3 Startup Lessons Learned in a Pre-Accelerator

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

This summer, I was invited to participate in the ‘Summer Founders’ Pre-Accelerator organized by Horn Entrepreneurship at the University of Delaware. It’s a 12-week program modeled after Y-Combinator and other famous accelerators helping to develop the next best startups across the country. This program is unique in that students aren’t necessarily expected to launch a startup after completion, but rather after engaging with areas of interest, and exploring the market, they may complete the program with a better understanding of where they’d like to start their career. Some participants choose not to start their own businesses, but throughout the process, begin to tackle problems others find admirable, resulting in job offers they may not have otherwise received. Here’s a summary of my experience in the program and 3 great lessons I learned along the way.

1.) Venture into the unknown. (Although it might scare you)

I’m a recent grad, having just completed graduate school in May of this year. During both undergrad and grad school, I’d taken advantage of nearly every entrepreneurial program my school had to offer. Though I had seemingly done it all, Summer Founders was like the final level of a video game, so to be invited to participate was a dream come true.

I wanted to make sure that I gave this opportunity my all, so in preparation I signed up for a Startup Weekend at a nearby university the weekend just before our program’s start date. I felt as though it may serve as a condensed version of what I was to experience throughout the summer, and in hindsight, it really did.

The weeks leading up to the start date were tough. I had to recruit a team, as participants are not encouraged to participate as solo-founders due to the workload and obvious benefits of collaboration. Up to this point, nearly all of my entrepreneurial endeavors had been carried out alone. I’d worked with other people on ventures before, but as a team, none ever panned out. Due to this, I was really tough on myself, trying to make sure that this didn’t happen again, hoping to improve as a leader who could motivate and manage a team. This was an opportunity for me to start over.

I was venturing into the unknown with no idea of what would happen at the end of the program. Would I find a scalable and repeatable business model? Would I gain buy-in from the philanthropic investors who’d visit each week? Or, more importantly, would I impress the investors who’d come to hear our final pitches at Demo Day at the end of the summer?

I hadn’t sought out any jobs leading up to graduation, so of course I hadn’t received any job offers for the fall. Before accepting the invitation to participate in Summer Founders, I had applied for an internship in Chicago and didn’t move forward in the applicant screening, so I thought that might be a sign that I shouldn’t seek a job, but rather create my own opportunity.

I was betting everything on designing a sustainable business and was working with a team I’d never worked with before in order to do it. There was so much of this I’d never done before, so I was definitely worried, but I’ve never been one to pass on an exciting adventure.

2. Persevere through tough times. (Easier said then done)

At the beginning of the program, I was really motivated. I’d wake up early in the morning, hitting the gym and showering by 7:30am and was in our co-working space ready to take on the day by 8am. Most days I’d even be the first person to set up in the office.

Things were seemingly going great until a few weeks in when my team began to fall apart. One of my team members decided to move on, as now wasn’t the right time to be an entrepreneur, which turned our trio into a duo. A few short weeks after that, I’d made what felt like one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I decided to let go of my other team member, a decision that quite literally made me sick to the stomach.

I was living exactly what Noam Wasserman describes in his book, ‘The Founder’s Dilemmas,’ which I’d just read earlier this year. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, and the time has to be right for each cofounder. Motivations also have to be aligned in order to ensure the team is on the same page. Conversations around ownership and equity splits are important to have in the early days, and probably most importantly; communication is key.

It was like I had lived the life of a startup founder in just a few short weeks. We were pitching investors week after week, not being rejected, but what felt like the equivalent. After each Friday afternoon’s pitch to several philanthropic investors, that same group would determine which teams were not meeting expectations or whom they believed could be doing much more to advance their startup concepts. This list is infamously known as “The Bottom 3” and it would be placed on a whiteboard for all to see throughout the following week.

My team had been placed on “The Bottom 3” what felt like the majority of the program, and if we weren’t on that list, we were notified that we’d “just missed” it. It started to feel so normal, that I’d even begun to anticipate being placed on the list, feeling like no matter what I said in my presentation, I’d end up on that list regardless.

I started questioning everything. Why was I choosing this journey? Was I really an entrepreneur? Why don’t these investors get it? What more do I need to do to be successful?

Right at about week 6, marking the middle of the program and halfway to Demo Day, I hit a wall. For about 2 whole weeks I was unmotivated by almost everything, feeling like I’d already lost, like there was no way I could “beat” the other teams. Like I had disappointed everyone.

Despite my internal struggles, I kept showing up. I’d struggle to look myself in the mirror if I’d just given up. So when I was faced with even more challenges, I remembered a common saying repeated throughout the program, “You’re the entrepreneur, you figure it out.”

3. Appreciate the journey. (You’ve come so far, with further to go)

Just earlier this year I won 1st place at a pitch competition in Texas and placed 2nd in a another competition through a separate venture. I was confident in my capabilities, but not satisfied with any of the solutions I’d previously developed. I didn’t start the Summer Founders program with a proven business model, but I did have a mission to tackle social issues and this was an opportunity to take the summer to search and gain a better understanding of the problems I wanted to address.

By Demo Day, I didn’t develop a scalable business model. I did, however, secure funding for my own 12-week accelerator which I’ll be piloting in January of 2019. So although I can’t say that I launched a startup, I did get much closer to creating a sustainable business.

By the end of it, I never ceased to advocate for the problem owners I identified and I’d even experienced and validated many of those same problems myself along the way. Above all, I’d gained a better understanding of my entrepreneurial “why.”

I became a business owner and paid employees. I got to put my creativity to use, exploring many problems and ideating even more solutions. I connected with some truly amazing people from Delaware, to New York, to Pennsylvania and Texas. I’d interviewed Venture Capitalists empowering women to pioneers leading the revolution around equity and access to startup funding. I also found that I was motivating others to tackle their own challenges and stay motivated through my daily posts on instagram.

It was a privilege to take advantage of such an opportunity; I was provided a stipend to test my assumptions and learn in a low-risk environment, and I had access to numerous mentors helping along the way. In the end, I’m honored to have been selected to participate, and I’m excited to continue developing my venture full-time.

Now, I’m in the real world, where those same resources aren’t as readily available, but I’m ready for the next challenge. Do I consider myself to be a startup founder? No, not really, but I do consider myself to be an advocate and a change agent working to break down barriers and build a better world. It’s undeniable that I’m an entrepreneur; an individual dissatisfied with existing systems, actively working to build new ones and create value for so many others who deserve it.

Now, as a full-time entrepreneur, the real work begins.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to everyone at Horn Entrepreneurship, my fellow Summer Founders, and my team. Thank you all for helping me grow as an entrepreneur.

To making our own waves! 🌊🌊🌊