On the Inside with CultureConnect

This post by Blackstone Content Correspondent Summer Suleiman originally appeared on ideavillage.org.

Here at the #IDEAInsider we are excited to kick off our first series called On the Inside! We’ll be gathering expert advice from entrepreneurs who have built businesses from the ground up – and sharing their stores with you each month. We hope all aspiring entrepreneurs out there will find it both helpful and inspirational.

Culture ConnectFirst up, is New Orleans’ own, CultureConnect. Samantha Diamond and Monika Smyczek, co-founders of Culture Connect, a company that creates smartphone and tablet apps with curated content for museums, both shared a passion for arts and a knack for technology. They entered The Idea Village’s 2014 IDEAx accelerator program last September as an early idea. In just under a year, they’ve hit major milestones and recently closed a small seed investment round with four local investors. Earlier this week, Samantha shared some advice on how CultureConnect went from being a big idea, to an innovator in the arts.

Q: You entered the IDEAx accelerator program as an early idea last year. What was your thought process when you started?

A: Monika and I, the co-founders of CultureConnect, had just completed a short launch program with 4.0 Schools in July to August. It’s a program they run to help people go from idea to launch very quickly. There’s a focus on proto-typing and customer development. During the final pitch event in New Orleans, we met Sarah Thomas, the former IDEAx Accelerator program manager, and decided to apply. We decided to stay in New Orleans because we were getting commitments from museums in New Orleans to become launch partners.

Q: Can you tell me about how CultureConnect was conceived, and how it took off?

A: A couple of months before we did the launch program with 4.0 Schools, we had participated in StartupWeekend Education event in New York City. We were very interested in bridging our experience working in the arts and technology with education. We had a hunch about an idea, and we ended up winning audience favorite, which was early encouragement that we were onto something. At that event, we also met some of the staff from 4.0 schools and that eventually led to us to New Orleans.

Q: What advice on fundraising would you offer to an aspiring entrepreneur?

A: A good place to start preparing your thoughts for an investor meeting is with your pitch deck. Even if you do not present the deck formally, the exercise of thinking through what is in a standard pitch deck will help you prepare for common questions or challenges.

I recommend checking out Guy Kawasaki’s classic post on the 10/20/30 rule – that’s 10 key slides delivered in a 20 minute presentation with at least a 30 point font.

I might also prepare a 1 minute and 5 minute version hitting most of these notes at a higher level. Another great resource is this Simon Sinek TED talk – that discusses leading with Why. Developing a pitch deck (or sales deck for that matter) helps you prepare for investor (and client) meetings, but in the end people invest in, partner with, buy from people they believe in, like, and trust.

Q: You spent a lot of time on product development before you started fundraising. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

A: We try to follow a Lean Startup Methodology, which emphasizes building prototypes to test and measure assumptions. You spend a lot of time in front of your customers and users learning about what they want, and what will pay for.

Q: What has the last year been like for you in terms of fundraising? Can you walk me through that process?

A: We started with a small stipend from the 4.0 Schools launch program, which helped us prototype and test our idea the first few months we were in New Orleans. We used it a lot of DIY, free tools to build working prototypes. We were developing our product before we were fundraising. You can do a lot before you have the funding to advance your idea. We knew that we would need money to ultimately build a beta version of the product.

Like most things, It’s about building relationships. Our first investor meeting was informal. We didn’t have a pitch deck. We sat at a table and talked about who we are, our motivations and our process to-date. We learned about the investor and received some helpful feedback. This was two months or so before we began formally fundraising..

Q: How has the IDEAx program been a part of the startup process for you?

A: Our meetings with our cohort’s EIR, Mike Eckert were very helpful in advancing the business on several fronts at once – from in depth market analysis to building an advisory board to understanding the nuances of funding options. Participating in New Orleans Entrepreneur Week also gave us a platform to pitch CultureConnect to a wider audience – we also publicly launched the beta version of our product and our first app with the Preservation Resources Center.

Q: What was the most valuable lesson(s) that you’ve learned throughout this entire process over the past year?

A: Relationships are everything. And they take time to build. You want to start as early as possible – whether it’s fundraising or sales or any kind of partnership.

Q: If I was an aspiring entrepreneur reading this, what advice would you give to me?

A: Work on your pitch, but not too much. Developing a pitch deck (or sales deck for that matter) helps you prepare for investor (and client) meetings, but in the end people invest in, partner with, and buy from people they believe in, like, and trust.

Q: What’s next for CultureConnect?

A: We have new apps releasing this fall – including with the New Orleans Museum of Art – and will be speaking about our work at a few museum conferences. We’re also excited to be growing our team, both technical and content positions.