Lyubov Guk of Blue Lake Startup Accelerator: “Network”

Network. Especially at an early stage when there is little to show, the team is still forming and the product is being developed, contacts are the most invaluable resource, I have seen many times when overwhelmed by ‘urgent’ ongoing tasks founders ignore the opportunity to build up contacts that will become invaluable in the future. […]

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Network. Especially at an early stage when there is little to show, the team is still forming and the product is being developed, contacts are the most invaluable resource, I have seen many times when overwhelmed by ‘urgent’ ongoing tasks founders ignore the opportunity to build up contacts that will become invaluable in the future. This can be future investors, partners, experts or clients. I frequently introduce startups I like with people from my network, but If I see these opportunities being ignored by the founders it is a red flag for any future introductions.


Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lyubov Guk.

Lyubov Guk is a partner at London-based Blue Lake Startup Accelerator, investing in early-stage emerging markets startups.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I was born in the eastern part of Ukraine, Donetsk. Following our family tradition, I joined Corporate Finance in retail and then manufacturing. Going forward I decided that I wanted radical changes in my professional life, and that Finance would be the foundation I would build on.

In 2014 my life was turned upside down due to the conflict in Donbass. At some point it became too dangerous to remain in my home city and I had to leave overnight, leaving my old life behind. I moved across the country into a new city and had no choice but to start my life from a clean sheet. This of course meant a new start in my professional life and at that point I was far from clear what direction I could be going. One thing I was sure about, my country, Ukraine, was undergoing seismic changes and I wanted to be a part of the forces that would drive it forward.

By complete accident I came across a job ad by my now co-founder of Blue Lake, David Gilgur. At that point he was the director at Vimes Consulting, a company on a mission to build trade bridges between UK and Ukrainian businesses. Fairly shortly after I was running the company’s Ukrainian operations and heading a team of 10 people. We worked on 40+ projects ranging from SME to the largest enterprises and international organisations such as EBRD, EU4Business and others. I am really proud that many of the companies I worked with have, with my help, entered the UK market and some of their products are still sold here to this day.

The link between the UK, my career and life has only grown over time and in 2020 I became a recipient of Global Talent Visa and moved to London.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Back in 2016, David and I became fascinated by the IT development shops and startups that were spreading across Ukraine. Without any particular agenda and almost for fun we decided to organise a roadshow of Ukrainian startups in London. The idea then was to get these talented founders in front of the UK investors and potential clients and watch the magic happen. Looking back it feels almost unbelievable how innocent we were!

The first few events definitely had a DIY feel about them. A small group of people passionate about tech, gathered in conference rooms (our was just not large enough) of our friends in London to meet a rag-tag bunch of Ukrainian founders and find out more about what then was still a nascent ecosystem. After a short while this ‘hobby’ turned into 100+ attendees with our hosts now being Barclays Accelerator, Google for Startups Campus and others.

We sponsored these roadshows largely ourselves, and while the outside picture definitely looked great, things were far from straightforward. Nine out of ten Ukrainian startups that took part in the roadshow did not get any results, and this was after we went to a considerable effort vetting potential participants. After observing yet another pitch that wasn’t going anywhere we realised that there is a single underlying root cause of all of these collective failures — a lack of business skills and awareness. At one of the pitches the founder spent 20 minutes demonstrating products and engineering blueprints before his time ran out. The audience never got to find out what the product was, and what the founder was after. What made things worse is that the product was actually great with an outstanding R&D team behind it. But with their over enthusiastic focus on technical aspects they missed out on investors and clients who had no clue what this startup was about.

Analysing other pitches we came to the conclusion that while the technical skills are world class when it comes to building an international business, Ukrainian startups still have a long way to go.

The good news is that with experience in international trade I knew exactly what can be done to fix this particular problem. This is how Blue Lake and the idea of discovering hidden gems at early stages and helping them to expand to international markets and especially the UK was born.

In June 2019 I became a co-founder at Blue Lake. After we completed the first few Angel investments we were convinced that we hit the right path. We were finding startups and investing in areas which would never be spotted by a traditional VC investor. We were, and still are, learning and growing with our founders. Their progress validates our vision that the right type of startup support is, in our case, the key to success.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Unquestionably this would be my co-founder David Gilgur. We have known each other and worked together for the past seven years and David was one of the people who has influenced my professional growth and development the most.

I was one of the first people who joined David when he launched Vimes Consulting in Ukraine. The first two years of working with David became critical in re-shaping my mindset and outlook, and helping me to truly believe in myself.

A telling example was when in 2015 after moving to Uzhgorod from Donetsk, where I was working remotely I came up with an idea to create the town’s first coworking space. David asked me to prepare the plan, and after presenting this project to my surprise I was given the green light and offered full support. This was the first project that I had generated and executed almost entirely by myself and this experience stayed with me to this day.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Blue Lake today is a London-based venture capital company. Our goal is to find and help to develop the potential of outstanding early stage startups. We believe that we know how to find the future ‘big stories’ when they are still invisible to the wider investment community. Over the past year we moved away from our focus from Ukraine towards a wider audience of startups founded by immigrant entrepreneurs in the UK.

We are really passionate about our thesis. After all, I am an immigrant founder myself and I truly understand the challenges of launching a business in the UK without having the necessary experience and most importantly the network. The latter is especially important. I am convinced that the success of Blue Lake and our portfolio companies is linked to the ability to be able to build connections with the right contacts. This is what I am particularly excited to be able to help our founders with introducing them to our network of clients and mentors and helping to open new doors. I know that startup support is a bit of a controversial subject and we do hear from founders about the theatrics that some startup accelerators and funds offer instead of the substance. At Blue Lake, substance always trumps the form.

One of the examples would be one of our early portfolio firms. Great founder, great product and rapid client growth. The latter while very good news made for one busy founder who was rapidly running out of the resources to deliver results. This in turn means a need for a rapid fundraise. For the past few months this founder is working out of our office, we have helped him to develop a fundraising strategy, develop his deck and open doors to new investors.

We have created a bespoke support programme for our portfolio startups with a particular focus on go to market where we help startups to better understand the market, obtain traction. Right now we are working on developing scalability to our startup support instruments, without the loss of quality. I can’t share all the details but watch this space!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The concept of giving back is the one particularly close to me. I always try to share my experiences (good and bad) with other founders. In many ways Blue Lake is also a startup and I share many of the same challenges that early stage founders had. This makes for a busy schedule, which I don’t mind. For example, I am mentoring (pro-bono) in a London-based corporate accelerator where I work with first time founders. I take an active part in startup ecosystems as a speaker and mentor.

An activity that is particularly close to my heart is the support of senior entrepreneurs. I see a lot of gaps and potential in this space. Regretfully the time constraint means that I can only support a very limited number of initiatives but this is a space I plan to be very actively engaged in in the future.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

There are certainly more than a few things left for me to learn. There were however qualities that I consider key in helping me to get where I am.

Being focused on the results and not the process. I find it important to remind myself and the team about the larger goals we are trying to achieve. It is far too easy to become focused on urgent tasks but not the truly important tasks. You become perpetually busy but without achieving the results. For example in the past two years we have been regularly (almost weekly) turning down 90% projects that are coming our way. These tend to be consultancy type projects that while generating revenue would not bring us closer to our ultimate goal. Which is a) Make our investors happy b) Generate real value for our startups.

Determination and belief in success. Working in the VC sector not only you have to say ‘no’ a lot you hear far too many ‘no’s yourself. From investors and sometimes from startups. Especially from the investors, the first rejections were particularly painful. After a while I realised that each call or a meeting yielded invaluable experience independent of the outcomes.

Ability to be able to surround yourself with smart and successful people. Not being afraid to ask for advice. It took me a while to get to this stage, after all who knows better what’s going on in my company than I do? This was a mistake. We now have an advisory board and their support and suggestions have really helped with our progress.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Regretfully there is no shortage of bad advice. I have an allergy to the phrase ‘this is what you are supposed to do’. Does the person truly understand what it is that I do? Does this person have the necessary experience? How much does he or she really understand the industry? If the answer to any of these is a no I politely thank you for the unsolicited advice and then erase it from my mind.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

I clearly remember summer 2020 when COVID not surprisingly has blown up our then startup acceleration work out of the water. Initially Blue Lake was aimed to follow a startup acceleration model. Then our target audience were Ukrainian, early stage startups with global ambitions. The COVID outbreak hit the acceleration programme hard but it was not the main reason for halting our operations.

Analysing our early results of the initial acceleration programme and looking at our future plans we realised that the weakest point was the accelerator model itself. The one size fits all approach, large groups lacked the critical individual support that the startups truly needed. We realised that a pure accelerator model yielded questionable benefits to both startups and the investors. This was the first time when I have spent so much time and effort on building something that no one really needed and neither my partners nore I had the answers on what comes next.

As the cherry on the top, we were coming up on the one year anniversary of the company and our resources were quickly running out. We found ourselves in a position where a) We had drastically changed our business model b) We needed to find resources to continue our operations and c) Find the energy to carry one.

For me the six months period that followed was one of the most difficult ones in my professional life. What saved me? Our boundless enthusiasm, optimism and support and investments from people who had faith in me and David.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

I am lucky to have the support of my co-founder and of course this goes both ways. Understanding the importance of having team support we now avoid investing in solo founders.

It also helps to read less of tech, and investment media portals that are brimming with the ‘success stories’. Failures and falstarts that preceded this success and how few achieve it usually receive far less attention.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

To be perfectly frank, I am not there yet. When things are good, well it’s easy we are really good at celebrating our success. When things are bad it’s important not to get carried away with self analysis. Exception is trying to identify mistakes in order to learn lessons. It is important to get over this phase and move forward.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

I do not think there is a ‘right’ answer. There are examples of companies bootstrapping all the way to success (think Mailchimp). At the same time I like to bring up the CB Insights study about the firms that are successful in fundraising and still manage to fail due to lack of market fit, team structure etc.

Focusing on fundraising at any stage makes sense when the founders are clear about what she is willing to give up and what she gets in return. The right investor can bring not only the funding but expertise, network, and open the right doors.

What should not be done is fundraising for the fundraising’s sake. I often see early stage startups which have yet to find clients, develop the product or build a team but who do have a solid fundraising strategy many rounds ahead. Seldom do these types of stories have a happy end.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

I genuinely do not think that a unique, special recipe exists. And there is no need for one. Rigid approach, hard set rules can actually paralyse and stifle creativity without yielding much benefit. I will share my personal Five Things particularly as related to early stage investments.

It starts with the market. I believe that this applies to all startups. This may sound like a truism but you will be surprised how many times when speaking with startups I hear that the market comes second and their focus now is on product and team building. Who cares about the product without the market to pay for it!

Team. At early stages it is not only about complementary skills but also about the ability to support each other emotionally.

Not losing the focus on the final goal. It is far too easy to start building a small business, consultancy or a charity. Nothing wrong with either of those, but if the goal is to build a globally successful business it is a very different story.

Network. Especially at an early stage when there is little to show, the team is still forming and the product is being developed, contacts are the most invaluable resource, I have seen many times when overwhelmed by ‘urgent’ ongoing tasks founders ignore the opportunity to build up contacts that will become invaluable in the future. This can be future investors, partners, experts or clients. I frequently introduce startups I like with people from my network, but If I see these opportunities being ignored by the founders it is a red flag for any future introductions.

Discipline. It is easy to fall into the trap of ‘everyone does everything’ and ‘once we get the results then we can start working on processes’. This does not work and it’s a particular trap that I fell into myself a few times.

These are of course my personal very subjective five lessons and for each these may be different.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Everyone has their own personal mistakes. In fact it’s a good idea to make them and get them out of the way early. One thing that I would highlight is discipline. Without it early stage founders no matter how great their product or strategy will almost inevitably fail.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

To take breaks. From my own experience I realised that it is important to slow down. Some founders think that they can’t afford to take a day off, even worse a short holiday break. Look at it from another view. Time off is an opportunity to take a breath and review the big picture. Calmly review where your startup is, think about the future, analyse the long term strategy. Some of the best ideas that actually had a dramatic impact (for the better) on our company strategy came to me during the vacation period.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have a vision of creating a movement in support of senior founders that frequently are overlooked by the tech community. My personal convictions, backed by formal research, senior founders have an outstanding potential in building successful companies within the tech space. At the moment the infrastructure to facilitate this is not there. Most of the current opportunities are targeting younger people. Furthermore even in the UK there is a systematic bias against older entrepreneurs. I am involved in various projects at the moment on an individual basis but this is not enough.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Alice Bentinck (Co-founder at Entrepreneur First & Code First: Girls). Few years back I heard great feedback about Entrepreneur First from a friend and then from many other people. I was curious about who is behind this story and what is the secret of success. This is how I found out about Alice. I see a lot of parallels with myself particularly when it comes to finding and supporting early stage undiscovered talent and helping to transform it into successful global companies. It would be great to meet her in person and find out more about the story of creation of Entrepreneur First.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/lyubov-guk-438868b0/

www.bluelakeaccelerator.com

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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