Expa Labs — Some Lessons Learned
With the first group of Expa Labs companies moving on to the next phase in their development and the application period for the next Expa Labs group now open, I wanted to take a step back to share some of the lessons I learned from working with each of the companies in our first group. The platform and learnings Expa has built by launching companies over the past three years was foundation on which Expa Labs was built. We didn’t set out to create “another” incubator program — we wanted to make something more entrepreneur-friendly, that valued company creation over all else. We didn’t want to rely on what others had done, instead coming up with a set of Founder First Principles gathered from interviews, discussions, and founder conversations with people who have created products, managed teams, been through programs and more.
When Expa announced our new $100M fund in March, 2016, it was to continue our mission of creating new companies, but also use our learnings to form the Expa Labs program. Starting from only a mention in the NYTimes to companies funded and starting work two months later is a testament to the work ethic of my colleagues at Expa. A lot of naysayers and folks said creating and putting into motion a program like this wasn’t possible, but we did it. And though Expa Labs will evolve over time, I am very proud of what we accomplished in the first version of our program.
Now that the inaugural program is over and I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience, I wanted to share some lessons learned;
Before the Expa Labs experience, the founder attributes I would most often cite almost sound cliche´ at this point; technical abilities, executional excellence, vision, ability to attract world class talent, etc…. What I didn’t have on my list was “coachable.” Though some might argue this isn’t necessarily a trait to look for, I think it’s essential. I worked with teams who, from the beginning, showed they could take feedback well and incorporate it into their thinking. There is a fine line between “I’m right” and “here are some facts” and teams that are coachable can make a big difference. They also know how to filter feedback from lots of people to make an informed, data-driven decision. Their vision may be directionally right — but tactically wrong — and it takes a strong team to change the course.
Ship it earlier
There’s an old expression that says “If you are not embarrassed by your first version you didn’t launch early enough” and it’s absolutely true. Shipping early provides many good lessons. Nobody knows what will happen — despite the loudest pontificators. Launching also quiets the naysayers — nothing speaks louder than actions. This lesson comes into play because whether you are a B2C company or a B2B enterprise company. Nothing gives you better feedback and usage patterns like a live production environment with real customers. Even if you have 10 beta users, it’s better than sitting around inside with limited info and lots of ideas.
Startup knowledge looks like an equalizer
Remember those old stereo equalizers that controlled all the audio settings? Startup knowledge is a lot like that — some entrepreneurs are very high in certain areas while others are very low. As head of Expa Labs, my job is to get everyone to at least a level set — so folks can tackle most problems with information and knowledge to create a solution. It is amazing how much information is out there about starting up a company, entrepreneurship, and almost any topic around starting a business — and yet the knowledge gap is large. Some founders are well informed about the details surrounding financing terms and definitions, while others are new to the topics. Others have deep technical knowledge about building and scaling systems, but have little to no information around hiring and HR policies. Nobody can be expected to know everything about every topic and that is where Expa comes in: We provide resources, experience, and a level set of knowledge in the areas where gaps might exist. My goal is to either fill in the knowledge gaps where I can, or pair founders with the right people.
I can’t say this any more directly: plans change. It reminds me of the famous Mike Tyson quote: ”everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face” and it’s true. The two types of plan changes I struggle with (but shouldn’t) are when a timeline changes and when a product launch changes the plan. Both are totally reasonable, should be expected, and yet remain difficult. For me the lesson is go with the flow a little more and let things change. Change, after all, is the only constant when building a company.
Fundraising is hard
Ok so this isn’t a lesson I discovered or needed to learn, but it’s a good reminder. Naveen Selvadurai, one of the Partners at Expa, has a great expression for founders; “it’s only going to get harder” which is funny and true. From the moment a team is funded they should be focusing on how to keep the business alive with the only thing that can guarantee it — cash in the bank. At the end of the Expa Labs program we also send out a “first look” to the LPs of Expa, which is a way for them to see the progress and status of each company and have the option to reach out if they want to get more involved or invest directly. There are no guarantees but it’s a great way to use the Expa network.
Learning never stops
I truly learned something new from every team, and I hope they learned from me. My applied knowledge from experiences and situations made sense, but I also added to my own toolkit as each company launched/built/iterated/shipped during their time in Expa Labs. I realized many things of my career convictions are now in flux — for example what worked in sales in 2014 may not be the case for 2016.
The end of a program isn’t “The End”
In conclusion I want to say thank you to the Expa Labs 2016 teams; DoveTale, Listen, Radar (NY) and NINAYO, Promote, and Chalet. I loved working (and still working!) with all of you. While the program is “officially” over, it’s only the beginning for you, with some difficult, frustrating, absolutely fun and satisfying moments ahead of you. You are now a part of the Expa family, and I am excited about what the future holds for each of your companies.
We have officially opened up applications for Expa Labs, and planning on more than doubling the size of the program. We have also introduced a new investment tier $250,000 for 10% equity along with the previous $500,000 for 20% equity. Applications are now open through March 31st 2017.
In addition to expanding the size of the program, we are now open to accepting companies from anywhere, that can work in the US. This means if you are in a city outside of one of our core locations, you can apply and potentially get into the program and work from where you are located.
With our offices in NY and SF, and now a Partner operating out of Vancouver our goals of growth and working with more entrepreneurs from more places is happening. If you are interested in learning more please checkout Expa Labs.