Mike Boorn Plener is a catalyst for change in people and organizations, finding value nobody else sees. He has built several successful software-related businesses, worked on large consumer databases and spent time in corporate. Today, Mike helps entrepreneurs grow their businesses rapidly and raise capital through a highly curated approach to accelerated business growth. Mike gained an MSc at the Technical University of Denmark and a BCom at Copenhagen Business School. He is passionate about business, food, travel, and family. He regularly speaks, judges and moderates panels on stage. His first speaking engagement was at 27 in front of 300+ people in Helsinki.

Catapult, one of the companies he has founded, helps entrepreneurs and business owners build revenue in the field with the founder, set up systems and processes, establish a board and raise capital.

Why did you choose the accelerator business model and not a venture builder, seed fund, angel group etc?

The biggest problem that founders have is scaling their business. The scaling of the revenue, the understanding of revenue modeling, the implementation of marketing models—these are indicators that mean they can do things in a scale fashion. There are a few related issues, but at the early stages of scaling, the problem is getting the revenue off the ground. If you haven’t got revenue, nothing else much works.

After startups start getting revenue, they need to expand their team, which can be very tricky. Most people have only hired in one specific niche and now they have to hire broadly and add to their team a salesperson, a financial administrator, a software developer, etc. And one thing that might be an important character trait for a software developer is definitely not the same character trait that you want in a successful salesperson.

The creation of systems isn’t an afterthought, because having structures, systems, processes, and procedures in place is what makes you scalable.

Once they get over the hurdle of hiring, management structure falls apart because they didn’t have any systems, they didn’t have any process, they didn’t have any procedures. What these young businesses fail to understand is that the reason these big businesses got big was because they were forced to create structures and systems that allowed them to scale. The creation of systems isn’t an afterthought, because having structures, systems, processes, and procedures in place is what makes you scalable.

If we choose to set up a venture capital fund or something similar, we are only addressing the money issue. The choice of the business model of an accelerator is because, within the framework of being an accelerator, we can resolve all of those things.

There are a lot of accelerators and incubators that have a “spray and pray” approach, taking as many companies at early-stage and accelerating them for three months, but I understand that your model is pretty different. Can you expand on that?

We go through a very thorough and broad selection process. We evaluated over 1,000 companies in the last year, and from that, we find 50 or 100 that have some value, and from that hundred, there’s probably 25 to 35 typically that really impress us. The significant impact is created not by helping everybody come a little bit longer but is created by helping the few that really have a promise to come a long way.

It’s those that come a long way, that are going to go on and hire 100 people, impact the economy, and export whatever they did out of Australia. This is a model that’s based on the mathematics of what actually works, not a commentary on social justice or lack of justice. Where can we actually, with the least amount of resources, have the greatest amount of impact? That’s what we designed for.

How does your model radically differentiate from the standard accelerator model?

The thing that is unique about our model is that we do not help startups for three months and then kick them out the other end and see what happens. We would rather take fewer, but be able to support them for as long as that may take because it’s a treacherous path they’re going on.

Other models that we’ve looked at, take in startups for a couple of months and at the end of the program, the startups get dumped and don’t know what to do next. Startups get smothered with experts and mentors, and typically those mentors have five different opinions on an afternoon which confuses them. And once the program ends, the startups don’t know where to go, and all the support network is not really there because the mentors are busy with the next cohort.

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Even though it doesn’t happen overnight, everyone is on a quest to find success. In your experience, how do startups get there, what determines success?

There’s a couple of fundamental things that we’ve realized. First of all, advisors are lovely but it’s even better to have skin in the game. There’s nothing wrong with having mentors and advisors and some of them are bloody brilliant, but it’s even better if those same people have some kind of skin in the game, whether they have shares or future options or whatever it might be. It creates a culture where they have just that little bit more incentive to make sure it works.

Some of the startups have complained that they’ve seen five mentors across five hours and each of them had five different opinions on what they are supposed to do. Which leaves them scared and clueless on how to proceed. That’s the typical model that has been pushed out there for decades. You’ll engage so-called industry veterans and they’ll come in as free mentors and they’ll give you their opinion. And there’s nothing wrong with opinions, but at the end of the day, it’s the action and the execution of those opinions that matter.

There is not even 100 things that can actually guarantee you success. However, we found about 120 or so things that if they’re not executed successfully they guarantee failure.

The other big thing we’ve seen is that over the years people have been on stages saying “Do this one thing and you will be successful, just like I was”. If there was just one thing we would all be multi-billionaires because we would all know what that one thing is and we’ll just go and do it. It doesn’t work like that. Before I started Catapult one of the things I asked myself was what if there isn’t just one thing, but one hundred things that will determine success. And the finding was kind of pessimistic. There are not even 100 things that can actually guarantee you success. However, we found about 120 or so things that if they’re not executed successfully they guarantee failure.

Can you give us some examples of the most common ones?

For example, solo founders have a lesser chance of being successful compared to two founders or three. But if you get to four founders, then it starts going backward again. However, some things are far more concrete and a lot of founders don’t even think about them. We deal with businesses every week that haven’t got a shareholders agreement. And the reality is that just like in marriages, tempers flare and they can split up. If they don’t have a contract, because they don’t want to spend $3,000 for the lawyers, they end up spending $3 million blowing up a business.

That is just an example of the 120 factors. These are ordinary housekeeping things that intelligent people, would be going “yeah, of course, we do that”. A very simplistic example is to know you require having a job description when hiring. That sounds like such a daft thing, lacking importance. What if you don’t have one? They do become very important. So it’s all of those little things that you could easily tick off a list.

Having 120 things to check, besides trying to get to revenue and keep the startup afloat can be very tricky. What do startups most often get wrong in the process?

We see a lot of businesses that we connect with slightly earlier than we would like to take them in. There is a step of product-market fit. They have the idea, they spoke to 25 of their friends and everybody thought that was lovely. They went ahead to develop the products. They develop the website and then they push the go button and are now trying to get clients. But the clients have all sorts of requests, they want it in different colors, different sizes or need different functionalities. And the product creators wish they thought about that before they developed it because they only have the production model that can’t be changed. That is because so many startups think they know what the world wants.

It is more important to have a genius marketing model and an amazing commercial evolution than to have a perfect product

You have to go and ask people before you start developing. The first part of development is a PDF file that just describes what it is you’re trying to do and afterward have 100 coffee meetings. If during those 100 coffee meetings roughly 50 of them found the idea interesting and useful, you go ahead and build a prototype. Afterward, you go and show that to the same hundred people. Now if there are still 30 or 40 of them that are willing to buy it, then you know you’ve got something, and it’s time to go back in the lab and actually build one for real so that you can replicate it and build 100,000 of them.

It is more important to have a genius marketing model and an amazing commercial evolution than to have a perfect product. The product can always be improved, but if you have a flawed commercial model you will run out of money.

It tends to be one of the two: either get the product right but get the business model wrong or they get the business model right but they just don’t land with the product and the product-market fit is just not there.

What about once startups get into your accelerator program. What did you find out that works, based on what you do to help them with?

There are three things that we help with that have the biggest impact: the revenue, the funding, and the people.

Before anything else, people need to spend some time creating an attractive brand and hold themselves accountable to do what they say they’re going to do. This is not new science, it has been around for decades. It’s a lot easier to sell something that has a very attractive brand than it is to sell something that does not. Attractiveness is not necessarily about the shape of the coke bottle or the smile of a girl, but it’s about whether or not it is fully aligned with the values of the future consumer. We need precise models of understanding what the consumers think, what they know, what they smell, who they listen to, what their influences are.

The second thing is related to revenue. In terms of their revenue models, we find that most people have a linear or singular revenue model. They think that if they go to Google and buy 100 clicks, they’ll get five signups and from five signups they’ll get one purchase. We give them a database of 2 million potential consumers because we don’t want anyone that we’re working with to pay for advertising. It’s strictly prohibited.

I can’t make investors love them, that’s their job. We can get the horses to the water but we can’t force them to drink it.

The third category that we deal with in a practical sense is helping with people-problems. We help them with psych tests, personality tests and more. But we also help if there are two, maybe three co-founders, by creating a platform of shared beliefs and values. We always ask them what they love to do and require them to forget about thinking and start feeling. We bring everything away from the “doing realm” and into the “being realm”. Because all of us have magical superpowers when we are in the being realm, none of us have magical superpowers when we are in the doing realm. There are only 24 hours and we can only check so many items on the to-do list, we can only tap so fast on the keyboard.

In addition, is again, the capital side. A very practical message that we say to people is that I can’t get an investor for them, because investors have to like them and their business, they are not going to invest in me. What I can do is I can make sure that their due diligence is squeaky clean. What I can do is to make sure that their financial model will stand up to any level of scrutiny for even the worst analyst. But I can’t make investors love them, that’s their job. We can get the horses to the water but we can’t force them to drink it.

These are the key areas where we can make a lot of difference. One important aspect to note is that we’re not here to do the work for them. We’re not the founder, we don’t have a 51% interest in the business, so our job is actually to empower them and make ourselves not required. I don’t want to create dependency.

How much time on average do you spend on each company?

Somewhere between 100 to 200 hours across, roughly, a six month period. The intensive period for us is typically the first three to six months. Within the first three or six months, we will spend 150 hours on each individual client, because there is a lot of stuff and some of that is done one-on-one, which is obviously very expensive and some of it is done one-too-many, as in the group sessions or seminars.

How big is your team, who are the people that are involved with the startups?

We have a couple of different layers. We have an inner team, which is basically management, sales, and marketing, and then we have, what we refer to, super coaches. The super coaches are comprised of four different people or more in any given month just because we want to draw different skills. We get people with the proper expertise to consult depending on the type of business the startup is in. And the third layer is made out of service providers, which is something that is delivered as a freebie to startups, as part of the package.

A lot of people look at this like it’s an art instead of science. What’s the role of data and reporting and tracking of that data versus just gut feeling in the whole process?

We always lead with the gut, but always back it up with data. We don’t go on whims and work with people that we love, but if I don’t have a good feeling about a business or about a founder in the first place that doesn’t help either. We have a “don’t work with assholes” policy. However, if we do get a good feeling about the founder, the business, the market they’re in, and they’ve even talked to some of their customers and got lots of feedback, we look further into the data.

It’s important to track data. You want to monitor the performance of any scaling business. The moment you start hitting revenue you want to monitor it, you want to monitor COG, you want to monitor CAC, you want to monitor ROI. And you want to monitor a lot more frequently than most people do. I’m a big believer in monitoring either daily or weekly. If it’s an online business, I want to see daily stats, nothing less. If it’s not an online business, I’m happy with weekly stats, but I don’t want to see a monthly or quarterly report. When you speak to someone that runs a hospitality venue, they will count the money twice a day, because if they have poor revenue in the morning, they’re going to figure something out to make up the lost revenue in the afternoon. What a lot of people don’t understand is that you can’t make today’s revenue, tomorrow. No one’s invented that time machine.

From your point of view, what would be the advice that you would have for other accelerators popping up so they don’t make mistakes for 3-5 years before they finally learn something?

They need to go with whatever feels right. What’s really important is that they stop for a moment and think about a model that underpins what they do because having a model is actually what we are asking the businesses that we’re supporting to have. I see too many accelerators or incubators that try to do what everybody else is doing. It could be that everybody else is right but there’s nothing wrong with having a little bit of creativity and developing your own model and say what you stand for and what you believe in. As we progress over the next five or ten years there’s going to be a lot more accelerators and incubators then we have today because we’re still only at the very early cusp of this industry. The more you can stand apart from everybody else, the better.

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