Founder First Principles — Creating Expa Labs

I have spent the last few months helping to create and launch the Expa Labs program. The first group of Expa Labs companies started last week, and I am excited to have them in our offices building. They are incredible founders, with amazing backgrounds, working on great ideas.

To understand how we got to this point its worth taking a step back and looking at the foundation this program was built upon, as well as understand why we build Labs in the first place.

From the original post at Expa.com

Expa is a startup studio that works with founders to develop and launch new products. After 10 years of designing and building consumer services, Garrett and the Expa team have identified many techniques that help create successful companies. This experience has been integrated into a platform to help founders increase their startup’s chance of success.

Expa Studio has created an incredible framework for founders to build, scale and launch companies, and using this for outside founders is a natural evolution. We wanted to take what we have learned building inside, and leverage the same platform for founders. The Expa Labs program was built using this same system, and I am excited to deliver on the initial vision of helping more founders. It has been great working with the existing team at Expa and leveraging the work that has been done to date.

Since the program didn’t exist before, I wanted to share how we approached building it, and share some of my thoughts along the way.

I started building the program thinking about first principles. There are plenty of other startup programs that exist, and I didn’t want to compare and contrast them. Rather I want to focus on the things that I believed to be the Founder First Principles so that we could create something entirely focussed on the people in the program. If you are not familiar with the topic, here is a quick video that explains nicely the thinking behind this method:

The first task was to come up with Founder First Principles which I defined as;

  1. Capital: Investment in the business to conduct business
  2. Talent: Bringing in the right talent into a company
  3. Office space: A place to conduct business and come to work to collaborate
  4. Feedback: Getting early user and customer feedback from people outside the office
  5. Network: A group of peers to brainstorm, conspire, partner, help, collaborate and vent to
  6. Advisors: Individuals that can 10X a part of the business that a founder or employee cannot
  7. Future Funding: Access to materials and people that can help in raising outside capital
  8. Frameworks of Success: Access to frameworks that have worked in the past, but not set in stone (there is no formula!)

I spent a long time thinking about this list, and going through what Expa could offer. I came up with the following;

  1. Capital: Expa will capitalize each business with $500K
  2. Talent: We will attract top talent leveraging the platform/success built to date with people, products, and companies
  3. Office Space: Expa will provide office space in NY and SF to companies to work alongside other founders
  4. Feedback: Expa will provide office hours, 1:1 time, and feedback when need with key individuals within the organization
  5. Network: Expa will provide a bi-weekly breakfast with individuals that can help Expa Labs companies + share materials with our limited partners at the end of the program
  6. Advisors: Expa will leverage its own advisor network for the breakfast series, announce the companies on our channels, and introduce folks who have interests
  7. Future Funding: Expa will send out a “first look” to the limited partners who have invested in Expa (something they are very excited about) before the end of the program
  8. Frameworks of Success: Expa will provide guidance and coaching (that’s me!) + leverage the team, and lean on the frameworks we have seen work in other Expa Studio companies.

Given this list, and reviewing it now, I am reminded that there is no magic formula for startups — an important reminder when looking for the answer.

Although many of these seem obvious, creating this list and working with all the stakeholders to create this program was an amazing opportunity.

I tried to imagine myself in the shoes of an entrepreneur reading through the Expa Labs website for the first time and thinking about the future of my company and where I wanted to spend time. I thought about what kind of people I wanted to work around and what would motivate me every day to be energized to go to work. I thought about the difficulties facing most founders, and what things I could provide that would make the process a little bit easier for Labs companies. I thought about the crossroads that many founders come to, and the best ways to provide the right advice at the right time. In doing so we created what you see today at Expa.com/Labs.

Throughout the creation process it was great to leverage the smart brainpower within Expa, not only from the partners, but also the incredible team they have assembled over the past 3 years.

I also sat down with founders who have been through every stage of the lifecycle of a business. I sat with folks who never raised a dime of outside capital, and got their thoughts on the early days of their companies life. I met with founders who have been through accelerator and incubator programs, and listened to their feedback. I spoke with CEOs who have raised millions of dollars in venture capital, and pried into what they would do different today if they could “start from scratch”. The most fun question to ask this group was simply; “if you were doing this again today, what would you do differently?”. Variations of this question made these founders gush about ideas and brainstorming about how they get started.

Everyone has their own unique origin story and, because of that, there’s no singular/perfect formula. Hearing from real people was my Customer Development Process for Labs, and it felt good to “get outside the building” and talk to prospective “customers”.

Once the program details were setup, I created a simple 15-question form for companies to share there vision with us. We received ~500 applications, which included answers and videos from founders — to which I reviewed them all. This not only was a great way to see and hear from prospective Labs companies, but also to gain insight and further sharpen my own pattern recognition into what is happening in the market today. I am in awe of the incredible caliber of the applications I reviewed and the entrepreneurs I got a chance to speak with. After reviewing and combing through applications, with a huge amount of help from Roberto Sanabria, we worked our way down to a group of finalists. We invited a small group of companies to SF for a final interview, and spent time with each going through their business and trying to understand what they wanted to build. The exercise was a logistical challenge, but something that was worthwhile in the end, as I got great feedback from most folks who went through the process.

We recently announced the first 6 Expa Labs companies and I am excited for the next six months. I would say that the main driver of such a small number of companies was the amount of time and energy we wanted to spend with each team.

Thinking about school is the closest analogue I can come up with; a classic example where a group that wants to learn (students) from a select few (teachers/professors/experts) — the ratio matters most. Even the best schools in the world take the ratio of students to teachers to heart, and in crafting a new program I wanted to do the same. I can’t predict what will happen in the future, but it will certainly make the framework of Expa Labs that much better for a bigger group in the future.

With this first group already in the office and focussed on building and shipping, I am thinking about the future and how we will do. We are certainly not going to get everything right at first, which is why we are constantly going to test and evaluate and measure how we are doing. Both from a logistical and tactical standpoint, to a pattern recognition and return on investment standpoint.

Although the Labs program has begun, there’s still a lot of work to be done — including taking time to reflect on the process and make it better for the next iteration. I am looking forward to working with this first group, and opening up applications again in the future if you are interested.


Originally published at www.ericgfriedman.com on June 16, 2016.

Thanks to BPLewis and Naveen for reading through this