Hard Knock MBA (Personal MBA)
Hard Knock MBA (Personal MBA)
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Hard Knock MBA (Personal MBA)

The unanticipated lessons of TechStars

Posted by Al Doan under Gaining Experience, Goals


Hard Knock MBA (Personal MBA)

So when I came in to TechStars, I had certain expectations for my time here.  I expected that I would be able to observe a few companies in their growth and build out a network of quality people I’d be able to draw on in the future.  I thought if I could do that I would count it a good summer.

Well fast forward almost a full summer and I’ve spent 20 hours a day working shoulder to shoulder with these teams to build real and meaningful companies, all the while building a network of mentors and friends who have undertaken the same endeavor, and I realized I have learned a few other lessons I had not exactly anticipated.

For whatever reason, these weren’t even on my radar, but now I count them as some of the most valuable lessons of my summer.

Used with permission from Alpine Light Pictures INC


@JasonMendelson gave a session on negotiating a few weeks ago that stood out to me.  Actually, I don’t think the session was on negotiating but that is what I took from it.  I’ve never really paid much attention to the art of negotiation, but after talking about it for an evening, I am observing that there is an art to the strategy and methodology of negotiating that allows you to remove emotion from discussions and arrive to a decision that both parties are happy with, all while relentlessly lobbying for your own interests.  I don’t think I need to explain why this is a skill that holds great potential.

As I’ve gone through these last few weeks I’m realizing more and more where my strengths are in negotiating and what weaknesses I need to beware of and address.

Funding Strategy

@bfeld and @dbrown gave sessions on funding strategies.  Brad talked about taking venture capital or loans to fund your company, how that affects your stock, and in turn your motivation.  He talked about strategy in choosing VC/Angel partners that will back you up and support you in different scenarios, what to be scared of, as well as timing your discussions and expectations.  David talked about his experience bootstrapping Zoll Inc., how bootstrapping changes the dynamic of running a company, the dynamic of a team that has to run a business without outside funding, the good the bad and the ugly.

From these sessions and watching these companies sort it out themselves, I’m realizing that funding your company involves much more than finding someone who wants to hand you a check.  It’s unfortunate that more people fully appreciate this, I think it would alleviate a lot of stress.  That being said, so far as takeaways for the summer go, this one is one of my favorites.

Minimum Viable Product

@ericries flew out to talk about the lean startup movement, which is abstract on the surface, but it is a toolbox with many tools in it.  The one that I had my ‘eureka!’ moment with was Minimum Viable Product (MVP).  I’m a fan of my waterfall methodology from college, where you come up with your product, break it out into accountable phases, then develop each phase in sequence until you have your product, well version one of your product anyway, which I thought was my MVP.  Wrong.  Consider your product, then break it down into the one most attractive function, then break it down further until you have the one very simple thing that is at the core of what you want to build someday.  When you have that, make it, toss it out there as soon as possible, and start letting customers use it, break it, and give you feedback around it.  Don’t give up on the vision, but don’t be consumed by it either, because if no one wants the core amazing functionality, they aren’t going to want a plethora of the accompanying features.

So as I cycle through companies and positions in my career, I’ll focus on MVP and getting customer feedback which will either mold the company early on, or cause it to fail miserably quickly so we don’t waste time on it.  Pretty good takeaway I reckon.

Talk to Everyone

This is something I thought I knew, thought I was good at, and thought I had nailed down.  But over the course of the summer, I’ve gotten much, much better at it.  What I’ve come to realize is smart guys, rich guys, new guys, and veterans all have their own bubble problems.  I don’t think anyone naturally likes being out of their comfort zone and in someone else’s.  It’s just not natural for anyone to be the first to go shake hands with a room full of people, so the only option you have is to quit waiting for someone else to do it and just get in there because it is uncomfortable for everyone.  I’ve watched people come into a room of brilliant minds that could answer their questions, potential money that could help them run a company, or just good people that would be great additions to their personal network, and I’ve seen them be paralyzed by fear and the accompanying hide behind the phone, hang by the walls, just talk to their buddies shenanigans we all turn to.  The benefit of just jumping right in there is that you often only get the one chance to meet somebody, and a quick hello / chit chat can give you a valuable contact where playing coy will get you nothing.

Everyone can be better at this.  Be that guy and just get out there.  You will never regret having another friend/resource to call on when you need it.  I get better at it every time, it just takes some practice.

Not a bad summer, and we’re not even done.

Tags: 6 Comments »
Hard Knock MBA (Personal MBA)
Hard Knock MBA (Personal MBA)
  • Epic photo. Wasn't even aware it was being taken!

  • Megan Sweeney

    Great post and you're right – the summer is not over, more intimidating photos of you to come;)

  • great post buddy. I endorse these learnings.

  • Hillary

    Great post Al, great insight. I think I'll post it on my wall. 🙂

  • Great post Al. It was great meeting you this summer! Your post is dead on with lean startup. I would have never thought about that methodology, but ever since hearing Eric speak at the LeanStartup Conference when I first moved here, both Chad and I have been hooked! What better thing for entrepreneurs, than an accepted form of testing that allows you to build a business around the feedback on it's core functionality!!

  • Jay

    This in invaluable information. Oh my gosh. Appreciate this so much.

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