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I was having a conversion on Friday with Brad Bernthal, an Associate Professor at Colorado Law School who directs the Silicon Flatirons Center’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. Brad and I – in addition to sharing a first name – are close friends. We were talking about the recent amazing Techstars Demo Day that we had just had in Boulder, and Brad – in a professorial tone – started hypothesizing about the importance of Techstars in the Boulder startup community. We went back and forth a little and I encouraged him to put it in writing so I could use it as fodder for a blog post. He did me one better, and wrote a guest post. It follows.
It is time to consider the following question: When we look back, where will Techstars fit into the narrative of Boulder entrepreneurship history?
This question will not keep many of the entrepreneurs in Boulder up late at night. Looking forward – not back – is the Boulder startup community’s natural disposition. But sometimes we need to understand where things fit in and what they mean in the bigger scheme. During Techstars 2013 Boulder Demo Day, led by Managing Director Luke Beatty – who skillfully took the baton from Nicole Glaros – it occurred to me that reflection is now warranted.
Full disclosure: I am a Techstars mentor as well as a CU Associate Professor of Law, which makes me a weirdly situated participant/observer, and I’m admittedly rooting for Boulder. I am also not a historian and, from time to time, my prognostication skills are suspect. (Indeed I five years ago predicted the return of short shorts – 1980s style – in the NBA. No players appear to have received that memo.) With that, here some thoughts on how Techstars will be viewed in Boulder startup history.
Is it time to think about Techstars as historically significant in Colorado? Yes, it is. Techstars was one of the pioneers of the mentor-driven, time limited, entrepreneurial supercollider known as the Accelerator. Techstars now belongs in the company of other Front Range pioneers who helped craft an industry, a list which includes natural foods leaders folks – who built companies such as Celestial Seasonings, Wild Oats, and Alfalfa’s – and early movers in the disk storage industry, most notably StorageTek and its progeny. The first Techstars class matriculated in 2007. Six years later, TechStars is a global operation and, more fundamentally, the accelerator model is among the decade’s most important entrepreneurial innovations. Irrespective of what happens to Techstars ahead, development of the accelerator as a global industry ensures that Techstars will remain historically relevant.
How important is Techstars’ economic impact? TBD, but traditional metrics won’t capture its benefits. It is premature to say where Techstars will rank, in terms of regional economic impact, on a historic scale in Colorado’s Front Range. Techstars is a magnet for creative class talent. But it is not itself a huge employer relative to other area homegrown companies like Level 3 or StorageTek, or even rising companies like Zayo, Rally, LogRhythm, and SendGrid. Techstars’ geographically dispersed structure shares the wealth across multiple startup communities spanning Seattle to London. As a result, as Techstars scales up, its direct local economic benefits– unlike a Microsoft in Seattle, Google in Mountain View, or Dell in Austin – are realized in several locations, not primarily one.
My bet is that the geographically networked aspect of Techstars will emerge as its long term gift to Boulder. Traditional metrics of employees and annual revenues won’t capture Techstars’ most important impacts. In reputational benefits to Colorado, the near term impact is already outsized. Long term, as Anno Saxenian explains, the value of cross-regional connections – whereby one location is closely tied by personal relationships to other geographic startup locations – is a crucial advantage for 21st Century innovation hubs. Boulder is comparatively not well situated to have large scale immigration ties a la Silicon Valley or New York. But Techstars generates tremendous cross-regional connectivity for Boulder to other startups communities. My prediction is that cultivation of cross-regional networks will be Techstars’ biggest economic impact.
What will TechStars mean? Intergenerational connections in entrepreneurship. Techstars as a movie script pitch: company attract wicked smart next generation talent and pairs them with their elders. Mr. Miyage / Daniel with mouse clicks. Sparks ensue. Like many successes, this formula seems obvious in the rear view mirror. But building trusted networks is hard work that takes a deft touch. And the intergenerational network at the heart of Techstars sets a community norm that those who have success should pay it forward to the next generation. This resonates as Techstars’ long term significance.
R/GA is part of Interpublic Group of Companies, one of four global ad holding companies, and is the most award-winning agency in the digital world today. R/GA creates advertising and marketing products based in technology and design and has earned countless accolades over the years, including Advertising Age’s “Digital A-List” and “Agencies of the Decade.” They are the force behind the opening title sequence for 1978′s Superman to 2006′s Nike+ platform to 2010′s HBO Go connected device.
The Internet has rapidly expanded beyond desktop, server, laptop, and mobile computers and connected itself to many of the different devices in our everyday life. We’ve been investing in this area since we started Foundry Group in 2007 through our human computer interaction theme and recently added an investment in Dragon Innovation into the mix. It’s super exciting to me to do an accelerator program specifically around connected devices with Techstars.
Founders accepted into the program will have access to the Techstars mentor network and executives from R/GA’s team as well as $120K in funding, co-location space provided by R/GA in NYC, design and development support from talented designers and devs, and the opportunity to pitch to an invite-only launch presentation in Austin at SxSWi and at a demo day for angels and VCs in NYC.
If you’re a founder or startup focused on an innovative idea for a product and/or service in the connected devices space, please consider applying. Applications are open today and due October 11th. Apply now at rgaaccelerator.com.
Fred Wilson had a post yesterday titled Mentor/Investor Whiplash. His recommendations for dealing with it can be summarized as “collect all the data, think about it, discount what investors have to say, and ultimately listen to what the market is telling you over what advisors / investors tell you.”
I then read through the comments on the post and was bummed out. Many missed the point of what I thought Fred was trying to say. Then I reread the post more carefully and noticed how he framed the issue. The paragraph that caught my attention was:
I call this constant advising/mentoring of early stage startups “mentor/investor whiplash” and I think it is a big problem. Not just with the accelerator programs but across the early stage/seed startup landscape.
I bolded “I think it is a big problem” – that clearly set the tone for the comments.
I disagree with Fred. It’s not a big problem. It’s the essence of one of things an accelerator program is trying to teach the entrepreneurs going through it. Specifically, building muscle around processing data and feedback, and making your own decisions.
At Techstars, we view mentor whiplash as a positive attribute. We talk about it openly – all the time. I believe that if you ask five mentors the same question you’ll get seven different answers. This is especially true early in any relationship, when the mentors are just getting to know you and your company.
That’s good. That’s how business works. As an entrepreneur you get an endless stream of conflicting data on every issue. Your job is to sort the signal from the noise. Tools like Lean Launchpad and the concept of Lean Startup can help early on, but in some cases they’ll just collect more conflicting data, or validate (or invalidate) a particular hypothesis.
As the business grows, there are more points of stimuli, more agendas, more exogenous factors, and more potential whiplash. If you don’t build your own muscle around collecting, synthesizing, dealing with, and decided what to do with all the data that is coming at you, then you are going to have massive problems as your company scales up. So learning how to do this early on your journey is very powerful.
I view the accelerator environment, at least what we are creating at Techstars, to be an example of a safe environment. It’s an artificial construct that includes a massive amplification of stimuli and data over a short period of time (90 days) from people who – as mentors – should have the ultimate goal of being helpful to you. Now, every mentor – and investor – who you interact with – has their own emotional and intellectual construct of what they are doing and how they are interacting with you. That’s another layer of the positive impact – you have guides (your lead mentors, the people running the accelerator) who can help you decode the feedback. Your peers are interacting with the same mentors – often on the same day – and a short conversation with some of them can help you calibrate quickly.
Now apply Fred’s points (per my summary):
Collect all the data, think about it, discount what investors have to say, and ultimately listen to what the market is telling you over what advisors / investors tell you.
At Techstars, we repeat over and over again the following mantra to the entrepreneurs going through the accelerator.
It’s just data. It’s your company.
If you are in an accelerator, don’t be afraid of mentor whiplash. Don’t view it as a negative. Embrace it. Build muscle around it. Learn to process it. Filter out the noise. Run experiments on the stuff that seems valid to confirm or deny it. Make your own decisions!
I’m excited to join David Cohen and his team in announcing TechStars in Austin. From the TechStars blog:
“The Managing Director of TechStars Austin is Jason Seats. Jason is a “techie” and entrepreneur. Rackspace acquired his company Slicehost in 2008 and then made him VP of Engineering. Jason is an active angel investor and has been with TechStars since 2011 with two very successful programs under his belt as Managing Director. He brings amazing technical chops, founder experience and a strong network of his own. Jason is moving down the road from San Antonio to Austin and we’re confident that he will be a big part of growing both TechStars and the startup community in his new home.
TechStars will operate out of Capital Factory in downtown Austin. This beautiful space is “the most inspiring office space in Austin” for startups, and we’re happy that it’s our new home too. The amazing folks behind Capital Factory (Josh Baer and Bill Boebel) have played a critical role in bringing TechStars to Austin and we’re thankful for all of their support.”
Applications are open today and the final deadline is June 30th. Apply now. I look forward to meeting this new class of founders!
TechStars Patriot Boot Camp is an intense three-day program that will educate and mentor Veterans and Service Members to innovate, build technology companies, and create jobs. TechStars hopes that participation in the Patriot Boot Camp will be the catalyst for Veterans and Service Members to kickstart their company, find co-founders and advance as entrepreneurs. Veterans, spouses of Veterans, Service Members, or companies comprised of 50% or more Veterans are encouraged to apply to our second annual July 17-19 event in Washington D.C.
As an interesting note, participant Tak Lo from Patriot Boot Camp 2012 is now an Associate at TechStars in New York City and a participating company from Patriot Boot Camp 2012 - Nexercise - was recently accepted into the inaugural program of TechStars Chicago.
This event is made possible by awesome sponsors SoftLayer, Kauffman FastTrac, Slice of Lime, PivotDesk, Silicon Valley Bank, SendGrid, Galvanize, and George Washington University. The biggest thanks are due to these veteran entrepreneurs for their service to our country. Do you know a Veteran or Service Member that could benefit from a miniature TechStars experience? Please encourage them to apply.