By Sai Sreenivas Kodur, Co-Founder & CTO
It was during June 2017, when we finished the first step of shaping dishq into a B2B company, ramping up the first version of the product and signing up the first pilot client. Kishan (Co-Founder) and I have never worked in pure B2B companies, and I must say, the initial transition was hard. We soon realized that we would need an advisor who could help with this B2B journey so that we could expand our client base globally and establish an identity in the food tech world.
Applying to Zeroth
Zeroth is an AI-focused accelerator based in Hong Kong. Tak Lo is the MD and founding member. There was an online application and 3 interviews with their venture partners and one with Tak and the team. The first interview was the longest, for about 40 minutes, while all others were short 20-minute conversations. Due to these short calls, it was hard to know how well we performed. After waiting for a week, we received a phone call from Tak himself about being accepted into cohort 2 of Zeroth.ai. We were really happy to be associated with them for three reasons:
1) International exposure – we believe our technology has global potential and this would open the door to a world beyond India and the UK.
2) Powerful network – being connected to the right people who have built companies, specifically related to AI, and also who have domain expertise to help solve our strategic pain points.
3) Liked-minded peers – being a founder can be a lonely and tough game but having a batch of fellow founders who are going through a similar journey, who you can call any time is invaluable.
During the Zeroth program
As part of the accelerator, we made two visits to Hong Kong, each spanning 2 weeks. The first visit was during the end of July, and the second visit during the mid of October. It was an intense schedule, everyday meeting several venture partners and getting feedback on your business plan and setting short to medium term goals.
Towards the end of each day, investors and founders who built successful companies were invited in and every startup in the batch did their pitch, followed by feedback and Q&A. This rigor really helped in shaping our plan and presenting the business opportunity more clearly. I still remember the transformation from day 1 where I wasn’t able to comprehend the business from the pitch of some companies in the batch to rock solid presentations in just a couple of iterations with the help of partners and peers at Zeroth.
I also have vivid memories of interactions with Jaan Tallian, Co-Founder of Skype, Ray Chan, Founder of 9GAG, and many more during the program. At the end of the first trip to Hong Kong, we had a strong idea of the steps we needed to take to make our business viable i.e. sales and technology proof points. Now we had to go back home for 2 months and deliver on the agreed targets.
(Side note: You can’t go to Hong Kong and not visit Macau! So we did but let’s just say that the house ALWAYS wins.)
During the time between the first and second visit to Hong Kong, the Zeroth team were always available to us and we were also assigned a specific mentor, who was one of the venture partners. We had weekly calls where we would share progress against key metrics. I personally enjoyed having external stakeholders who would hold us accountable. It was good to be under pressure.
The final 2 weeks in Hong Kong came around in the blink of an eye. This time, the hands-on sessions with Zeroth were much more focused around the demo day pitch. It was great to see all the traction our cohort companies had made in such a short time. We were also live with our 2nd customer and had recently hired our first Salesperson.
Kishan handled the delivery of the pitch which we must have practiced more than 100 times. It was exhausting but worthwhile. We had to really think hard about what to include as we only had 4 minutes. I remember that our first pitch was 7 minutes long! You can watch the actual demo day pitch here: https://youtu.be/rXk2gLLgggc
(Side note: on this trip, Tak took the cohort hiking in the hills of rural Hong Kong. It was hard to believe that such a beautiful place was so close to the vibrant city. The hike included Kishan and I free jumping from a 5-storey high waterfall. It was an incredible adrenaline rush and perhaps a relevant metaphor for our journey thus far!)
Immediately after the demo day pitch, we were able to network with investors, industry watchers and the media. It was a good opportunity to clarify doubts and queries. Later that evening, I felt a mix of emotions. Happiness and relief to have successfully completed the program, but also sadness knowing that this experience was over.
It is a bit of serendipity that when we were fundraising around June, we found Zeroth. If you are a startup in the AI space, here are a few reasons why you should strongly consider to apply to Zeroth:
– VPs and people at Zeroth genuinely take interest in helping you out. I have good memories of discussing at length with Nick (Zeroth’s AI Specialist) about the tech we have built at dishq and taking feedback on the direction and roadmap.
– Absolutely no bias; just as machines & AI do not have a bias, neither does Zeroth. Every company in the batch is treated equally. They do not have prejudice, and support you based on the stage you have reached. Batch #02 at Zeroth had a mix of startups where a few were at the idea stage, some had an MVP, a couple had already achieved product-market fit and a few which had established their product well into the market.
– Good culture is important for a startup to succeed as much as the idea and team. Being humble and respecting every member in your team, are behaviors that are practiced by Zeroth team to the core. People at Zeroth embrace the fact that they are also a startup.
– You decide the path you would like to take for your startup. They listen, suggest, advice, but never force.
Overall, the Zeroth program was a combination of passion and commitment in a fun environment. It was indeed a once in a lifetime experience for us. Also, our food experience in Hong Kong was amazing, and we managed to add a few new ingredients to our database as well. 🙂