Mentor supports startup founders along their journey


A focus on mentorship and startup validation

How can you transform a business idea into a startup? Let’s talk to a startup mentor.

Let’s meet Fabio De Martino, experienced mentor of the ecosystem of Italian startups

Interview with Fabio De Martino, Entrepreneur, manager, advisor and Startup Mentor.

Scientific background, with a degree in engineering and then a series of important masters and certifications on business, entrepreneurship and startup issues.

Hi Fabio, can you tell us a little about yourself, your educational and professional background and how you approached the world of startups?

I will start saying that I am the father of three wonderful children, who often represent my “why”. Professionally speaking, I have often been defined as multi-potential, due to the ability to achieve different objectives, in apparently different sectors and areas. I say “apparently” because I have actually discovered that a common thread always exists (a bit like Steve Jobs’ dots, to be clear).

I have a technical background; I am a civil engineer. However, immediately after university I realized that the technical part, at least for me, wasn’t enough. I have never stopped studying since graduation. In 2017, I obtained an MBA from the beautiful Bologna Business School and, subsequently, a master’s degree in strategy and business management from the 24ore Business School. Now, I’m winking at my big dream: a humanities degree. I love chemistry, but also history, philosophy and mathematics. A little strange, perhaps?

I approached the startup world in 2015, during my MBA. I had an idea in the sharing economy field, which I tried to turn into a startup. In reality, I didn’t know much about the Lean method and how an innovative company could be born and grown. This experience represents one of my most beautiful failures. It gave me so much and today, without that failed project, I wouldn’t be here.

We know that you have recently become a partner and business advisor of Incloodo, a social network created to create and support inclusive communities. Would you like to tell us a little more about this project and how you decided to be part of it?

Incloodo is the last startup I joined as an advisor, that’s right.

I am currently a partner of some startups, which I followed as an advisor and as a mentor. They are often people who contact me for advice, or whom I meet while collaborating with incubators and accelerators. If I like the team and if there is feeling with people, I often continue to support the project by becoming a partner of the startup that will be established.

Incloodo was born as a social network aimed at promoting inclusion and belonging. It is an app with an intuitive UX, an absolutely innovative home feed and other features that you will see once you download the app (soon available on the stores). Regarding Incloodo, I met the startup founder and the team more than a year ago. I immediately liked the competence, perseverance and learning ability that they showed every day (in fact, during the validation the project has undergone several Pivots). Seeing how the team works is essential for me. Commitment, dedication, perseverance and passion are indispensable ingredients. 

You are also a shareholder of Startup Geeks, what can you tell us about the first meeting, the transition from mentor and then the decision to join the company?

I met Alessio and Giulia, founders of Startup Geeks, in 2019. Giulia contacted me after reading my article on the Italian startup ecosystem. She told me about their idea of creating a community that could support our ecosystem of Italian startups. As often happens, the idea – especially at the beginning – is smoky, inconsistent, crumbly. However, Alessio and Giulia are quite different: tenacious, capable and willing.

I immediately started supporting them as an advisor and mentor, as well as with other activities useful for the startup that led me to become their partner in February 2020. Validation, definition of the business model, creation of content for the blog (including the guide to convert an idea in startup, read by over 15.000 people) were among the main activities in which I helped them. However, these aren’t the only activities in which I gave my support, in fact I also assisted them during the establishment and the research of other investors up to the first fundraising of 170k euros. But there is also much more! Together, for example, we created the startup builder, the Geeks incubator of which I was program manager of the first editions.

Fabio, you are a startup mentor, when and why did you decide to undertake this activity?

Actually, there isn’t a precise moment.

At the beginning, I didn’t even know what a startup mentor was. I have to thank a professor from the Bologna Business School who, after abandoning the project related to my startup, put me in contact with several founders who were working on their dream, asking me to help them. So, I have carved out this role that I have consolidated over the years.

In 2018, for example, I attended the Polihub Startup Expert course. I went to Silicon Valley, in Tel Aviv. I have travelled and I have been trained and informed. In this way, I started to be more incisive with the projects I supported.

In your opinion, how different is the startup ecosystem at European level from the American Silicon Valley and why? How is Europe moving forward in creating a good ecosystem for startups? And where is Italy at?

When we talk about the ecosystem, we are actually talking about a series of factors whose presence is essential to grow a business, especially if we are talking about an innovative startup. An ecosystem isn’t just capital, but also talents and human resources, culture, public sectors and institutions, links with universities and research centers, etc.

The reasons why Silicon Valley has become the main innovation ecosystem in the world are very complex and should be researched starting from the early 1900s and then continuing by analyzing some government choices. For example, during the II World War and the Cold War, Silicon Valley was chosen as the main military research and development center. This was a springboard for the birth of elite research centers and for the ability to attract capital and talent. Once such dynamics are triggered, a very interesting virtuous circle is created.

Let’s remember, however, that Silicon Valley isn’t the only one and that, above all, a model – i.e., an ecosystem – is difficult to export. Other ecosystems, with different features and peculiarities, are excellent environments to give birth to and grow a startup, just think of Tel Aviv or London for example. 

Italy is structurally behind the ecosystems mentioned before. Then, there are a number of factors that certainly do not favor the development of innovative business ideas, such as bureaucracy, difficulty in attracting foreign capital, talent and brain drain, etc. However, I am not one of those who demonize Italy or who thinks that business cannot be done here. If I were to launch a startup in food, fashion or luxury, what other country could I hope to have? Furthermore, we Italians are “hungry” for results and successes. This is essential to be able to do business.

The team is a fundamental element for the success of startups. In your opinion, as mentor, what are the most important aspects that can determine the success of a team?

The team is the key factor. It is a necessary condition, but it isn’t sufficient for a startup to grow.

When I approach a new team, I look at determination and dedication in particular, then the ability to go beyond problems and the learning ability after feedbacks to also evaluate attitude. On a technical level, I look at the entrepreneurial experiences of the founders, the ability to cover all the core skills necessary to carry on, at least initially, the business. 

Assessment must be a good mix of hard and soft skills.

When you start with a startup as a mentor, how do you do a team evaluation? Do you know any tools that can allow our startup founders to evaluate themselves and the entire team and understand their strengths and weaknesses?

Initially, I evaluate the team’s attitude to work under pressure, not to be discouraged by problems or doors in the face, etc. Furthermore, there must be feeling between the mentor or advisor and the startup. These factors are difficult to evaluate with tools, even the technical ones. They are “gut” evaluations.

Obviously, there are objective evaluations too:

  • Age of founder;
  • Business and work experiences of the founders;
  • Knowledge of the reference sector;
  • Coverage of all roles and core skills necessary to ensure a good go to market. 

For these aspects, I prefer to make numerical evaluations.

How and where to find the perfect co-founders? Do you have any suggestions for our readers?

Great question! If I had an answer, I would be rich now.

I always recommend finding a co-founder who can complement the founder in terms of technical, business and soft skills. Then, you have to evaluate a person with whom you feel comfortable. Starting a startup together is a bit like getting married.

Where to start with the search? I always recommend working step by step. First of all, starting from one’s own network of closest acquaintances. Then, move on to former college or school colleagues and co-workers. Finally, I recommend attending events dedicated to the startup world, taking advantage of social channels and talking about your idea.

We know that one of the fundamental activities to do for a startup is market and competitor analysis. When and how to do it? As mentor, which tools would you recommend to the most inexperienced?

The analysis of competitors must be done from day 0 and must continue constantly. Competitors evolve, enter new markets, launch new products or services. Furthermore, at any time, direct or indirect competitors could arise and it’s important to keep an eye on them.

My advice is to think about go to market locally and competitors globally. Competitors are a crazy source of learning and improvement. They are fantastic allies. 

The competitor analysis must be done meticulously, evaluating various aspects such as general analysis, SEO analysis, brand positioning, etc. For this, there are several specific tools that are worth looking at, such as SEMRush, SEO Zoom, Screaming Frog, etc.

Fabio, we often hear the expression Red Ocean, as a danger signal for startups. What is the Red Ocean really, when is it dangerous and why?

The red ocean is a heavily manned market, where gaining space is particularly difficult. It is a situation with a wide supply, reduced demand, low innovation and always lower profit margins for competing companies. With these words we already understand why it is dangerous to enter and remain in a red ocean. 

The blue ocean corresponds, in a completely mirrored way, to the red ocean. How can you enter a blue ocean? It is about creating value through innovation, in order to change mindsets and overcome the boundaries of the reference sectors.

The validation phase for a startup is essential. As mentor, if you had to explain in a few words to an aspiring startup founder why it is so important what would you tell him?

Validation is essential to avoid wasting time and resources, working on something that will not find space in the market.

When you want to create a startup, you must first of all validate two fundamental aspects: the potential customers and the problem/need you want to solve/satisfy.

You don’t have to focus on the product/service and then look for customers using marketing activities. It is necessary to start from the needs of potential customers and then build a tailor-made product/service.

How would you suggest approaching the validation phase to an aspiring startup founder, what steps and how much time do you recommend dedicating?

First of all, I would make assumptions by putting on paper the needs/problems I want to solve.

At this point, I would think about potential customers, defining the buyer personas. At this stage, I recommend using a business design tool called “Javelin Board”. It’s a graphical whiteboard that allows you to experiment and find the best potential customer/problem combination.

Then, I would proceed with the “Get Out of The Building”, as Steve Blank would say. I would carefully prepare the questions and interview a sample of people consistent with the buyer personas to find the so-called early adopters. All of this allows to validate the problem/potential customer combination. 

Let’s talk about MVP. What is it and how to create an effective and efficient MVP? Let’s take an example for a completely digital business, what suggestions do you feel you can give to our readers?

After validating the problem and potential customer, the MVP is a great way to validate the solution.

I would start by saying what an MVP is not. It is certainly not a prototype or even a “small” version of your product or service. The MVP is a way to explain the solution to the problem that afflicts the potential customer, by transmitting your Unique Value Proposition.

A digital example? Well, the Dropbox case study has certainly a lot to teach. As MVP, they used a presentation video. This allowed them to validate the solution and subsequently develop it with the “help” of early adopters.

Speaking of international startups, how do you suggest addressing the internationalization and validation phase of other markets?

Internationalization must be approached methodically, just like entering the first reference market. Often this aspect, which means knowledge of culture, legal and economic aspects, customs and traditions, is underestimated, not only by startups but also by corporates.

Let’s talk about bootstrapping in the initial phase, how to approach?

The Bootstrapping phase is fundamental, also for a question of credibility. It’s not easy to do business with only other people’s money!

When the resources of the founders are very limited, the so-called three Fs (family, friends and fools) can be used. By Fools, we mean small Business Angels, who invest in the team more than in metrics given by the business itself. This represents a valid alternative or an integration, with respect to the use of your own funds only. The initial phase is very delicate in these terms.

If you are interested in Startup Geeks, please read more on the interviews with Giulia D’Amato and Alessio Boceda: Incubator online: the Startup Geeks case and Incubator succeeded with a 170,000 euro fundraising

If you want to know more about Fabio De Martino, please read also: Mentor and startup founder: his initiatives and his book