher awareness, connectedness and the expansion of life. Since the emergence of humanity, we have used technology to improve our condition. Perhaps our most important challenge and highest purpose is to continue this progress. As the highest expression of life on Earth, I believe that we humans have the responsibility to bring it to the next level and expand it beyond our confinements. I that sense some areas of progress include:

  • 3D-printing and manufacturing technologies
  • Internet of things
  • Cure of diseases, aging, health progress
  • Bio-technology, genetics
  • Nanotechnology
  • A.I. and robotics
  • Quantum computing
  • Materials sciences
  • Basic science
  • Energy technologies
  • Transportation technologies
  • Communication technologies
  • Urbanization technologies
  • Space exploration and colonization

Some of these challenges are conflicting in some cases. For example, if we were to make everyone in the world live with the comfort that people in the developed world have with today’s technologies, we would destroy Earth natural resources up to a collapse (we would actually need about 5 Earths of natural resources). Another example of a conflict is when endeavors of technological progress have the risk of going wrong, potentially causing existential threats (A.I., Bio-tech, Nuclear). However, I personally believe that they actually have more synergies than conflicts. In the past we’ve seen that when we make technological breakthroughs, we generate gains that gets distributed globally and make everyone better off. And when we distribute, we put more educated brains to work on the problems of progress and survival. So it’s my opinion that as humanity we must work tirelessly and passionately on all these three areas, prioritizing always with the highest possible perspective.

What do you think?

10 Lessons I Learned from Building a Travel Startup

diego-saez-gil-wehostels copy

About three years ago I jumped into the crazy adventure of creating a travel startup, launching WeHostels out of my passion for travel and my experiences as a backpacker. From Latin America we took an idea off the ground, enlisted a great team, and after an unbelievable roller-coaster ride full of blood, sweat and tears (and to be honest also lots of fun) we were recently acquired by StudentUniverse, the largest US travel agency for students and youth. Under the new umbrella we will continue growing our company and hopefully together will fulfill our initial dream of building a “multi-billion dollar travel company” by creating the largest travel agency for youth. We had hard times, made tons of mistakes along the way, but somehow managed to build a valuable enterprise.

As many young entrepreneurs starting travel startups we had no previous experience on the travel industry, and as such we had no real idea of where we were getting into. As I wrote on my blog, ignorance can actually be positive when it enables you to go for crazy ambitious goals that you wouldn’t have ventured if you knew more. That being said, there are many things that I would have actually loved to know when I started! Understanding some basic things would have saved us a lot of precious time, money and struggle.

I recently had the great pleasure of being one of the judges of the Travel Innovation Summit at the PhocusWright Conference, where for the first time I seated on “the other side of the table”, listening to pitches and judging their businesses’ potential. I was truly inspired by the amazing energy of all the entrepreneurs presenting, but I also saw many of the basic mistakes that we made ourselves at the beginning. That’s why I decided to write what are the main 10 lessons that I learned in my journey building a travel startup. These are the things I wish someone had told me at the start. I truly hope that it helps other entrepreneurs avoid some mistakes and build really successful travel companies.

1. Warning: May the odds be with you:

I don’t know if there is any actual data on this, but after some years as an observer I have the sense that the travel industry experiences a higher rate of mortality of startups than the general startup world. There are many reasons that make the travel industry an especially hard arena: the infrequency of purchase, the consolidation of incumbents on truly large companies to an almost oligopolistic point, the unbeatable marketing spend of these big guys and consequent high cost of customer acquisition, the fragmentation of the supply and more. That doesn’t mean that new valuable companies don’t emerge. As I have documented in Quora there have been many IPOs and hundreds of acquisitions in the industry in recent years. But you have to be aware of your odds. You have to do it for the love of the game, for the journey and not for the outcome. You will need to be relentlessly resourceful and embrace that if failure was going to be the fatal end you’d go for it anyways.

2. Ain’t no dough in “inspiration”:

It has been said thousands of times, and given as feedback at every TIS, but we keep seeing new startups building travel products for the inspiration and planning stages. Many of them build truly beautiful products that people seem to love, but later fail to discover sustainable sources of monetization. The people who used to pay for Lonely Planet books and Travel & Leisure magazines are not paying for content online nor on mobile. And when you are too far away from the “moment of truth” (the magical moment when a customer gives you their credit card number to book a trip) it’s hard to get good conversions. Phenomena observed in other verticals like fashion or design where inspiration sites like Pinterest or Fancy are strong drivers of conversion had not been observed yet in travel. TripAdvisor is a terrific driver of conversions but not by inspiring people, rather by giving users valuable information at the moment of booking. I might be wrong on this and the “Pinterest for Travel” could be around the corner, but after having tried “inspiration features” ourselves my lesson learned is that it’s better to focus on bigger problems and later stages of the funnel.

3. Consider the un-sexy:

As much as I have seen too many startups building “sexy” inspiration and planning travel sites, I have seen too few startups trying to solve un-sexy technical problems of the industry. The “backend of the travel industry” is full of cr#$p complex and inefficient legacy software built (and patched over and over) during the ‘80s and ‘90s when the GDSs and the OTAs were built. Horrible UX/UIs still live in the desktop computers of too many hotels, travel agencies, airlines and other travel companies. Many enterprise tools that are far developed for other industries are still inexistent in travel. Examples of great innovators in this front are Duetto Research providing hotel revenue management tools or KDS with travel and expenses management solutions. There is a lot of value to be created in unsexy areas in the next decade enabled by trends like cloud computing, mobile, big data, personalization, artificial intelligence and more. Consider building an unsexy travel startup, Mashable might not write about you, but your odds of success might improve.

4. Build something truly new or be 10X better:

If you take a look at the travel companies that have been able to scale greatly there are two kinds: those that built something truly new where there was a void in the market; AND those that built something that was ten times better than what was available in the market.

Booking.com and Hotels.com connected all the hotels in the world to the web and made them immediatley available for bookings to the public in the web. StudentUniverse created a protected channel for airlines to sell distressed inventory while giving students great discounts. Uber is connecting the black car and taxi market to the phones of everyone. All these companies built new channels that didn’t exist before, filling big voids.

HotelTonight on the other hand, built an app that was 10X better than the current websites to book same-day hotel rooms from mobile and for hotels to sell distressed inventory. Airbnb built a website that was 10X times better than Craigslist to rent an apartment for short term, by adding payment, calendar and reputation. The new value that these companies brought  to customers versus previous available services was significant.

The lesson here is that marginal improvements are not enough to build a scalable company. The good news is that there are many voids still to be filled, and many services that can (and should) be improved on a 10X fold.

5. Know your “why now?”:

One of the best questions that I received from investors or advisors was “Why now?”. I think entrepreneurs should ask this question to themselves very carefully. Why the company you are trying to build hasn’t been built in the past? Are the technology and the customers actually ready for the service or is it too early? I recommend researching and studying the history of the travel industry. If you take a look you will see a pattern: each decade a new group of billion dollar companies emerged, all taking advantage of similar technological advancements or stages of development of the stack. Understanding what are the technological innovations of the current times and the stage of development of the industry full stack will be very useful when designing your business and its strategy.

6. Go for big markets; but don’t try to boil the ocean:

Every venture capitalist will tell you that the first business criteria they look at (after the people of course) is the size of the addressable market. The effort required to build a company in a small market is almost the same as  the one for a big market. Also, the high risk of startups must be compensated by the theoric potential of eventually becoming a “billion dollar” company. Therefore make sure you go after a market that can support one or more billion dollar companies. That being said, don’t try to boil the ocean. Facebook started by focusing on college campuses and Airbnb on national conferences and a few cities. The challenge in travel is that often supply and demand are in different geographies so it’s difficult to roll a city-by-city strategy (like Groupon or Uber). Yet, you should find ways of segmenting your market and focus your efforts in a small concentrated group before going for the whole market. Forget about trying to get millions of downloads or other vanity metrics and instead focus first on understanding and delighting a small group of core customers.

7. Emerging markets have plenty of opportunities; but come with big challenges:

The same way that the electric grid or the railways were deployed first in the US and Europe and only some decades later in the rest of the world, there are many services related to the web and the travel industry that are just being deployed in emerging countries. Online payments and WiFi are just two examples of infrastructure that is still under development. These early stages of development paired with the high growth of these emerging economies present an incredible opportunity for entrepreneurs to build valuable companies. MakeMyTrip in India and Qunar in China with recent successful IPOs in the US are great examples. I think that in the next decade we will see many more billion-dollar travel companies coming from Southeast Asia, Russia, Latin America and Africa. Building the “Kayak for LatAm” might be less sexy than building the “Airbnb for Yachts” but the opportunities might be much bigger. Of course it must be said, the challenges are equally greater: government regulations, access to capital, languages and currencies, collection, fraud, customers distrust and more, are challenges that must be overcome with creativity and persistence. But terrific startups like HotelUrbano, OneTwoTrip and WeGo are showing that you can build fast scalable companies in those markets.

8. Unit economics are the name of the game:

Entrepreneur turned investor Boris Wertz wrote an essential post for entrepreneurs: “The only 2 ways to build a $100 million business”. In a nutshell he says: “Either your business has a high viral coefficient (or network effect) that lets you amass users cheaply without worrying too much about the monetization per user or spending money on paid acquisition”, OR “your business has a high LifeTime Value (LTV) per user, giving you the freedom to spend a significant amount of money in customer acquisition”. The first case includes social networks (Twitter, Fb, SnapChat) and peer-to-peer marketplaces (eBay, PayPal, Skype). The second includes e-commerce sites (Amazon, Fab), and SaaS companies (SalesForce, Intuit) among others.

The problem in travel is that the episodic nature of the activity, i.e. the low frequency of purchase, (with exception of business travel) puts LTVs at risk of staying low, more than in most industries. A few travel companies have managed to scale with a high viral coefficient, such as Airbnb (thanks to the peer-to-peer nature of the network, in which each new node might be supply and demand) and TripAdvisor (thanks to the multiplier effect of user generated content). But in general, most big travel companies (Priceline, Expedia, Kayak, HomeAway) have scaled by investing humongous amounts of capital in customer acquisition, paired with an insane focus on ROI. In any case, the lesson here is that if you are interested in creating a sustainable and scalable engine of growth for your business you should deeply understand your Unit Economics. And pray to either have a high LTV or a high viral coefficient (which is less likely to occur).

9. Investors and industry veterans are jaded. Don’t let them discourage you; but listen carefully!:

One thing that I noticed since the beginning is that people that have been in the industry for many years tend to be a little jaded about travel startups. They have heard similar pitches over and over, they have seen too many startups rise and then burn millions of dollars failing greatly. When you are pitching your company with all your passion they will tell you or will think for themselves: “Kid, I love your enthusiasm, but I watched that movie already and it doesn’t end well…”. Don’t let them discourage you! It’s typical that industries with seasoned incumbents tend to become sceptical about small new things. As entrepreneur Aaron Levie points out bad ideas and great ideas tend to look the same and as investor Paul Graham says, billion dollar ideas many times at the beginning look like only features. Things that didn’t work in the past can work today. That being said, please do listen very carefully to all the things that veterans have to say. There are so many lessons to be taken away from the companies that have failed in the past. And experience definitely gives you a lot of knowledge. We received many pieces of advice at the beginning that we didn’t listen to, and at the end we realized they were absolutely on-spot. Challenge the status quo, but be humble and coachable, and do surround yourself with some Jedi Masters.

10. Build genuine relationships; it’s a really small world:

It was truly amazing for me to realize what a small world the travel industry actually is at a global level. After some years in the industry you discover that everyone knows each other, that there are several informal networks of friendships across companies, and that many people jump between startups, big companies, and investment firms throughout their careers. I believe that it’s actually a very healthy thing: It permits cross-pollination, sharing of information that democratizes innovation and pushes the whole industry forward. Because of this phenomenon, it is extremely important for young entrepreneurs to build genuine relationships in the industry over time. Your reputation is your biggest asset and playing the “long game” is the best investment that you can make.

Do you agree with my lessons learned? What lessons have you learned in your own path? Please share them in the comments!

The Most Important Milestones in History

“The further back you look, the farther ahead you can see.” —Winston Churchill

Lately, I have been spending a good deal of time thinking about the future. The most intuitive way to imagine the future might be to look at what happened in the past and from there try to draw some patterns or trend-lines towards possible future scenarios. Of course the caveat is that history is full of “singular” breakthrough events that change everything, but even those singular events seem to have common themes that can be useful in predicting future ones.

Since I was a child I’ve always been interested in history. But it was only a few years ago, well past my years of formal education, that I started realizing how short-sighted the teachings of history have been. The oldest history that I was taught in school was the Ancient Greeks, i.e. about 3,000 years ago. In the “real world” people seem to be even more short-sighted. The conversations and debates in governments, businesses and the public in general seem to only consider a couple of decades of history at best. No wonder that we are also so short-sighted when it comes to thinking about the future and making long-term plans and decisions.

In a time of exponentially accelerating technologiesexistential risks, and both grand challenges and great opportunities, I think it’s more important than ever to take a good look at the past. With the help of today’s scientific advances we know much more about the past than previous generations. It’s essential to take the longest and most unbiased view possible, the Cosmic View, to our history in order to understand where are we standing today.

I’ve seen great efforts taken in this direction recently, including the Big History Project on YouTube supported by Bill Gates and the new COSMOSTV show by Neil DeGrasse, both of which are highly recommended programs. I thought of making my small contribution by just sharing a summary I did for myself of the most important milestones in the history of the known Universe in a simple list, based on my opinion and that of some authors I’ve been reading such as Ted Chu and Al Gore. I hope you find it useful, and please let me know if you think I’m missing something or I got something wrong (I’m not a science or history expert whatsoever).

Most important milestones in history:

Comments? Additions? Thoughts? https://twitter.com/dsaezgil

Entrepreneurship Lessons for Beginners in the Hispanic World (Videos in Spanish)

“Cuando recibas, da. Cuando aprendas, enseña.” Maya Angelou

Hace 4 años decidí lanzarme como emprendedor. Sin experiencia previa construyendo una empresa desde cero, debí aprender muchas lecciones por mi propia cuenta, a los golpes! Ahora que nuestra empresa ha tomado vuelo propio y es ahora parte de una organización más grande, muchos chicos que está recién lanzándose como emprendedores me han contactado pidiéndome consejos. Así que decidí compartir abiertamente algunas de las lecciones aprendidas, con la esperanza que les sirvan a cualquiera que recién empieza o a aquellos que sueñan con lanzarse como emprendedor en algún momento.

Decidí hacerlo a través de una serie de videos cortos en YouTube, grabados en fines de semana desde casa. Creo que YouTube es una de las plataformas más revolucionarias que surgieron en esta época y está ya transformando la educación a nivel global. Yo obtuve muchísimo valor de YouTube y su comunidad, y quiero contribuir con mi granito de arena. Estos videos no son académicos ni pretenden serlo. Son simplemente conceptos y experiencias compartidas de un par a otro par. Creo que vivimos en la era de la conexión. En esta era, se trata de animarse a ser vulnerable y compartir tu trabajo, de conectar con otros genuinamente, de dar para que todos crezcamos.

El gran propósito de todo esto es contribuir a empujar nuestra región, y el mundo, hacia adelante. Creo que el emprendimiento y la tecnología son grandes motores de progreso, y creo que que vivimos en una época con increíbles oportunidades, y también grandes desafíos. Tenemos la chance y la responsabilidad de transformar nuestro destino y el destino de todos. Ser emprendedor puede ser un camino valioso a nivel personal y colectivo. Espero que estas lecciones, compartidas aquí con humildad y sin pretensiones, ayuden a aquellos que se animen a salir afuera a crear causar impacto.

How We Keep the Startup Culture Inside a Bigger Company

0f236d6Last year our startup WeHostels was acquired by StudentUniverse, the leading online travel agency for students and youth. The complementarity between the two companies made the deal a no-brainer: we were mobile-first, they were web-first; we focused on accommodations, they focused mainly on flights; we were in the startup-innovation stage, they were in the scaling-growth stage.

Acquisitions of startups have been a great source of innovation for big companies in the technology world, as suggested by Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Solution. Great examples include Priceline’s acquisition of Booking.com, which became their main source of growth, and Google’s acquisition of Android, AdSense and YouTube. However, acquisitions sometimes can go horribly wrong, especially when the entrepreneurial culture is lost post-acquisition. Knowing that, we have made a conscious effort since closing the deal to maintain our unique startup culture inside the bigger organization, while adapting and learning the best practices of a more mature company in its growth phase. Here are steps we’ve taken to maintain our startup culture:

1. We stayed at a co-working office space, surrounded by other startups

We believe that an entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of the key elements that fuel innovation in startups. That’s why we decided to stay in New York at WeWork, a co-working space for startups and creative entrepreneurs instead of moving our team to the main Headquarters in Boston. This way we remain surrounded by other startups also creating innovative technologies, thus allowing “cross-pollination” and creative serendipity to work its magic.

2. We continue running lean, agile development

One thing that we learned in our time as a startup is the importance of agile development and constant iteration. As many entrepreneurs these days are familiar with, our bible is the “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. We try to keep this way of working on our current projects by building MVPs, validating assumptions, failing fast and be constantly learning.

3. We balance work and play with a casual, informal environment

We continue being very informal and playful on our office space. At the office we play ping-pong, chess or guitar hero, and every so often we grab beers after work. These past weeks we’ve been watching the World Cup games on a side screen, often sparking more than the occasional soccer debate. Keeping this relaxed environment allows us to be creative and brings the best in us.

4. We keep our curiosity for new technologies and tools

Entrepreneurs are generally early adopters of new technologies and that is what helps us be ahead of the curve on technological developments that drive innovation. We value our curiosity for new technologies and tools and push these novelties to the organization. Through HackerNews, ProductHunt, and Panda we discover cool new products and tools that can enhance our products and way of building things.

5. We keep the “Hackers” mentality

Although we now have to be more careful because there is more at stake (millions of users using our services, and big name companies as partners), we try to maintain a good quota of “hackers mentality.” For us, this means finding creative ways to solve technical problems, figuring out shortcuts, thinking outside of the box and building stuff rather than staying paralyzed by analysis.

With these points in mind and the great support that we have from the leadership of the group we feel confident that we will able to keep our entrepreneurial culture and contribute with innovation to the company (btw, we are hiring!). I hope by sharing this experience that it can be useful to others trying to keep a startup culture on large organizations.

How do you find ways to create an entrepreneurial culture at your company?