The Insider Experience of Tenkan-Ten – As Lived By One of The Startup Founders
This article has been written in collaboration with Shea Balish, the CEO and founder of Curv Labs.
Located in the heart of Barcelona, where the sun shines 360 days a year and the startup ecosystem is growing rapidly, there lies the ASICS EMEA headquarters. An open-concept space that connects creative and innovative founders during a 4-month program that not only grows and invests in companies, but also brings them into the ASICS family.
Make no mistake, this is a magical space where startup founders deeply connect with a carefully selected number of business events and workshops given by world-class experts. Nonetheless, we also found ourselves enjoying a glass of vino tinto and cracking jokes with our peers, and even the vice president of ASICS EMEA himself.
When this program launched, the idea of founders getting their hands dirty in order to grow and achieve whatever goals the startups had set their minds to, sounded attractive, but nobody knew how familiar and wonderful the experience would actually turn out to be. After the first cohort has finished, it is now “world-class” as a fellow founder described. Not only about the end result, but about the relationships, the bonds, the creations and the impressive structure that ASICS has created in order for TENKAN-TEN to be such a great success.
Accelerators popping up everywhere…
… startups developing products that corporates could only dream of, investors hungry to feed the next unicorn – the rise of the startups! Steady growth, outstanding pitches and great potential – all factors that matter to its surroundings. But in order to achieve greatness, many sacrifices need to be made, high awareness of the ever-fluctuating market has to exist at all times, as well as great flexibility and the power to change strategies rapidly. Without possessing these key factors (next to many others), startups have difficulty staying afloat. Nowadays the idea is not all that matters, it is the entire package.
That is what makes TENKAN-TEN so unique.
ASICS does not seek perfectly shaped and successfully growing startups, but keeps it much more personal and humane.
From the scouting and the first point of contact, TENKAN-TEN is made to be an accelerator that speaks to the startup and their teams. The goal is not to reach thousands of applicants, but to be able to hand pick the startups that fit best into the company’s philosophy and mindset. During the scouting and onboarding process, ASICS’ team is highly incorporated in choosing which startups are most interesting in order to conduct meetings and calls with them, to not only get to know them better, but to allow the startups to get to know ASICS. The selected top sixteen startups are then invited to join the TENKAN-TEN team in Barcelona for a day filled with meetings, sports, and activities, where the level of drive and motivation are measured, alongside the relationship between the founders, the product and the business aspects. Nothing is to be hidden, ASICS is transparent and fair, and that is one of the main reasons TENKAN-TEN welcomes different departments of the brand to be an active part of the accelerator during the 4-month program offer them immediate access to the startups in case of interest in collaboration, innovation or even for a simple ideation session.
It shows results in the environment
Emilio Risques, VP of New Business & Innovation ASICS EMEA is constantly walking around the office – Sébastien Lefebvre, the former head of growth of Twitter, who occasionally enters before his weekly band practice carrying his electric guitar and his foldable bike, or Daniel Dümig, manager of New Business & Innovation, whose mood is never worse than “good”, and will always take time to listen or help in anyway possible. The Innovation Hub is a space that motivates and encourages individuals to move around freely, gather together in order to host a quick meeting or separate easily in order to concentrate on certain tasks.
The Kick-off –
The best way to really soak in the benefits of the program and to truly get the most out of the experience is by actually being present in Barcelona. But really, how terrible can it be, having to spend some time under the Barcelona sun and its good vibes? The program strongly advises that at least one of the founders (or someone with decision-making power within the team) is present at least twice a week, even if the founders take turns in doing so. The selected startups are given the chance to work from ASICS Innovation Hub, a wide-open space with plenty of room to spread out and even bring their team along for the ride. Besides being offered personalized mentorships, it is crucial for a startup to know how to convince whichever audience stands before them. May it be at a casual networking event, or at an important occasion. Human beings need contact and a face-to-face personal experience, the school pitch is outdated, it is time to make way for a new way of presenting yourself and your business – frontal pitches give the startup (and/or the person with the pitching power) the ability to make use of meaningful material and highlights that will be remembered, yet still remaining in a comfortable atmosphere. This guideline is highly asked to be kept throughout the entire program and the startups have to put their pitching and networking skills at use in many spontaneous situations, which they will soon find out what they have gotten themselves into.
Not only does the pitch tell potential investors, users, or business angels about how successful the product is or will turn out to be, but speaking to highly invested startups, as well as the masterminds of the advisory board, nowadays it’s more about the team then actually the finished product – more and more investors rather put their cards on a power-duo instead of on an idea, meaning the team needs to be strong, their personality just the exact mix of honesty, and determination, they need to be flexible, determined leaders and mouldable.
During the program – four months of hard work and determination
While focussing on the three key elements: Business, Product, People – TENKAN-TEN brings in mentors to guide the startups through the program with the intention to grow the business as fast and well as possible, continue shaping and tweaking a product that will be unbeatable on the market, and a team, that is so strong, well-formed and motivated, that any team-member could run the show if needed for the day. These key elements are basic for any startup to scale-up, and if one of the three does not function, the others will only work half as well. Entrepreneurs in residence host their weekly workshops in order to give the importance to these elements and to “throw” the startups into situations that could possibly happen, and that does happen on a regular basis. By inviting in founders, athletes, specialists … the atmosphere stays fresh and the moods lifted and interested.
The workshops are one of the main benefits of the program and an important reason to be present in Barcelona. These workshops are carefully designed by field experts who share their knowledge and put the startups to the test, getting them ready for what’s out there. There are two main focuses: people and growth; with topics ranging from how to give and receive feedback to how to manage a sales team, giving startups the preparation they need to scale-up.
Even though sometimes we found ourselves drowning in work, my fellow founders and I were ready to attend, be more flexible and willing to reach out for support – a big step for founders who (mostly) are doing this for the first time.
TENKAN-TEN selects important key dates for ASICS and the startups to attend and/or host events in order to make the surrounding ecosystem aware and give the companies the visibility they deserve. Trips such as to Japan, where TENKAN-TEN spends a week visiting the Japanese headquarters to discuss business, development and the products, as well as a leap to Amsterdam to get to see and experience the EMEA headquarters, attend meetings with the executive team of ASICS EMEA, and especially to keep ASICS EMEA and their employees updated in what is developing in their Innovation Hub. Giving the core company insights, allows for many departments to give feedback, connect and locate the stepping stones in the startup’s paths. Not only does TENKAN-TEN travel to be seen outside Barcelona but it also does so in other exciting locations around the Catalan capital, where ASICS plans and hosts fundraising and networking (or let’s call it sweatworking) structures.
The golden finish line – The Demo Tour
After a quarter of a year of preparation, we dreamed about it: pitching, training, innovating, developing and carving our teams, transforming the sports and well-being industry. Tenkan-Ten sets off as the first accelerator ever to visit the most exciting and up&coming cities in Europe to set their footprint where they would like to walk. Giving the startups one last “hoorah” and the important push they need and deserve before ending their journey in-house.
A little side-note: the end of the program does not mean the end of the relationship with ASICS, as TENKAN-TEN will look into a follow-up investment and is very keen on establishing a further relationship with the startups, collaborations with the startups are definitely in the brand’s plans.
It’s time for the DEMO Tour, the investment-ready startups and the team of Tenkan-Ten set off to three cities: Berlin, Paris and London and attend invitation-only events based on a rotating system taking place at six venues per city, meeting between 20-30 investors from top firms across Europe per evening and being able to pitch their completely embedded company’s philosophies, ideas, strategies, you name it, to all interests. The invitees are carefully selected in order to make sure that the event hosts many different individuals with quite a few insights in order to not notice a monochrome setting.
And even better, you might even spark ASICS Venture Fund’s attention and get follow-up investment from ASICS itself, something that has recently become a reality for us at CURV Labs.
All this with what has been baptized as netwalking events, where instead of standing formally in front of a group of investors pitching all your hard work, you take it to the city; go on a casual walk, wander the streets and share a conversation with a possible investor in a relaxed environment. After all, these beautiful cities are to be seen, and not to be spent in the hotel lobby.
After the intense weeks of traveling, net-walking, and pitching until our mouths were dry, it’s time to say goodbye to the Innovation Hub in Barcelona. The mood is slightly down, as the TENKAN-TEN team, who became a family has to say its Goodbyes and its “til next time” to their neighbors of the past months, but these experiences are here to stay and the outcome of the first round of the accelerator is more than impressive.
TENKAN-TEN and ASICS look forward to many more rounds of the first global sports and wellbeing growth catalyst and to many more great and innovative ideas and products disrupting the sports and wellbeing industry one at a time.
“At the end it didn’t feel like an accelerator anymore. It really felt like we were all best friends” – Shea Balish