Luan, do you ever sleep? (Being an Associate at Techstars part 1)

… was a common question I got during the programme. The answer is surprisingly yes, but since so many people are curious, why don't we break down the question further. Actually who am I kidding, most of you don’t care…

Source: me.me

Now that I clearly got your attention, let me walk you through the breakdown of “Luan, do you ever sleep?”. It's always important to understand the context of the issue at hand, so I'll give you a bit of background. I always like to split problems into their “static” and “dynamic” components, so let's look at: what made me wake up in the morning, what made me stay in the office late (both static), and finally, what kept me going (dynamic).

Context.

I applied to be a Business Development Associate for the SAP.iO Foundry, powered by Techstars accelerator (yes, that's the full name) in July 2017. Also, with full disclosure — it was at a pretty strange time in my life. At this point, it was about half a year since I quit my corporate job and started my “soul searching” (millennial's journey to become a snowflake).

This period was intertwined with a couple of personal matters, so getting my job situation in order wasn't exactly on top of my priority list. Once the dust settled, the urgency of catching up for the lost time I wasn't working on my career started kicking in. After all, I went to a business school, so I had well-ingrained mentality that “career is life”. I knew I was curious about tech, but is that really enough? I also wanted to start a company, but perhaps I was using market research as an excuse to avoid job hunting. Later on, I started helping a local VC with an evaluation of a startup in a space I am really keen on, but… is there a chance I wanted to be in VC just to make myself feel like I caught up? (The startup actually exited a couple of weeks ago and I’m glad I was part of the decision not to invest, because I saw how # of exits ≠ a real success metric.)

So the offer to be part of the SAP.iO Techstars programme came as a saving grace. Sanah, Peter and Connor took a bet on me and hired me as an Associate, so that I couldn't make any more stupid decisions. (I still did, but less?)

Check out this video to see who I was lucky enough to work with!

Okay, that's nice, but back to the topic — what made you wake up in the morning?

Well, in the beginning, this was mostly because I was excited that things started to look more clear after the (seemingly) long period of uncertainty.

Nevertheless, this wore off after a couple of weeks. Slowly, the reasons started becoming: “I’m going to launch a new growth hacking experiment for startup X today.”, “I'm going to work on fundraising with startup Y.”, “I'm going to sit down with startup Z to advise them how should they visualise their data.”, “We're going to meet 40 awesome mentors this week.”, “Today, we're going to learn how to really use LinkedIn.” and more.

But it doesn't stop there. We’ve had 50 new people, working together for three months in a foreign city. Goal? Achieve what would otherwise be achieved in 2 years. So there I was, surrounded by all these people, all from different countries and backgrounds, all with completely different experiences and all with their own unique perspectives. And the result was extraordinary. You become part of this “little” (SAP.iO) Techstars family and you're excited to go to the office to see them, you're going to learn something new every day.

“Fire it up!” 🔥
There you go. The answer is diversity. Diverse projects, diverse set of people, diverse opportunities. If you can't grow under such circumstances, then I don't know what else could help you.

Cool, but why would you stay late? Get a life!

Yeah, I know… But it's hard when you're granted with such an opportunity. The thing is: I did not see myself being in a position like this anytime soon, so I planned to make full use of it. To be more particular, I cannot think of any other role where I have the freedom to work with any or all of the 10 startups in the cohort, and on any projects I want, as long as the teams receive value from my work. This also meant that if I felt unproductive or I had to leave at a more reasonable hour, I could.

Another reason why I spent so much time in the office is that us Associates are there to help, not to sell. We're there to help and produce value to the founders and we don't have to put effort into making ourselves look good or turning our work into pretty slides and charts (unless our project involved making pretty slides and charts!). If I know that my time is spent in a meaningful way, I have less motivation to go home.

Admittedly, another big reason why I sometimes went home late is that I was chatting to fellow night owls in the office. This was important as well though — this way I got to know a lot of founders outside of a professional setting and I could better understand them as a person and what shaped their decisions and startup journey. I'm positive that I'm now better prepared to become an entrepreneur.

So the short answer here is flexibility. I stayed late, because nothing was stopping me from doing so. It made sense to me to do so.

(Note: What does “stay late” even mean? Everything is relative! Did I stay later than my Investment Banking friends? No. Did I stay longer than my ex-colleagues from a corporate? Yup. For the purpose of this blog post, let's say late means I was competing for the last man standing title.)

We're almost done, right? So what kept you going?

Yes, almost there! Tl;dr: I didn't want it to stop.

I was learning — every day. I was slowly gaining skills that I would otherwise spend ages attaining and I was learning by doing. I have the luxury of being at a point in my life where I can dedicate a great deal of my time to professional learning without having to, for example, sacrifice time with kids at home. I don't have any excuses, why wouldn't I make use of this chance? I was also learning about many diverse topics first-hand — pretty useful being in a programme focused on a vertical that's so hot, but so full of noise right now (AI/ML).

I still remember being told that the role is a bit similar to a role of an internal consultant. So I was telling myself: “But what do I know? Most of these people have more experience than me and definitely more startup experience than me. And now I'm supposed to be telling them what to do?”

You see, I was used to “if you want to speak with this executive, you have to go through person A who goes through person B”. And here all the founders were willing to listen to my opinion and tell me if it makes sense or is plain stupid. No matter how big the gap in experience was, all the founders approached me with humility and respect and gave me immediate feedback (also because you're all on one floor and they can't run away) and words got quickly converted into actions. And then actions get quickly converted into results and I can clearly see and measure my impact. All of this happens very quickly and helped me grow. For this, I'll be forever grateful to everyone in the programme.

(It may seem like I bash the corporate life, but I actually learnt tremendously from my times at CEZ. Shout out to my amazing manager who made that possible! #CorporatesDontHaveToBeEvil)

Secondly, the diversity of experiences and skillsets was also pronounced in our little Techstars, SAP & SAP.iO squad. This meant that whenever I was picking up something new or unsure about a problem at hand, there was always someone willing to help or exchange views with me. Furthermore, there aren't many networks that could match Techstars', so if I can't find anyone to help me, it's likely to be my own fault.

SAP.iO & Techstars 🚀

So there you have it — diversity, flexibility and learning. There's many more reasons to join (and not to join) Techstars as an Associate, but I felt like I'd be repeating what others before me have already said. All in all, if you're considering applying — don't wait, go ahead and apply. I truly believe that Techstars gives everyone, not just founders, a platform to succeed (and figure things out). It's up to you if you want to leverage that.

Also, results? Probably the result that for me speaks the most volumes: after the programme ended, three of the startups I worked with the most asked me to work with them later on and I was also asked by some programmes at Techstars to help them look for more amazing teams.

Thank you all (you know who you are) for pushing me to grow, become a better entrepreneur and always going the extra mile to grant me with opportunities to never stop learning.

For any questions, feel free to shoot me a message on LinkedIn 😄.

For a more structured, to-the-point and just overall better explanation of what becoming an Associate in the programme can give you, go check out my friend Ha's blog post.

Stay tuned for part 2 and you might find my answer to “Luan, why do you address yourself in third person?”. But don't blame me if you're disappointed with a “Lessons learnt” post instead.