Ah, spring. Birds chirping, bees humming, and the annual ritual of tech startups kicking off accelerators.
Looking back at 2008 (DreamIt Ventures) we totally underused those three months. We went from no product to 11K users but had no clear vision for what came next or why. In 2011 (GrowLab), demo day got us partner meetings, term sheets, traction, revenue, and more important than anything, a legitimate business model.
The difference was NOT the incubators themselves. They were both extremely well run and well thought-out. The difference was our approach.
Entering the Arena
In the six months leading up to GrowLab, Paul and I were consulting and freelancing for other companies to pay the bills. Let me tell you, it sucks. Our customer acquisition cost was prohibitive, and we were unable to pivot. Our hands were tied as we saw our company grind to a halt before our eyes.
On the flight to Vancouver, we knew we had to come out of GrowLab with funding or sustainability. If we failed we’d have to take everything we’d worked for and drag it out to the curb for collection. And get real jobs.
So, we walked into Growlab on day one, tossed out two years worth of code, and lined up on the starting block.
Why Are You Here?
This incubator is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for your startup. If you build something people want, this is the window of opportunity where it has the biggest chance to get traction, get funded, get to revenue, whatever it is your business needs next.
That window is the widest on demo day, when the velvet cloth is lifted and the world lays eyes on your baby. What do you envision happening at that moment?
Know this: the moment following demo day, you’re a has-been. It’s hard to imagine when you’re in it and the center of attention of the startup community, but soon there will be a next batch.
The value of your time in an accelerator is multiplied ten-fold. Understand that and you won’t become yesterday’s newspaper.
Want a check? A term sheet? Then what is going to make VCs try to tackle you as you walk off the stage.
Want lots and lots of users? Then think about what you need for every member in the audience to sign up/download/buy your product on the spot (and enthusiastically tell their friends and colleagues to do the same).
So, decide why you are here. Here are some examples:
- Figuring out if anyone wants this as fast as humanly possible
- Figure out if anyone will pay for this, and how much
- Build a rinse-and-repeat economical marketing machine
- Figuring out if we can resell this idea in X industry
- Double our retention
- Get to X number of daily active users
- Raise paid conversions from 0.5% to 2%
- Prove to investors that your company is not a risk and that their money is pure gasoline to your engine
The worst companies don’t have a question they’re trying to answer. They’re just doing what they’ve always done…code a bit more every day, hoping that at some critical mass of features suddenly all their dreams will come true. That approach doesn’t belong in an accelerator.
For Ecquire, Paul and I needed angel funding. We knew that we had the biggest chance to accomplish that if we walked in with users, traction, and revenue.
It’s a Death Match Against Time
Now that you know what you want demo day to look like, work backwards to day one. What do you need in T minus one month to demo day? What about T minus two months? Where do you need to be right now?
With demo day at the end, the benefit of every hour you put in during an accelerator is multiplied x10 compared to the rest of the year.
Here’s a tip most startups seemed to miss: when a mentor comes to meet with your startup individually – only send one co-founder in. Don’t send the whole team. That co-founder can take notes and update you over lunch or on the walk home.
An incubator (especially if you’re travelling to get there) may sounds like an adventure. No. You’re going to war against time, and only one of you will win.
Eyes on the Prize
Paul and I knew absolutely nobody in Vancouver when we landed. It was perfect. We had no distractions to contend with and could focus entirely on our startup goals.
As soon as we landed we started working, planning, outlining, and designing. For us personally, we felt like we were in heaven – finally being able to work full time on our company. We appreciated our *time* like no other company in the incubator.
This attitude continued for four months. We knew that we had to give 300% during those months. If we didn’t feel burnout we weren’t working hard enough.
(Typing that sentence makes me a little sick – I’m against workaholism and bragging about hours – but for a contained period of time, it was absolutely what we had to do.)
In contrast, several of the startups were local to Vancouver, and I could see it was difficult for them to get into Rocky Balboa mode. It’s hard to stay in the same city and tell your family and friends you’re disappearing for four months.
On the other hand, we could easily keep working on nights, weekends, and holidays because no one expected to see us.
And just “being at work” doesn’t count when all that matters is results. Cameron Herold, the COO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK gave us advice that saved us days worth of time over the course of GrowLab:
Don’t check your email in the morning. Get straight to it. Check it after lunch or at night.
Stand Up Against Distractions
Startup incubators/accelerators pride themselves on the mentorship and advice they provide their portfolio. With all the mentors and speakers, you’d think this would make it easier to choose a direction and focus on execution.
Nope. You’re going to meet a ton of smart, confident people, and they’re going to talk a lot about what “you should really do” in their opinion. Don’t forget, they’re super confident because they either manage a lot of money or they sold a company or three in their past. People put in a position to give advice….will always give advice. So you’re going to get a lot of advice.
Each one is going to listen to you for about two minutes and then talk for 30. That’s the nature of the startup world. You’ve spent months and years researching and knowing your field and they have thought about it for two minutes. Remember that you know your idea more than anyone.
The hardest part of an incubator is knowing who NOT to listen to.
Original photo by: Serendigity
Listen most to the people who have tried your product or at least are the intended audience.
In our case, since most investors were never in a sales/operational in-the-trenches role, it was very hard to take their advice too seriously. On the other hand the mentors who went ahead and gave the product an actual spin beyond the website got our full attention.
That said, your network is about to explode (in a good way). Especially with the incubator brand on your forehead, this is the time to ask for every. single. connection. offered to you. This will end in a few months when you become a has-been so take advantage of it now, follow up, maintain the relationship, and hold on to the contacts you do find valuable.
You Don’t Have Time to Burn Out
For all this talk of focus and workaholism, Growlab was a blast. We did a lot of hiking, spent a long weekend in Tofino, and got to know Granville Island beer really, really well.
When I was having fun I knew it was in service of work. I needed to keep my brain fresh so I could keep coding energetically and creatively.
Day to day I highly recommend having a physical regimen to keep you sane. Being Crossfit nerds, we invested in a YMCA membership and made it part of our routine.
I took Saturdays off as a rule. Taking one day a week off from even thinking about Ecquire really helped me sustain my efforts.
Entrepreneurship is not a competition of who stays longer at the office. Get what you need done and stop when you’re causing more harm than good. Like me, below.
There’s some fantastic startup accelerators out there, especially DreamIt and Growlab. As many resources as they may provide you, the only one that really matters is your time. Decide what you want to use it to ultimately accomplish, and conserve it like you would your cash and your equity. Then demo day will be exactly as you envisioned.