A friend of mine asked me recently if I thought spending a summer as an intern for TechStars was a good idea. Here was my response -
Best idea ever.
Depending on the level of your involvement, you could potentially walk away from this internship with experience in starting 11 companies, going through dozens of pivots, chasing the minimum viable product multiple times in multiple industries, developing pricing models for 11 companies products, the hiring and firing and team building as well as all other nuances related to human resource drama that come in the startup world, drilling through messaging problems multiple times with each company, mastering pitch strategies, walk through financing these companies with VCs and Angels, the multiple stock scenarios that all have to be worked through, and on and on and on.
Seeing that many ideas walk the maze of failure to reach that eventual success has given me more confidence and skill than I could ever have curated on my own one or two projects, assuming I could have made meaningful progress on those one or two projects, working alone in the allotted 90 day time frame. The way to approach it is to think down the road three months and ask yourself if you’d regret spending a measly three months gaining that much experience? I promise you there is no better way to spend that time.
Not to mention the immense network of mentors, friends, and new best friends that all come from the program which I will lean heavily on for the rest of my career.
Breaking it down it looks like this
Rent — $1800
Chewy chips ahoy — $80
Chocolate milk — $150
Broken arm with no insurance — $3000
The ability to reach into the upper echelons of the technology industry with a network of mentors, supporters, and 40 brilliant new friends who have seen your work ethic and would go to bat for you without reservation — Priceless
Stick that in your Discover commercial.
Such a great summer.
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.
@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.
@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.