What new businesses can learn from one of the world's toughest startup competitions

Digital veteran Phil Cooper provides news and insight on what's happening in the London start-up scene. An internet entrepreneur, Cooper has built and sold two digital businesses – the last to Fox/News Corp for an undisclosed eight-figure (US dollar) sum – and has just founded the native advertising business neoncandi.com

Salarium CEO Judah Hirsch accepts his prize

Seedstars World (SSW) is an exclusive global competition, designed to unearth bold and interesting startup businesses within rapid growth economies. The mission is to discover the best emerging businesses beyond the US and western Europe, and help them succeed with advice and funding.

As you can imagine, the competition is fierce. The drama that unfolded during SSW 2014-15 was in fact more reminiscent of a soap opera than a typical business competition. The desire to succeed displayed by the participants made this year's Seedstars an unforgettable contest.

Is it possible that the high level of competitiveness is a product of growing up, and living in countries with high levels of poverty? The businesses involved have shown a hunger that is rare to see in the organisations of more developed economies. Whatever the reason is, the energy that encompasses Seedstars is electrifying, and is unmatched in any other business competition that I have come across.

In March 2014, the competition kicked off, with applications coming from around 2,000 startups, from a wide range of global locations. The vast majority of the competitors were culled to leave 36 semi-finalists, one from each of the cities that SSW visited on its world tour, and these companies battled it out for the final 10 spots. The final of the competition was held in Geneva, Switzerland.

The 10 finalists pitched their startups in front of a prestigious jury including Serendipity Investments founder Jose Marin; Marco Corradino, founder of Bravofly Rumbo Group; Kinnevik’s Jessica Thorell; Techstars MD Jens Lapinski; Mountain Partners founder Dr Cornelius Boersch; Johnny El Hachem, CEO of Edmond de Rothschild Private Equity; and Seedstars co-founder Pierre-Alain Masson.

Finalists included casual gaming studio The Other Guys from Argentina, Peruvian travel platform Busportal, the Brazilian hardware device Ploog, a self-updating phonebook by Singapore’s 6 Degrees and Yerevan learning management system Sololearn.

The company that truly caught my attention though was OkHi from Nairobi, a solution that offers smartphone geo-localisation for the 4 billion people worldwide who do not have an address. The diversity and scope of these businesses made it exceptionally tough to judge, as there were so many new and innovative ideas. These startups from the fields of technology, web and mobile pitched to show what made them unique, and although the competition was close, it left but one winner.

The ingenious payroll service by Philippines company Salarium took home the coveted first prize of $500,000 equity investment. The company provides an end-to-end payroll system that can manage salary disbursement, expense processing and attendance keeping. “Not only did their product prove to be highly scalable and innovative, it already has a huge traction on the global market,” said SSW co-founder Pierre-Alain Masson on Salarium.

Although the investment was an important one for the company, there were a range of other benefits that came with the win. These included coaching and mentoring from well-known entrepreneurs, entry into acceleration programs and free advertising and hosting services.

When asked what the win meant to him, Judah Hirsh, the CEO of Salarium, said: “This is a huge boost of credibility for us, and the connections we established during the SSW Final Event alone will be very helpful for our further success and expansion plans.” The credibility that comes alongside winning such a competition really is a much bigger reward than the $500,000 prize. Solarium is now a company with a very bright future, and with backing from the entrepreneurs and business leaders at SSW, it seems that its success has been foretold.

2015 is set to be another busy year for Seedstars, with the tour being extended to 50 cities around the world. With its first two editions, it has already built an impressive track record with its first round of 20 startups raising $14m and hiring 150 new employees. It is now set to move into the world of travel startups, a strategic move that co-founder Pierre-Alain Masson puts down to the travel industry “first breaking online barriers and now moving into mobile commerce". He said: "With more than 1.1 billion people travelling out of their home country in 2014 alone, there is a huge market potential.”

With so much business potential within emerging economies, it is easy to see why SSW have targeted them as their key business. The buzz around Seedstars, and the companies they have helped to grow, is phenomenal. The startup companies involved in the Seedstars competition have proven that passion and willingness to succeed can be a huge driving force in getting things done. UK startups should sit up and take note.

Phil Cooper is the founder of NeonCandi. He tweets @NeonCandiMan

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