A Techstar’s retrospective: a CEO looks back at the benefits of the program

It is Friday morning and I am meeting with Avi Cavale a Techstars alumni from the 2013 class. Avi is the co-founder and CEO of Shippable - a hosted continuous integration and deployment service, that helps developers ship code faster. Avi was leading a team of 150 developers in his position as Product Unit Manager at Microsoft before starting Shippable in August 2012. 

I walk into Cherry Street Coffee House and sit down with Avi just as he is finishing a meeting with Jonathan Reichhold, a Techstars mentor. Jonathan started Twitter’s Seattle office and scaled the service. Now, Avi is benefitting from Jonathan' knowledge in his own effort to scale Shippable. This time it is my turn to hear about Avi’s experience with Techstars and how he made the decision to start Shippable after spending 11 years at Microsoft.

What made you take the step from a secure job at Microsoft to starting your own company?
I was managing 150 developers in China, India, and the U.S. working on Kinect. By the end of it we were working 20 hour days, it was sort of crazy. I realized I was just a small minion in a big machinery. Even though I worked on a successful product like Kinect, I didn’t feel that our team's impact was significant enough to matter to Microsoft as a whole.

When the project came to an end there was a reorganization going on. Usually, if you take a new leading position after one of these larger changes, you commit yourself to another 3-4 years. I figured it would take me a long time to reach a position where I would have a real impact and decided it was a good time to make the shift. 

What scared you the most about making this change?
I was most afraid of not knowing how to run a startup. I was afraid of failing, because when you start your own company it all depends on you. I decided to join Uhuru Software, a small startup, to learn about entrepreneurship before starting my own.

How did you come up with the idea for Shippable and what made you start it?
While working at Uhuru, I learned a lot about open source. I was fascinated by how quickly a team of 50 developers scattered around the globe could get things done without ever seeing each other. It was a big contrast to my experience at Microsoft, where it was a very slow and tedious process to ship code. I decided to focus on open source techniques to help developers ship code faster. 

How did you build your team?
I needed a co-founder with development experience and business acumen. Manisha had a lot experience as a developer and had obtained an MBA from UC Berkeley. I knew her from Microsoft days and thought she would be perfect for the job. Luckily, I convinced her to help start Shippable. 

Tell me about the progress of Shippable, from starting out to joining Techstars. 
I left my job at Uhuru in August 2012 to work on Shippable. In December 2012 we started programming and had an early beta ready in March 2013. I wanted Geekwire to write about our release, but I didn’t know how to get news coverage. I saw that Geekwire was having a ping pong tournament and decided to join. Not only did I manage to win the tournament and get Geekwire’s attention, I also met Greg Gottesman from Madrona Venture Group. Greg helped with a lot of free advice and guidance. He recommended me to meet with Techstars and helped me with introduction. 

What made you apply to Techstars?
I met withTechstars and quickly learned that we were approaching the problem in the wrong way. We had already realized that our product didn’t resonate with potential customers. We had built a product that solved my pain but not that of our customers. Just because you have a pain, that doesn’t mean everybody else are having the same experience. We didn’t really know if we were solving a significant pain for developers. Techstars helped us realize that.

Techstars gave real and honest feedback, and I quickly learned what they thought of us and our product - good and bad. You never got that kind of feedback at Microsoft, so it was a refreshing change. Techstar’s approach helped us improve a lot and that persuaded me to apply.

I also saw Techstars as an opportunity to reduce risk. Most startups fail, so your job is to mitigate risk. Getting access to mentors and connections increases your likelihood of success. You join a family where everyone helps each other and everyone is cheering you on. 

What was Techstars like for you?
Techstars is like being a rock star for three months. You become part of this tightly knit network and have everyone cheering for you and helping you succeed, but it is also intense learning. I often compare it to going back to kindergarten, in the sense that you learn so much in such a short time. We would have lectures from experts on how to acquire users, do marketing, or get funding. As an example we had Dan Shapiro, who has sold two tech companies (one to Google), give the Techstars class advice on how to succeed as a tech-company. 

Were you not worried about giving up equity to Techstars?
The 6% equity that Techstars takes isn’t remotely expensive. On the contrary I think it is mind-boggling what you get in return; mentorship, connections, advice, and access to venture capital. Techstars doesn’t even require preferred shares or a board seat. If you went elsewhere, you wouldn’t get those kind of terms. 

If you need to do fundraising at some point, I believe you have to go through Techstars. It will increase your valuation and likelihood of success. I didn’t have any experience fundraising, but Techstars teaches you how, and when you have offers, Techstars is an open forum where you can always ask for advice.

You also have to remember, it is in your best interest to give up equity to Techstars. You want to have as many friends of the company as possible, and when your friends have a bit of skin in the game, they are more likely to help you.

What do you wish you had known before joining the program?
You have to be super organized. You cannot drop the ball during those three months. I learned that lesson when I met with one of our mentors one week before the program started. I showed up unprepared, expecting it would just be a meet and greet. I hadn’t even brought a notepad and a pen. The meeting resulted in him telling me off for not being prepared and not taking it seriously. I learned my lesson, and throughout the program we were always on top of things. I think we were the only group who never missed a meeting with a mentor. 

What was the best part of Techstars?
The best part of Techstars is the passion, excitement, and how much time mentors spend with you. They sit down on a weekly basis and share their advice, experience, and even their entrepreneurial horror stories. One of our mentors was Darrel Cavens, CEO of Zulily, who would spend an hour with us almost every week despite his busy schedule. You don’t get that kind of access anywhere else.  

What is your advice to people who are considering applying for Techstars? 
You absolutely have to apply. 


Applications for Techstars class of 2014 opened on March 17. Apply Now! 
Early deadline is April 13 and the final deadline is May 4. 

- Andy