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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 doing a one hour CEO roundtable on an “about weekly basis” with each of the Techstars classes. Yesterday I did a face to face with the Techstars Boulder CEOs (they are across the hall from my office) and then I did my meetings with the Techstars Chicago CEOs and the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator CEOs by video conference.
This is a new experiment for me. I’m trying a different approach to mentoring the Techstars teams this year. I’m still a lead mentor for two of the Boulder teams (Kato and SnowShoe) but for all the other programs, including Boulder, I’m trying a weekly one hour CEO only session.
One of my big goals is to generate more peer interaction between the CEOs of the various companies. We do this aggressively within the Foundry Group portfolio and it’s one of the really powerful things about Techstars. But historically it’s been adhoc and random, rather than in an organized way. This is an effort to get the CEOs to really bond with every one of the other CEOs during the program.
So far the experiment is working great from my perspective. I’m stunned by the depth of the conversation and I can see the relationship dynamics being very broad as well as intellectually and emotionally intense.
Each of the three meetings yesterday were totally different, as Techstars Boulder is in week 8, Techstars Chicago is in week 4, and Kaplan EdTech is in week 2. As I was taking a shower this morning, I kept thinking about the rant I went on during the last 10 minutes of the meeting with the Techstars Chicago CEOs.
By week 4, a team is deep in things. The stress is showing. Everyone is tired and working at their max capacity. They’ve been exposed to a wide range of mentors and lots of conflicting data. Stuff is breaking all the time. Everything is uncomfortable and – in some cases – distressing.
In reaction to a particular conversation, I strung together quotes from three of my favorite books about entrepreneurship. The rant went as follows:
- “It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” – John Galt in Atlas Shrugged
- “Fear is the mind-killer.” - the Bene Gesserit is Dune
- “Anxiety, the next gumption trap, is sort of the opposite of ego. You’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong you’re afraid to do anything at all.” – Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I used the quotes as the anchors on a longer rant, but I did it extemporaneously. I hadn’t realized how nicely these quotes fit together until this particular moment, prompted by the particular situation. In hindsight, the only quote I forgot was my favorite of all time – “Do or do not, there is no try.” – Yoda.
And – it reminded me that three books should be on every Startup CEO’s reading list along with Matt Blumberg’s new book, Startup CEO.
Startups fail. That’s part of the natural entrepreneurial cycle.
A great post is making the rounds from an entrepreneur who has 30 days left before he hits the wall. His blog - My Startup has 30 Days to Live – promises to be a powerful one, at least for 30 days. I’m only sad about two things: (1) It’s anonymous and (2) There are no comments so it’s one way.
I left a message on “Ask me anything” asking him/her to reach out if I can help. We’ll see if he/she responds – or it’s either (a) a one way rant or (b) a fake failure story.
Either way, entrepreneurs need to talk about failure. It’s fine – I’ve failed at a ton of things. On Monday, I gave my “How To Fail” talk at Techstars Boulder. Included were all the Startup Summer students as well as a bunch of members of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado. I told the story of my first failure (my first company – Martingale Software) and my biggest failure (Interliant). I made some broad points and then did an hour of Q&A.
I hope it was useful.
I see entrepreneurs, especially first time entrepreneurs, in denial all the time about the possibility of failure. “Failure is not an option”, or “I’m afraid to fail”, or “Everything is going great” (when it isn’t). Sometimes failure is your best option.
Denial of reality – and what you can do – is a big issue. Ignoring reality until it’s too late is another. Not reaching out for help when there is still time is yet another. Fear of failure – which is the mind killer – is yet another.
In one of my darkest moments of Interliant, I was sitting hunched over at the kitchen table of one of my co-founder’s (Len Fassler) – breakfast table. We had a brutal day in front of us and I was waiting for him to finish getting dressed so we could head to the office to deal with things. When he came into the kitchen, he saw me and said “C’mon Brad – suit up – let’s go.” He patted me on the back in the wonderful way he always does and said “Just remember – they can’t kill you and they can’t eat you.”
Follow My Startup has 30 Days to Live. Learn from it. And if the entrepreneur uncloaks, let’s try to help, even if it’s just providing emotional support.
The Boulder TechStars program is in week three and the intensity level is high. The TechStars office is across the hall from ours at Foundry Group and it’s wild to see the level of activity ramp up during the three months that TechStars Boulder is in session.
I’m trying a new thing this program and doing a weekly CEO-only meeting. I’ve been trying to figure out a new way to engage with each program other than mentoring a team or two, and have been looking for a high leverage activity that I could do remotely for all of the other programs. My current experiment is an hour a week with all of the CEOs in a completely confidential meeting, but a peer meeting so each of them gets to talk about what they are struggling with to help solve each other’s problems as well as learn from each other.
We’ve done two of these meetings in Boulder and I love it so far. I’ll run this experiment for the whole program, learn from it, and iterate. If it works, I’ll scale it across all the programs.
Yesterday I also finished up my first set of 1:1 meetings with all of the teams. In my 1:1 meetings, I try to keep them very short – 15 minutes – and focus on what is “top of mind“. I learn more from this and can help more precisely than if I spent 30 minutes getting a generic pitch, which will likely change dramatically anyway through the course of TechStars. So each of these top of mind drills is “up to 5 minutes telling me about your company” and “10 minutes talking about whatever is top of mind.”
By the third week, I notice what I call “pitch fatigue” setting in. I think every entrepreneur should have several short pitches that they can give anytime, in any context, on demand.
- 15 seconds: Three sentences – very tight “get me interested in you” overview.
- 60 seconds: What do you you, who do you do it to, why do I care?
- 5 minutes: Lead with the 60 seconds, then go deeper.
- 15 minutes: Full high level pitch
- 30 minutes: Extended presentation that has more details
Bt week three, the teams are still fighting through getting the 15 second and 60 second pitch nailed. That’s fine, but there’s emotional exhaustion in even trying for some of them. The founders have said some set of words so many times that they are tired. The emotion of what they are doing is out of the pitch. Their enthusiasm is muted – not for the business, but for describing it.
Recently I was on the receiving end of a description from an entrepreneur, who has a great idea that I love, that had the emotional impact a TSA inspection at the airport. He was going through the motions with almost zero emotional content. At the end of it, I said one sentence - ”Don’t get sick of telling your story.” I then went deeper on what I meant.
He responded by email later that day:
Thanks for articulating what was going on in my head. I think I was getting burnt out from telling the same story to so many mentors. I need to stay focused and stick with the story that worked well the first 40 meetings. I also need to be careful that the lack of “freshness” doesn’t affect how passionate and energetic I come across. Timing for this realization couldn’t be better given our upcoming fundraising trip.
I’ve done an enormous amount of pitching and fundraising over the years. When we raised our first Foundry Group fund in 2007, I did 90 meetings in three months before we got our first investor commitment. By meeting 87, after hearing no a lot (we got about 30 no’s out of the first 90 meetings before we got a yes) I was definitely had pitch fatigue. But every time I told it, I brought the same level of intensity, emotion, optimism, and belief that I did the first time I told it. Today, six years later, when I describe what we are doing and why we are doing it, and why you should care, I’m just as focused on getting the message across as I ever have been. And I never get tired of telling our story.