I have been thinking a lot about accelerators and incubators recently. The rapid rise of these startup ecosystem players has been interesting to watch. I remember the run up of incubators during the web1.0 craze as everybody sought to offered shared space, services and Aeron chairs in hopes of creating the next IdeaLab. All but the original failed.
Accelerators todays are the storefront that startup communities put out to signal they are in the market for disruptive innovation. But too many are mistaking the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself (last night’s super moon still on my mind obviously). Accelerators are, as the name implies, taking what is already there and making it faster. They are the pedal, not the engine. Below are some thoughts from my readings and recent discussions on startup accelerators. As always, the IMHO disclaimer applies and your comments are welcome.
Build on what you have
In order to ensure an accelerator is not an event, but rather a sustainable catalyst, accelerators need to be authentic to the communities they serve. Startups only get 10-12 weeks of support. If after that all the mentors, service providers and fellow ‘treps scatter or close their doors so will the startups. An accelerator should focus and rally the resources startups need but not “import” them. If you don’t have them in your community already maybe that is where your energies should go.
Accelerators need a superpower
The basics don’t count for accelerators. Most quality startups can get access to the space, lean methodology expertise and even cash they need. What accelerators need is to figure out what their uniqueness is. When we started the Delaware startup ecosystem we turned our “weakness” of small state into our “superpower” easy access. Size matters took on a new meaning and they are seeing startups that value small choose them as a place to launch. You won’t win on your accelerator’s brand or platform, Techstars/YC/500 Startups have that cornered. pick something else. Protip: If you don’t know what it is ask someone who just got there. A transplant or other outsider frequently sees things you don’t.
Turn some people off
Dave McClure used to do a talk where he suggested that you want customers to either want to f&@k you or want to kill you. The middle ground has little value. They aren’t passionate. I know it is safe to have the proof of an existing model in another city but too many accelerators seem to be city agnostic. Accelerators are competing too and if you don’t have startups that look at your program and say “not for me” you won’t have passionate ones that say “that is perfect for me.” Startups are not cookies and accelerators can’t be cookie cutters.
As EIR for the Idea Village accelerator this season I am excited to try and put these and other learnings into practice. One thing I am sure of is that our program, like the city that birthed it, will be full of rhythms, rituals and great relationships.
Stay calm and ‘trep on.
I started DJing when I was 13 years old. Did school dances, weddings, high school radio (WHFH The Voice of the Vikings) and an endless stream of basement parties. I DJ’ed all through college in clubs and fraternity houses. During that time, I took endless requests. As I sat this morning and thought about some blog post ideas I took a look at my draft file and was a little shocked at how many ideas I had left unfinished. My goal for August will be to change that. But where to start?
I am taking requests
If any of these titles seem more interesting to you than others leave me a comment and I will play your request. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on the “playlist” below.
I worked/lived in Delaware for almost a decade. As a transplant and Chicagoan at heart I have heard all the “Dela-where?” jokes and made some as well. But after ten years hanging out in the state where they ask which high school you went to right after they meet you I can tell you that all those jokers are right. Delaware is small. And when it comes to startups, size matters.
Almost three years ago an idea started to percolate amongst a few of us hanging out in Wilmington. Two guys who were young and naive enough to think that co-working could work in downtown Wilmington had brought a number of us together periodically for what would eventually become our 400+ member Delaware Tech Meetup. But then it was a much smaller group that would meet to share stories, practice pitching and dream about what the startup ecosystem in Delaware could be.
One of the great strengths of working in a small business-focused state is the access you have to key people. From business leaders to government you are never further than one degree of separation from the person you need. We saw this in spades when an eduction focused startup came to talk to us. After determining that getting to decision makers in school districts was on their critical path it was a short step to arrange for a meeting with both the head of the largest school district and the Secretary of Education for the state.
This past Monday, three years later, I joined a group of well over 150 people to re-launch a newly renovated, larger co-working space. Surrounded by representatives from all parts of the ecosystem we listened as Governor Markell spoke about the importance, the progress and the contribution of the initiative to date. Led by Mona Parikh this initiative has grown well beyond our initial discussions. With growing corporate support and an ever improving cadre of startups Delaware is defining its identity amongst the I95 corridor. No longer will Wilmington be just the stop between DC and Philly for Geeks on a Train.
I left Delaware soon after we established the Public/Private partnership with the state that defines our official launch in 2012. I have returned many times to share my learnings from new home in New Orleans and support the various events that have led up to this point. Each time it has been eye-opening to see the growth, the new faces, the enthusiasm. While I will continue to make New Orleans my home I will aways be only a call away for my Start It Up Delaware family. “A catalyst for dreamers” is an appropriate mission for the coming years and a great recognition that this all started with a bunch of dreamers.
Thanks are due to many but here are a few that I want to personally call out from the early days.
- Wes Garnett and Steve Roetteger – Thank you for being crazy enough to build us our first clubhouse.
- Brian Sowards – Thank you for your vision and spark.
- Brad Wason – Thank you for taking the leap of faith so early (and often).
- Tim McIntosh – Thank you for being my sanity check and wingman for much of this ride.
- Jeff Rollins & Lee Mikles – Thank you for be willing to listen to me and trusting me enough to join and lead the board.
- Dan Freeman – For being the best university partner we could have asked for and for building the pipeline of entrepreneurs with the Horn program.
- Mona Parikh – Thank you for leading by example and being the best connector the community could ask for.
- The Net DE community – You guys rock!
If you are ever in Delaware come join us HERE
A couple of months ago, John Borthwick, founder of Betaworks, was featured in Inc. Magazine describing what he looks for in companies. In the article Borthwick defines an “essential company”. (the entire article here)
“When we use the term essential company, we mean products or companies that are essential to people’s habits and daily workflow.”
Borthwick’s term, “essential”, put a name to what me and my cofounders have been focused on as we prepare to launch our startup. Like many startups we see a big opportunity to solve a need in the market. Like many startups our solution has the opportunity to be a powerful suite of valuable features. Like all startups we had to pick where to start.
In order to define our MVP’s focus we used a simple 2 dimensions chart. This simple framework allowed us to have productive conversations and to make, what we hope are directionally correct choices. One dimension was for our users. Important for obvious reasons. The second was for us.
- User Value. We knew that unless our MVP had significant value to our target market we would struggle with adoption. The promise of a full feature set may test well in customer development interviews but if the first step isn’t compelling we will never get the chance to build it.
- Learning Value Dimension. We are believers in the lean methodology and the power of learning as a differentiator and key to success. For this reason we looked at how much learning we would gain from the launch and use of the various features. Learning requires use and frequency of use accelerates the feedback cycle. Essential companies by definition generate more learning cycles.
Our map of features led us to view the resulting matrix in this way.
Building an essential company also raises the bar on our understanding of our target user, their daily habits, and how we fit in to it (design thinking). So the importance of learning is even more pronounced. Our vision is to become the essential tool for our target industry so we are launching our app with essential at the core. As a startup we know that learning is essential and we look forward to sharing our learnings .
What are your thoughts to our approach? How do you pick your MVP features?
A few weeks ago I had the chance to work with the University of Delaware’s Entrepreneurship program and to speak at the Delaware Tech Forum’ Meetup. As a founding member of Start It Up Delaware (SIUD), before moving to New Orleans just before the ribbon cutting, I can think of no better way to continue my investment in what I am sure will be a remarkable mid-Atlantic hub of innovation. Chris Wink from Technical.ly Philly wrote a nice piece on “the place to be someone”, here.
My talk focused on the importance of startups focused on social impact and why I am very bullish on the future of these efforts. I was invited to speak by the Executive director of SIUD, adjunct professor at University of Delaware and dear friend Mona Parikh. Mona is passionate about social impact and got me thinking a bit deeper about my position on it and the role that ‘treps can play.
My slides can be found below but my reasons for being excited were simple.
Even non-impact focused startups are finding impactful use cases.
You have to look no further than Twitter to see a startup enabling one of the most basic of human rights, free speech, having a role in the dramatic changes taking place across the world. The power of 140 character in shaping human history has not been so clearly exemplified. You can almost see our founding fathers tweeting, “When in the course of human events…” Granted at 8.020 characters it would have taken them 58 tweets to get the whole thing out so they probably would have linked to a blog post or a Tumblr photo of the congress.
Impact startups are already adopting proven startup techniques.
Companies like Charity Water, Warby Parker and Donors Choose are making a difference and building successful models for others to build on. By using tools and techniques piloted by non-social impact startups like social, crowdfunding and ecommerce, these companies and others are showing that doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive. These even extends to the accelerator model and university programs where building the skills and knowledge of the ‘treps is so critical.
The next generation of ‘treps want to do this.
Reports show that Millenials are interested in making a difference as much if not more than making themselves rich. We need to support them by:
- Changing the way we keep score (think impact not $$)
- Sharing our knowledge (mentors needs to work with non-profits)
- Rewarding new metrics for company success (B-corps FTW)
- Encouraging them to think big, NOW not later
We are humans and by nature we find pleasure in helping other humans. I think if we all just follow our hearts social impact startups will be where our best and brightest will get their ‘trep on.
This past week was New Orleans Entrepreneurship Week #NOEW. While this was the 6th annual, it was my first. The week was full of programs and pitches put on by the fine folks of Idea Village and their many partners. I have been working with IV this season in many capacities, they do everything here in NOLA by season (more on rhythms and rituals here.) I hosted over a dozen Idea Sessions, where any entrepreneur can come in and receive 90 minutes of support and counsel from more experienced folks. I also was co-EIR for the first-ever Food Challenge, which took 5 food product companies through a 10 week program. I even presented an Idea Institute! a 2 hour free class spreading the gospel of the to the business model canvas. Finally, for the past 45 days I have acted as pitch coach for a host of the companies that presented last week. Through these activities and many nights at Capdeville I am no longer a stranger to this vibrant community. However, even with my status changed to “kool-aid drinker”, a few things still managed to stick out to me this past week.
This City Loves Its Startups
While startups remain not much more than a buzzword in many cities, NOLA top to bottom is building, encouraging and supporting them all. From youth programs to sector specific challenges NOEW showcased an incredibly diverse range of business creation efforts. And with support from government, local industry and recognized celebrities it is clear that startups are an important part of New Orleans’ rebirth. This wide spread support and diversity of business types means that while you may be a sole founder you are never alone.
The Power of Rising Tides
Pun not withstanding this city really understands the phrase, “a rising tides raises all boats.” Because of this, the NOLA startup scene is as collaborative and open as any I have seen. Startups are always willing to share learnings with each other and see the success of any as the success of all. The winner of this years Big Idea, the week’s capstone crowd funding event, is a new brewery looking to turn the $50k prize into a New Orleans home for its novel craft beers. The mentor who has helped guide this startup through the many challenges associated with starting a new brewery is none other than the founder of the only craft brewery currently in New Orleans. Like a good party host, “the more the merrier”, not “how will we feed all these people” is the first thought of folks here.
When It’s Time To Change…
The classic Brady Bunch song that highlighted Peter’s awkward transformation into adulthood was also apparent this past week. Lots has been written about how to start an entrepreneurial ecosystem and if engagement, visibility and inspiration are measures there are few that have done it better than Idea Village and NOEW. However like any good parent there comes a time when you have to recognize that your child is growing up and your role needs to shift. And likewise the child needs to understand that with new freedoms come new responsibilities. I for one am excited to see how this next chapter unfolds and play whatever part I can.
Cue the street cleaners that are the final parade float, letting everyone know the night is over and let’s get back to building the stories that will be told at NOEW 2015!