The four-month accelerator program for students and alumni of the American University in Bulgaria, Elevate AUBG, recently concluded its fourth season. The program, which began in 2019, is the first of its kind in the Balkans and has supported a total of 25 startup projects across four cohorts.
The program culminated in a Demo Day on April 25th during which the 5 participating teams competed to win investments from a pool of $30K. Season 4 saw five participating teams present their ideas in front of a jury panel that included Nikola Yanev, Marketing Manager at Eleven Ventures, Georgi Petrov, Co-founder of NitroPack and SMSBump, Petar Svarc, People Director at Melon, and Stoil Vasilev, VP Corporate Development at SumUp.
“Elevate AUBG is tailored to meet the specific needs and schedules of university students, providing the most practical value in the shortest time possible. The program features a curriculum that includes 1:1 mentorship sessions, group workshops, and inspiring founder talks, where recognizable names from the regional ecosystem share their success stories and entrepreneurial challenges. The curriculum is designed to give participants a real taste of what it means to be an entrepreneur and complement the theoretical knowledge they receive in class with practical know-how,” Kristina Borisova, Managing Director at Elevate AUBG, explains.
A total of 5 teams participated in the Elevate Season 4 and pitched at the Demo Day. These are PossePay, a fintech app that provides online payment solutions for bars and restaurants, GoCoffee, a self-service coffee station startup, Education+, a marketplace for youth opportunities, Starseeds, a brand for natural artisan skincare, and Puzzld, a functional fashion brand for digital nomads.
The Recursive talked with the Elevate team and one of the winning teams PossePay to learn more about their venture-building journey, lessons learned, and future plans.
Introduction to Real-world Entrepreneurship 101
The team behind PossePay develops a fintech platform that simplifies online payments for bars and restaurants. By scanning a QR code on the table with their smartphones, customers can access their bills instantly and pay in just 10 seconds, without the need to call the waiter. The platform provides the option to split the bill or pay individually, as well as to leave a predefined tip.
“We wanted to focus on a problem that we have all experienced. In the beginning, we thought that the main problem we were solving was reducing the time that people wait at restaurants. However, after getting accepted into the program and talking with our potential customers, it became clear that the bigger problem we are solving is the bill-splitting experience. So we wanted to unite big groups of friends and make their dining experience more pleasant by providing them with the option to pay without worrying about the logistics around splitting the bill,” Martina Stoyanova, Marketing and PR specialist at PossePay, and a 4th-year AUBG student, explains.
That is what brought the PossePay team – Martin Stoilkov, Nevena Ivanova, Alexander Ivanov, Martina Stoyanova, and Nikolay Yovkov – together and made Ivo Vasilev, founder and CEO of the fintech startup Reloyalty interested in the project enough to join the team as a mentor and advisor.
“From the beginning, our mentors were telling us to validate, validate, validate. At first, we couldn’t fully grasp the importance of customer validation, but now we do. And one of the most important lessons that we are walking away with is ‘Fail fast, so that you can pivot faster’,” Martina Stoyanova explains.
The two teammates also mention the importance of avoiding personal bias when validating startup hypotheses with potential customers and trying to talk less and listen more.
“Participants in such programs should stay away from adopting a binary losing-winning mindset. For example, if you remain primarily focused on becoming a Demo Day winner, you will just not learn and grow. On the other hand, by adopting a learning mindset, you would be able to absorb all the lessons, accept and deal with all the setbacks and feel accomplished and satisfied at the end,” Martin Stoilkov shares.
Milestones and future plans
PossePay has secured partnerships with 12 restaurants and bars located in Blagoevgrad and Sofia.
“We already established a partnership with Enbank which are our third-party payment processor. We also participated in a hackathon organized by the Bulgarian Fintech Association and won €1.5K in funding as an award for first place in the competition. We joined the association as members. Now they help us with product messaging, developing a go-to-market strategy, and communicating the problems that we are solving better. They are also providing us with access to their network of fintech startup founders and experts,” Martina Stoyanova highlights.
By the end of the year, the team plans to finalize the development of the other key features, such as digital menus, ordering options, and Google reviews and ratings.
The university founders’ playground
Elevate AUBG is a pre-accelerator program created by the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) in partnership with the Sofia-based VC Eleven Ventures. The program is structured and financially supported by AUBG, Eleven Ventures, AUBG’s Provost, donors, and Alumni Association. Elevate AUBG provides students and alumni with a $2K investment to cover expenses for validation and prototype building, allowing them to test and develop their startup ideas.
Since its inception in 2019, the Elevate accelerator has nurtured a total of 25 startup projects across four cohorts. This program is not only a launchpad for participants but also a proving ground for its management team, which rotates every year and comprises current AUBG students and fresh graduates. This year, the managing directors are two AUBG alumni, Georgi Georgiev and Kristina Borisova, with three current university students – Ivaylo Todorov, Mariela Nikolova, and Hristo Hubenov – assisting with marketing, PR, and accounting.
Season four of the Elevate AUBG accelerator program saw over 30 regional founders and business leaders providing valuable mentoring and advice to the participants. Hristo Borisov, co-founder and CEO of the first Bulgarian unicorn Payhawk, Georgi Ivanov, founder and CEO of the hiring marketplace Noble Hire, and entrepreneur and investor Svetozar Georgiev, co-founder of Telerik, Telerik Academy, and Campus X, are some of the notable names that mentored and advised participants.