Passing the torch

spring cohort founders

I kicked off this year by taking on a role to run a pre-accelerator for Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). I teamed up with Mac Gambill, local startup hero and co-founder of Nudge, as well as two terrific part-time staff at VCU to run logistics and the organizational side of things. After twelve weeks of spending Thursday nights with our nine startup teams and uncountable boxes of pizza, we took a month off and jumped right into the next cohort. It’s time to reflect on the good and the bad and what’s next for a successful program.

Spring cohort

We worked with nine teams from across schools at VCU: engineering, business school and arts. For twelve weeks we discussed the right set-up for growing mushrooms in an urban farm, how to promote handmade yoga bags, fight food deserts in our East End and sell used surfboards. The ideas were as diverse as their founders, the energy was great!

With that being said, engaging meaningfully with nine teams, even with two facilitators, is tough and would have easily been a half-time role for both Mac and me. The fact that the teams were participating in the program in the middle of their semester didn’t help. All things considered, they did a fantastic job but to fully reap the benefits of such a program, participants shouldn’t have school, exams, spring break and student jobs on their minds while trying to launch a business.

Mentor session, spring cohort

Mentors, oh mentors! No good (pre-) acceleration without committed mentors! They joined us every two weeks and were able to observe developments and support teams in reaching milestones. Chapeau to all seven of them for devoting every second Thursday night to spend time with our founders and engage with them on a level that really allowed them to move forward. I panicked a bit knowing it would be hard to ever find such a dedicated group of mentors again, but they made all the difference! We were lucky that they made great personal matches in terms of their experience, networks and personal interest. For whatever startup program you may run, find mentors that are willing to engage and can truly add value to the ventures.

Another great feature of this program was working with Mac. An entrepreneur himself — and an incredibly smart and kind person on top of that — he was able to relate every question and lesson with his personal experience of launching and running a startup. I am a lot of things, but entrepreneur is not one of them — so while I kept our trains running on time and individually worked mentors, I felt like Mac really complemented my input through his startup experience. For those who are looking to run a (pre-) accelerator, find an entrepreneur to help facilitate — their first-hand knowledge is invaluable!

Off-site pitch practice, 2 days before Demo Day

Talking about bringing entrepreneurs into the mix: We invited a number of guest speakers — Alumni of this program as well as experts on legal issues, sales and marketing, and website development. I truly believe that founders get tired of hearing from the same people over and over again. Throughout our twelve weeks, five guest speakers gave a full or partial session — all of them entrepreneurs themselves — and I think it added authenticity to the content we were trying to convey.

Let’s talk about the curriculum for a bit. The twelve weeks were split up into three sections:

  1. Customer Discovery and MVP development
  2. Customer Validation and prototype development
  3. Pitching

No secret sauce here. While we had a number of textbooks at hand (Eric Ries’ Lean Startup, Steve Blanks’ Startup Manual and Alexander Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas), we opted out of teaching a set curriculum. I’m not sure the program was all that different between section one and two, but the founders made progress and that’s all that mattered. Some ventures were cash-flow positive when they joined the program while others were still testing their idea; so in the end of the day, they all had different goals for the twelve weeks. I admit I had a short moment of doubt about our teaching approach when one of the mentors asked “When do you expect to break even?” and the founder looked helplessly, confused and pleadingly at me. But at pitch night — as it does — it all came together.

Pitch Night, spring sohort

They nailed it. There is something to be said for adrenaline and pitching in front of an audience that you have never seen (I made sure to sit in the first row for nodding and encouraging smiles and thumbs-ups). But say what you want, I felt like a proud mama bear when they talked about their PNL, market penetration rate and sales projections. We all had a great time and I was overjoyed seeing how far each of them had come in only three months. We — the team that had worked with them day in and out — were a little nervous, but looking around the room that night and hearing people chuckle at jokes that we were all too familiar with, was very rewarding! All nine of them had the room mesmerized and convinced that they were the next Steve Jobs.

And then the strangest thing happened. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. By no means did I want to be rude, it just felt like a massive weight had lifted from my shoulders and while everybody was patting the founders on the back, exchanging business cards and offering contacts, I just sat there and felt exhausted. The three months and the anticipation about pitch night — that I didn’t want to admit to anyone — had left me empty and washed out. I had no more words of encouragement, no more advice. They had made it. There was nothing left for me to say or do but to watch them bathe in their success and live the moment. I loved that some of the founders came up to thank me and that the person who had hired me told me others were singing my praise, but I just shrugged my shoulders and felt empty-handed.

Summer cohort

Four weeks later, we kicked off the next program. It was a tight window for applications and selection. We had a smaller pool of students to select participants from, I struggled to find new mentors that would be able to contribute to individual teams and were available throughout the summer. We worked through the same curriculum but for some reason my heart wasn’t in it the way it was with the first cohort. Because of the short time we had in between programs, I felt as though I hadn’t recharged my batteries enough. We couldn’t find as many guest speakers as the first time, mentors weren’t as committed due to summer travel, the students — despite being in between semesters — got full-time summer jobs and were as tired as students in the first cohort during the semester. I didn’t feel like participants advanced enough; throughout the program I had the sense that they weren’t applying what they learned on Thursday nights.

Customer validation, summer cohort

In short, something just felt off and by the time pitch night came around, I felt as though we hadn’t made the most of the twelve weeks. And that’s when I knew that we either had to change the program drastically in terms of scheduling, content and deliverables, or it was time for me to pass on the torch. With so many other projects going on, we landed on the latter. It’s always strange to “break up” with an awesome team that you worked with on such an intense program and part of me will miss spending Thursday nights in Founders Corner at VCU. At the same time, I am convinced that the person taking over from me will bring new energy and a fresh perspective to the program. And that’s all that matters.

In Startup Communities Brad Feld asks “If it’s best for your startup ecosystem, would you fire yourself?” and in this case, I did.