As most people know, we have been participating in Flashpoint, a startup accelerator hosted by the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Now that we have graduated from the accelerator and participated in the Demo Days in Atlanta, New York City, and San Francisco, we can take a look back and share the lessons we learned from participating in the program.
A short caveat: these are my opinions and mine alone. Matt’s opinions might coincide with mine, but they could differ as well.
Basically the point of Flashpoint — and all these startup accelerators — is that you are offered seed capital in exchange for a small ownership stake in the company (typically 4-7% equity), which allows the founding team to work full-time on the startup for 3-4 months. During the 12-14 week period each team receives mentorship, coaching, and training on all elements of the business model, from customer segments to value propositions to sales and revenue models. There are also legal, marketing, and technical services available to the teams as well (a huge perk of being in an accelerator — some offer close to $1 million in services). The culmination of the program is a Demo Day in which the teams present their company plans to a room of prospective investors and the media.
What makes Flashpoint different is its “startup engineering” curriculum. The main thesis of Flashpoint, according to director Merrick Furst, is that after 25-30 years of interaction with technology startups companies we have a greater idea of what makes startups evolve into sustainable companies and the processes that a startup must take in order to improve its probability of success. This process is called many things, from Steve Blank‘s Customer Development to Eric Ries’ Lean Startup. Startup engineering attempts to take these processes and build a university course curriculum from them.
Flashpoint was a demanding and intense program. In my opinion, it was the hardest thing I’ve done since I completed the PhD program. At the same time, it was extremely beneficial to me and my company and Soccermetrics is in a better position for it.
So what lessons did I learn from 12-14 weeks in the crucible that was Flashpoint? Quite a few, actually.
- Every company is there for a reason. There are a lot of accelerators out there and many have their own specialties, so you need to make sure that there’s proper fit between the company and accelerator. But the directors have selected your team because they feel that either the company idea has a chance to grow into a big company, or the team has a chance to create something big. (And by “big”, I mean a billion-dollar company.) Yeah, it may not happen, but so what? Be encouraged!
- Every team member in the accelerator is exceptional. So don’t compare yourself to anyone else. You are bound to meet people in these accelerators who have significant entrepreneurial experience. In our Flashpoint class there were at least six or seven serial entrepreneurs, some of whom have founded, grown, and sold companies for eight or nine figures. There were also people who were first-time entrepreneurs, but have either held leadership positions at large entreprises, distinguished themselves in academics or other pursuits, or are just crazy talented. Everyone has to start somewhere, so even if you don’t have years of experience running startups, you still have the capacity and the talent to do something successful, and getting accepted into an accelerator is a vote of confidence. So don’t compare yourself to other founding teams, but do learn from them.
- The clock is ticking. Twelve weeks feels like a lot of time at the beginning, but the work day feels way too short, especially when you have mandatory lectures, status nights, guest speakers, and other optional events and seminars. And then it’s Demo Day! One bit of advice that one of the guest speakers made was to seek to reduce some area of business risk every day. I kept that to heart and I attempt to do that in this company.
- Know your desired end objective and work backwards. Think about what you want to have happen on Demo Day. Do you want angel investors and VCs to stumble over each other to get to you during the reception? What do you need to demonstrate in order to remove significant barriers from an investor’s mind? Is it traction? Is it technology? Whatever it is you need to show, think of the minimum that you need (signed customers, recurring visitors, etc), and work backward to determine what you need by when.
- Go all-in. There is absolutely no way you can work in a startup during these accelerators and have something else on the side. Accelerators are intense processes that require your complete focus. The teams are offered seed funding so that they can work 100% on the company. If you need it, take it. Go all-in and work full time on your company.
- Test every assumption about your company by getting in front of real customers. There was a lady with one of the Flashpoint teams that had a sticker on her laptop that said “Invalidate My Assumptions”. I liked that. In order to test your assumptions, you need to get in front of people who are in the market for your products or services — a lot of people, every single day. The minimum requirement for Flashpoint was three customer interviews per day, which can be challenging for some B2B companies, but it forces you to get in front of customers and find out if your initial assumptions about your company correspond with reality. If they don’t, that’s a good thing.
- Listen to mentors, but remember that it’s your company. One of the most valuable assets of a startup accelerator is its access to mentors — people who are either serial entrepreneurs, investors, or some combination of the two. (More often than not, they’ve contributed to the investment fund that provides the seed funds to the startup teams.) You will hear a lot of advice from them on all aspects of your company, some of it strongly-worded, some of it contradictory, and it will be tempting to obey all of their advice to the letter. After all, they’re experts, right? The truth is that you are the expert about your company, and if you take other people’s advice and it turns out to be the wrong advice, it’s still your fault for taking it. Listen to them respectfully, think about what it is they are reacting to, but also recognize that you are free to take all, part, or none of their advice.
- Be willing to change from an unviable path, but be willing to fight for your company. The last lesson dovetails very nicely into this one. It is very easy to get intimidated by sharp, crisp comments from either the program director or the mentors on status nights. Be willing to learn from the comments, but remember that in the end, it is your company and you are the expert on your company. Don’t be afraid to push back.
- There is the accelerator track, and there is your company track. Learn the difference. It is easy to get wrapped up in what is required to satisfy the accelerator program requirements, but remember that your company has its own objectives for Demo Day and beyond. (You did think of the desired end result and work backwards, right?) Preferably the accelerator track is a subset of the company track.
- Practice, practice, practice. Get in the habit of talking about your company every day, multiple times a day. Above all practice and iterate the business story and its value proposition to create an automatic, clear, and fluid response. I didn’t do that in the first half of the program and my pitches suffered. I put a lot more effort into practice in the last month and my pitches greatly improved.
Startup accelerators are demanding and intense, but an invaluable experience for a startup that can improve the chances for long-term success.