Over the past 4 years of running Techstars Seattle I've seen a lot of applicants come from big companies like Amazon and Microsoft. Everyone has their different reason for wanting to start a company, but for the most part the common thread was that this was on their bucket list, but they didn't know how or where to start, or what the resources were in Seattle. That's why I'm hosting Seattle Startups 101: Intro to Techstars and Seattle startup scene. If you are interested in learning more about Techstars and what the startup scene has to offer you should join us. We will have 4 ex-Amazonians who are Techstars Alumni speak on a panel to talk about their experiences leaving a big company to start their own.
6:30pm- Welcome by Andy Sack, Managing Director of Techstars Seattle
6:40pm- Panel of former Amazon employees who have graduated from Techstars
8:30pm- Event ends
I wanted to give a shout out for Seattle Startup Week, happening next week, Oct. 21 through 25. There are tons of amazing tech focused events including:Techstars Seattle Demo Day
andGeekwire's Startup Day
If you are an entrepreneur, investor, or just want to learn more about startups in Seattle, I highly encourage you to come to any of these amazing events. Thanks to Geekwire for helping to get the word out!
Very recently back from a Lean LaunchPad Incubators/Accelerators Program at Columbia University, led by Steve Blank and a host of other notables including Jerry Engel and Eric Koester, hosted by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter). Attendees included folks from academia, start-up land, government agencies, venture capital investors, healthcare institutes, and large corporations from as close by as City College of NY and as far afield as Aukland, NZ.
Over two very intense days, we all focused on how to apply Lean principles to the problems of incubating and accelerating important new ideas and initiatives.
As you can imagine, I learned a lot, but I wanted to capture for you all some of the most salient items for technology ventures:
1. Teams are jazzed about Lean processes and implementing rapid innovation in their organizations, but it still takes cultural change, preferably from the top, to make this new way of innovating really work. This is true even - and possibly especially - in very large organizations where "the way we've always done things" has gotten calcified. To combat the inertia that seems to inevitably be a part of large organizations (and that can "suck the air" out of innovation projects), Intuit launched a company-wide innovation initiative 7 years ago. Founder and Chairman Scott Cook recognized that it was critical for the company to continually re-imagine its business, and to strive to get ever closer to customers in the process. Today, the company encourages all employees to carve out about 10% of their time to pursue innovative ideas, and engineers are encouraged to devote 20% of their time to seeking innovation, leveraging best practices from design theory, velocity, and lean launchpad methodologies. This is the kind of company-wide commitment participants at the seminar agreed is critical to fostering innovation as a cultural change.
2. Document, document, document. If Darwin hadn't captured his initial hypotheses as he was preparing to test them, we might all be living in a world in which he validated that the Galapagos islands contain sea turtles. It's critical for product teams to crisply lay out exactly what they are ready to assert and test about the market, right up front. The reason for this is that if we don't, it becomes too easy later on to convert relatively random learnings into deep insights, and to say that these were the things we wanted to learn all along, and our project has been a success because we learned them. This perfectly natural tendency to declare success in murky circumstances runs counter to the need to get real data to make product decisions, and to run real experiments to get at that real data.
3. Incubating and accelerating are two sides of the same coin. Many people believe that rapid innovation methodologies are only really applicable for new start-ups with small, hungry teams and a vision to rock the world. What I learned in New York (and pretty much suspected well before that) is that no matter where you are in your product development process, you need to continue to focus on customer discovery, customer validation, solution validation, and rigorous testing. When you are incubating a brand new concept or product, the process is extremely difficult but can literally save you years of wasted development. But just as important, when you're accelerating market adoption for something you've already built, or looking to see how to evolve the product to meet ever-changing market demands, it's equally critical to get close to the customer and stay there. The truth is, your chances of missing the mark are nearly the same, even if you're in the process of iterating on an existing idea. We've seen this with many technology companies, who, eager to outflank their competition, overbuild for the market and are forced to downgrade or deprecate their product to drive actual adoption. Not fun for anyone involved.
I hope to join Steve again sometime soon to help lead another of these launchpad courses - I always come away energized and excited to share my new knowledge with friends across the technology industry.
Also: Techstars Seattle Demo Day on Oct. 24th! Register here: https://smore.com/g28z
Below is a post from Genevieve Payzer, a Lakeside student who participated in the Microinternship as Sparktred's VP of Marketing. Great to see what little entrepreneurs have to say!
Coming into today, I had little to no understanding of what being in a startup means. When you walk into the TechStars office, the vibe is relaxed; the tables are littered with snacks, and balloons lie on the floor. It’s a comfortable level of messy that reminds you people here are having fun. Yet, there’s the shocking statistic that 90% of startups don’t make it past a year. TechStars is a startup accelerator, but even with TechStars help, all these companies have to exhibit extraordinary determination to be part of that 10%. Each student was matched with a startup and I was matched with Sparktrend, my first choice. Sparktrend is a new application that allows you to shop online and on your phone. I chose Sparktrend because of the potential marketing value I believe they possess after reading their product summary and hearing them pitch their idea. Today, as one of the Sparktrend interns, I learned the basis of product design and pitching a product. We spent a few hours and still only made it through two iterations of design and crafting our product pitch. I have a new appreciation for all these entrepreneurs.
As the VP of marketing, this is what I think Sparktrend is…
With Sparktrend, you find clothes you dream of. Have fun while we find you the trendiest products that match your style and what you want. This can all be done from your phone or computer so share what you find with this new way to shop!
Techstars Seattle Demo Day: https://smore.com/g28z
On Saturday, Techstars hosted a dozen Lakeside School students for our second annual "Microinternship". The Microinternship is basically a crash course in entrepreneurship for High Schoolers. The students come to the Techstars office and work with our companies for a day. They get to do all sorts of really cool tasks ranging from writing actual production code to formulating gorilla marketing campaigns.
Most of the Techstars companies participate -- a couple did not because it was scheduled for a Saturday. The companies put together wonderful projects for the kids that benefited both the students and the companies. One girl even got an internship after only one day on the job!
It is worth pointing out that most companies who participated in the Microinternship are not making kid-focussed products, but they all got to hear the students retell their stories. This enabled the entrepreneurs to understand how those with zero knowledge of their product take in their companies' messaging; an invaluable experience for the companies and the students!
A big thank you to the entrepreneurs who participated, as well as the students, the teachers over at Lakeside who helped organize the event, and the Techstars staff who ran the show. It was a great event and I look forward to next year!
Also: Techstars Seattle Demo Day on Oct. 24th! Register here: https://smore.com/g28z
I love Apple products. I've been an Apple person since the 80s and am still firmly a fan of what Cupertino has to offer. However, I am most definitely NOT a fan of Apple's accessory philosophy. This is due to a number of reasons:
1. They are really expensive. $30 for a thingy that connects my computer to a monitor or projector?!?!?
2. They take proprietary to a whole new level. Seriously, I'm all for owning an idea/ product that is rightfully yours. But holy cow they go against the grain so hard, you need to buy one of their dongles to make anything work with Apple. I guess that's their strategy though.
3. The dongles are expensive enough to make you take notice, but small enough to be easily "borrowed" by coworkers and lost in the office ether. Writing your name on the dongle does little to curb this theft.
4. Switching iPhone/ iPad/ iPod plugs is terribly annoying. Just when everyone had accumulated enough of the 30 pin chargers to cover all of their bases, Apple switches to the Lightening charger and everyone is back to square one or worse, needing new chargers and adapters for existing adapters. Additional adapters lower video and sound quality which adds to the frustration.
In closing, I don't really know how to fix this problem but it's been on my mind for a while ever since a few of our dongles walked away...
*Also.... Demo Day is on Oct. 24! RSVP here: https://smore.com/g28z
I'm going to stick to the investment theme for this week's blog post. We had a great panel last week with some stellar Techstars alumni. A big thank you to Robi from Apptentive, Russell from Everymove, and Nick from LikeBright. The panel was only supposed to last an hour. It went on for nearly two hours.
Questions from current Techstars Founders focussed mainly on fundraising. It seems to be the one thing that they can't "do more faster" of which is increasingly hard and frustrating as time goes on. Robi, Russel, and Nick offered great advice to the Founders on this front.
"How many of you have made an ask?" Robi asked the founders.
A few of the current TechStars founders raised their hands and some did not.
"How do you expect to get investors if you can't ask for money?" Robi asked the Founders! The point seemed to sink in from here. You can have the best founders and the best idea in the world, but if you can't muster up the courage to ask an investor for money, you and your company may be dead in the water. I'm going to skip the dating metaphor here because asking for investment is harder than asking someone out on a date. There is more at risk for both parties beyond a bad evening, lacking chemistry.
To sum it up, asking for investment is hard and a bit awkward. You will hear no more often than yes. You will have your ego deflated, you idea torn apart, and likely will feel discouraged at one point or another. But you will not have the chance to feel any of that or build an amazing company if you don't make that first ask. So, go out there and make the ask.
We're about half way done with this year's Techstars Seattle class and Demo Day is inching closer and closer. It's the time in the program where companies start to think very seriously about their investor strategy. It goes with out saying that teams are all over the board when it comes to raising money. Some nearly have their rounds complete, while some have just started thinking about how to raise money. I always get asked "How do I go about raising money?" by startups. We'll here are a couple of tips:
1. Be relentlessly resourceful. I may have stolen this tagline from Chris Devore, but that's only because it's just that good. Basically, don't take no for an answer. Don't accost potential investors, but think of work arounds if one stream runs dry.
2. Personal introductions save lives. If you can get an intro to a potential investor from someone they know and respect, that is great. If you can get a couple of intros to the same investor, you're even more golden.
3. Investors think of reasons NOT to invest in your company. Focus on what are the perceived weaknesses of you, your team, and your idea and figure out ways to mitigate the investor's fears.
4. Know when to sell and know when to explain. Speaking with investors is very tricky. You have to know when to push and when to play it cool and just explain your business. Most investors will not see your vision right away, so if you're hard selling it to them, you've lost them. Don't lose them. Thanks to @avinci for these last two.
5. HUSTLE. No one will throw money at you. Well, at least not in your current profession.
With that. Happy money raising!
We're getting ready for Demo Day and we want you there!
What makes a good pitch? It's no secret that entrepreneurs must perfect the art and skill of pitching their idea to friends, family, investors, employees, and anyone who will listen. We're in the midst of our first round of pitch practice this year at Techstars and the teams are off to a really great start. Honestly, I'm pleasantly surprised by how they are pitching right out of the gate. Below are a few tips that I have laid out for pitches.
1. Treat it like a sandwich. Tell them what you're going to tell them (bread), tell them (the meat, veggies, cheese, & condiments), and finally tell them what you just told them (bread). It sounds simple, but that's the point!
2. Don't have too much text on a slide and keep slides to one idea. This may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised by how many entrepreneurs forget this and deliver slides with grad school level outlines on them.
3. Have ONE pitch for everyone. Yes, tone it down a bit for your grandmother, but be sure to keep the ideas and specifics constant between mentors, investors, etc. Entrepreneurship is a small world and you don't want to have to put your foot in your mouth because your story isn't consistent.
4. Have some badass slides. Check out Haiku Deck for help with this.
5. Tell a GREAT story and connect with the audience emotionally. The most memorable pitches are the ones that make the audience feel. Figure out a way to do this.
6. KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid. Don't over do it! If there are technical questions, they will be asked. Worry about telling a great story in a great way and you can deal with specifics after the audience pick their jaws up from the floor.
With that, happy pitching!
For this post I wanted to mirror what we’re currently working on at Techstars. Teams have spent the last month of the program validating and in some cases changing their idea with many customer interviews. You may think that you have an amazing idea that will solve a huge pain until you dig a little deeper and realize there is no pain or the pain is somewhere else. That’s OK. That’s what customer development is for.
Now we’re at the point in the program where it’s time to focus less on customer development (never forget about it though) and begin actually honing a product that some of the potential customers you’ve spoken with may actually buy and building a company that investors will want a piece of. Just like how investors look for dots of data that form lines, you should look for dots of data within your customer interviews that point to key features that they want. These nuggets of information are vitally important to what your product become and what features it will include.
We have teams at all kinds of different stages in the program right now. Some have viable products with customers signed, while some have little more than a well flushed out and validated idea with some wire mock-ups to boot. All of these teams have connected the dots they formed via customer interviews. Now it’s just time to build something. With that, happy building!
As I mentioned in my last post, I am going to try to make the topic of team issues a blogging topic of mine. This post concerns how to prevent a team break up. A great way to get founder issues and insecurities out in the open and in turn prevent founder breakups is to conduct a founder exercise I call “going to the movies.”
The idea behind the exercise is to tell the worst possible "nightmare" of the founding of the company gone wrong. An example illustrates the founder exercise -- imagine a date with the opposite sex. "going to the movies" involves imagining the story of things started to go badly and then becoming a date from hell. Imagine, what is the worst possible thing that could happen? Does the date throw their drink in your face because you picked the wrong movie? Do they chew overly buttered popcorn with their open and you storm out of the theatre? Do you lean in for a kiss and get slapped in the face?
You get the idea. Go through this exercise with your co-founders and discuss each other’s fears and limitations in the realm of the worst possible thing that could happen to your company. It’s a great way to get everyone’s issues out in the open early in a company’s history and prevent breakups down the road.
Breakups are part of the process of building a company. I’m writing this post because we had our first team break up this year at Techstars Seattle. The team is still around and working on their idea, a really promising one, but with ⅓ less manpower. Oh, and the team member they lost was their only developer.
The decision was hard. Basically, 2 of the 3 members were really invested in the success of the company, and the final member was not, so it was time for him to go. Emotion was obviously present, but all three parties were professional and will remain friends. We deal with this openly here at Techstars. The decision was announced at our retreat last week. My reasoning for this transparency is that there is no need to create gossip or wonder in the Techstars ecosystem. Techstars is club and a network. Yes, there is a certain amount of competition, but as a whole, everyone is here to work their asses off and collaborate with others in the program. I’ve found that the more transparency there is in an organization, the better. Just ask Rand Fishkin, CEO of Moz, about this.
So, with that I sign off and urge you to focus on meaningful transparency in your office. It can take care of small hiccups before they become larger issues. More to come on this topic and the topic of maintaining your company in futures posts.
As I mentioned a few posts ago, I’m trying to make mentorship a focus of my blogging during the 2013 Techstars program. Mentorship is the glue that holds the whole program together, so it is vitally important that the teams get the most out of their relationships with mentors. Mentors act as advisors, advocates, therapists, and can be great connections to investors or may even be investors themselves. A brief update on mentorship so far: Those teams who I have checked in with have found the mentorship very helpful. This is true for both teams with well developed products and visions as well as teams who are still trying to figure out what they are doing.
A large commonality between the teams pointed to the mentors being great for getting feedback on their basic idea and approach. This was helpful because it gave the teams a confidence boost that they are heading in the right direction (or conversely, a united front that they were not, but ideas regarding where to go).
Teams also felt that there is only so much talking one can do before they need to do some actual work. A lot like a freshman year humanities class beating a passage to death, one needs to start “doing” to eventually create something. That is where we are now. Until next time.
On Wednesday, we had our Techstars 2013 retreat at Big Door CEO Keith Smith’s cabin in Easton, Washington. In line with the Techstars mantra of Do More Faster, the purpose of the retreat is to hurry up the process of getting to know one another in the program. We figured that a Summer camp style overnight complete with a rather chilly lake, a motorcycle ride, a propane flame thrower, BBQ’d bacon, and a fair amount of beer was the best way to accomplish this.
Emphasis was placed on chatting with those in the group with whom you had not yet gotten to know. With every new group activity, you had to sit with people you had not met yet. Activities focussed on what you wanted to get out of Techstars and how you think it will help your career.
We held a funding panel with myself, Greg Gottesman, of Madrona Venture Group, and Big Door’s Keith Smith. The panel was an open forum for anyone to ask questions about funding, financing, and how to raise a round. It was great to level set on this often intimidating part of the company building process. Hearing the more formal points from Greg was valuable as teams begin to raise beyond their seed rounds. Keith also shared the painful lesson he learned by not selling his first company when he should have.
The weather was a little damp but we prevailed. I think that the retreat helped us to get closer as a group and has set the tone for the Techstars 2013 class. A big thank you to everyone who helped organize the retreat and to Keith Smith for the use of his awesome cabin.
This past week accounted for many firsts for the Techstars Seattle 2013 Class. It was the first week of the program, the first time the founders got a taste for how we do things here at Techstars, and the first time many of them had ever done Crossfit. I've been doing Crossfit off and on for about a year now and cannot help but see the similarities between the workout regimen and entrepreneurship.
Both Crossfit and entrepreneurship are really, really hard AND the payoff can be enormous. To be successful, you need to take responsibility for your actions and be diligent with your execution. Issues and weaknesses will be brought to the surface and must be dealt with in order to move on to the next challenge and get closer to your respective goal.
The process of starting a company, just like the process of getting in shape, is incredibly personal and humbling. You quickly can make great strides one day, and then spend the next few months focusing on some small aspect of your success. I'm looking forward to getting in shape along with my fellow Techstars at Crossfit SLU over the next few months. We'll keep you updated on how it goes.
Tuesday night we had our mentor mixer to officially kick off the 2013 Techstars Seattle class. The mentor mixer is a meet and greet between the mentors and the founders of the Techstars companies. Last year we held a free-for-all cocktail hour where teams and mentors were supposed to meet each other and figure out who they wanted to work with. It didn't work very well, so this year we switched things up and set up a mentor speed dating session. It went as follows:
Mentors were set up in stations through out the building with a bottle of booze, some mixers, and ice. We had the teams rotate from station to station every six minutes and speak with the mentors during that time. There was a ton jammed into a short amount of time. The teams had to pitch their business to the mentors and the mentors had to get a feel for the teams and their ideas during this six minutes. This went on for about an hour and half. It was crazy, but in the end, everyone seemed to feel like they got a fair shake of the mentors and the teams. Afterwords everyone descended into talking over each other in The Easy. We were told that this way of doing things was better than last year but that more time would have been appreciated. I respectfully respond to those critiques the the Techstars mantra of Do More Faster!!!!
A huge thank you to the mentors, the teams, and everyone who helped make the mentor mixer a great success! It's going to be a great class!
Greetings! We kicked off the Techstars Seattle 2013 class today. Here are this year’s teams:
Who can spot me?