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The Inn. Where we all stayed (Catherine Dahl)
The Inn. Where we all stayed (Catherine Dahl)

Guest column

The napkin pitch and other lessons from my two weeks in the Valley Add to ...

I arrived in Palo Alto from Vancouver for a two-week startup program called Blackbox Connect. The aim of program, founded by angel investor Fadi Bishara and sponsored by Google for Entrepreneurs, is to bring global (non-U.S.) startups to Silicon Valley, infuse Valley culture into their companies and help them break into the U.S. market.

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To participate in the intensive program, a company must be nominated by one of Google’s global network partners, then screened and selected by Blackbox’s international team. Of the 16 teams that were selected to participate, we were the only one from Canada.

We were nominated by Kitchener-based Communitech, the sole Canadian partner on Google’s tech hub network, where we went through the Hyperdrive accelerator program last year. We were honoured to be in this group of companies from across the world, including Israel, Palestine, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Britain, Germany, Kuwait, South Korea, Egypt, Spain and France.

Over the two weeks, we not only learned a lot about each other and ourselves, but also practical aspects of working in the U.S. such as labour laws, or how U.S. venture capitalists operate and even how to give a ‘napkin pitch.’ Even though the Valley is all about tech, lots of business deals start in coffee shops on the back of a napkin, so we learned how best to communicate our vision and company in a compelling way, on a napkin. Given my company’s propensity to avoid paper (we are a paperless accounting firm, after all), I found this humorous and naturally wanted to find a away to do that on my iPad!

We heard from world-class marketing experts, like Thomas Gad of Brandflight (brand expert to Virgin and GroPro), on surprise branding, Bill Joos of Go To Marketing on pitch practice, or John Zeratsky and Marcin Treder of Google Ventures UX design team on 5 day prototyping and UX trends. Over the two weeks we made several connections with participating speakers and other start ups ask to come and networks with us in a effort to help us create our own network there and around the world.

Blackbox was founded in 2011 and has done 7 cohorts with 75 companies in total, over 150 founders, and applicants from more than 70 countries. So we also heard from some of those previous cohort companies who shared their experiences with opening an office in the U.S., and how being in the Valley changed their companies, for the better. We heard from Google legends like David Drummond and Kevin Rose of Google Ventures (founder of Digg).

By the end, I had contacts around the globe to leverage when we decide to enter those markets.

One of the most inspiring part of being at Blackbox was how we bonded as a group. During one of the sessions, Mr. Bishara said that he believed that entrepreneurship can foster world peace, and after this experience I agree. After two weeks, whether we were from Israel, Palestine or Canada, we were all sad to part ways.

For Beanworks Inc., the experience empowered me to articulate my company’s vision and brand. Beanworks started as an accounts payable automation company that streamlined critical financial transactions and automated the paper workflow with vendor invoices, and removing the paper. Blackbox Connect helped us see that what we were doing was creating a unique brand experience and we should communicate this. Now we say we aim to be the defacto platform and leader in re-engineering accounting workflow processes for mid-sized companies, starting with accounts payable.

And even though we have had this vision for some time, it took being in heart of the Valley to feel bold enough to say it on Demo Day – the final day of the program – where we all had three minutes to pitch our companies to 150 invited guests and investors, and a panel of VCs; the same VCs that were there at the beginning of companies we all know including Facebook, Google, and Twitter. I can only hope that, one day, Beanworks will be added to that list.

Catherine Dahl is the co-founder & CEO of Beanworks Inc. and has a successful track record of establishing programs and improving systems for both private and public, profit and non-profit organizations. She has developed successful strategic initiatives as well as business and financial process improvement in financial roles in companies like Grey Worldwide and CBC.

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