We recently completed the Sputnik (pronounced “Spoot-nik”) accelerator program in Austin, TX on April 30th and the experience was a game-changer for Tenavox’s progress moving forward. In just three months, we increased leads delivered to customers (our core metric) by 900 percent, increased deals closed by 600 percent and increased MRR by 100 percent. We also closed a funding round and added some valuable additions to our advisor team through connections made during the program’s weekly dinner series. I get a lot of questions about the Sputnik experience, so I wanted to share an outline of some tips and experiences for those interested in applying.
Unicorns Only. Although Texas VC investment has been robust and growing, investors in Texas want to see revenue — investment amounts and mindset are still different from Silicon Valley. I just came back from meeting with west coast investors a couple of weeks ago and I can say first-hand it’s definitely different! Sputnik is one of the very few investors in Texas that is actively looking to invest in unicorn companies with little to no revenue. A “unicorn” is a company valued at $1+ Billion. This means that the total addressable market (TAM) needs to be big. Sputnik would probably not be a fit for you if you are aiming for a $50 Million valuation even if you are currently profitable. They want big ideas and they’ll teach you how to shape your story to communicate your large vision. Believe it or not, this is easier said than done. It took us hundreds of pitch decks in the last two years to get our story to a point that we could clearly and concisely share our big vision with investors.
Show Up Every Day and Work in Austin. You are expected to be working on your startup full-time. If you cannot handle at least 60 hours of work per week or move to Austin for the program, then Sputnik may not be for you. Our first class evolved around Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance to get us in the mindset that 40 hours per week is not enough (and it isn’t enough to make progress in a 3-month accelerator). The curriculum is demanding and you are expected to show progress every week. There is a “Traction Horse” award presented to the founder(s) in the cohort that displayed the most traction for your leading metric (and it’s not always revenue). You’ll have 14–20 hours of additional work involving the curriculum-absorbing content via a book/video and presenting on that lesson. My co-founder, Josh Feinberg, relocated to Austin from January-May and we both worked an average of 80–90+ hours of work each week.
Have Some Product Market Validation. One of the most valuable aspects of the program was that there are only five companies in our cohort and we were in a similar startup phase. Each one of us had some version of product-market fit and were in the stage of exploring early growth. We all went into the program along the same starting line, which also matched up with the curriculum. Even though each company was in a different industry, we all faced similar challenges and were able to help each other. Additionally, we were a more “mature” group in age and experience — a couple of founders had earned multiple exits with previous companies so there was a wealth of knowledge shared. We were all laser-focused on moving our companies forward and keeping up with the curriculum. If there is one thing I would do different it would be to put more of an effort to hang with my fellow founders earlier in the program. We were all so “heads-down” in our work that I did not really get to know most of them (outside of classes) until the second month. For those applying to the program, if you find yourself drawn to more of the frat/sorority environment or would prefer to be around other startups to socialize, then Sputnik would not be the place for you and there are some other options for you down the street in downtown Austin.
Be Open to Vulnerability and Discomfort. No egos or assholes allowed. Period. Everybody has insecurities and the program will most likely bring those out and you will face them dead on. Bottom line is if you find you are constantly defending your approach and vision for your company and do not like it when people challenge your assumptions, Sputnik is not for you. The program involves a lot of presenting, video recordings, social media posts, deep dives into your own weaknesses, vulnerabilities with you and your co-founder’s relationship — you are really put out there and honest feedback is constant. Luckily, we had a lot of trust and respect with the Sputnik team and our fellow cohort founders to be appreciative of genuine feedback that, at times, one may not want to hear or unexpectedly brings up some shame. However, it was all ok because these sessions were always conducted in a respectful and mindful manner, which made each one of us better than we were when we started the program. At the end of the day, every single person involved is dedicated to seeing you and your company succeed. I recall being super exhausted at one of our early Friday morning classes around the midpoint of the program. I gave a very poor presentation and everybody knew it was not my best performance and that I could do way better. There were equal parts constructive criticism, compassion, and empathy shared in the feedback session and I was extremely grateful to have my fellow cohort founders and the Sputnik team help pick me up from that situation. I’m stronger and more confident in myself and my role than I did when I started. Overall, I’ve experienced tremendous growth as a person since starting Tenavox in 2016. This is an aspect of Sputnik’s program (and the whole startup experience) I appreciate the most — you are constantly conquering fears and weaknesses.
Prepare to Continually Engage and Re-Engage with Customers. Sputnik forces you to continuously re-engage with your customers. We were a bit hesitant to this at first because we’d already spent years interviewing and understanding our customers. However, listening and re-engaging was one of the keys to our success in the program. One of my favorite books for the curriculum was The Mom Test — every founder should read this book. We went back to the drawing board and found some key issues people were having while interacting with our site. The solution, in some cases, was as simple as a word change or sentence restructure. You may think you know everything about your customers, but you won’t and you may lose touch if you do not continually engage with them. We now sit down and meet with business owners all the time to learn more about them — this inspired us to create a Tenavox podcast called the “Tenant Experience Series.”
In Summary, Here Is What Sets Sputnik Apart
- The curriculum cadence involves Tuesday class discussions (with readings complete), Friday presentations, and weekly founder dinners. The dinners provided a lot of value — successful founders and investors who provide a candid perspective on their experiences. The dinners were one of my favorite parts of the program. As mentioned, I met one of our current investors and two advisors via one of these dinners.
- Amazing office space (you are on the top floor of a downtown building with 360 views of the city). Working from that office every day -includes drinks, snacks, and at times even meals- is both a blessing and a curse because you NEVER want to leave!
- Founder-experienced investors. Sputnik’s partners, Oksana Malysheva and Joe Merrill, have started and run their own ventures. They have walked in our shoes and have first-hand empathy to the challenges of a founder. We know and feel that they care deeply about our success, which made us want to work even harder for them.
- Sputnik is all about women empowerment — Joe Merrill is one of the biggest feminists I know and the staff, Abbie Pope and Amanda Eakin, were some of my biggest cheerleaders. As a woman founder, I was also extremely thankful to have Sputnik’s managing director, Oksana Malysheva, as a mentor. She gave me some valuable feedback — advice I would NEVER get from any of my male mentors like making adjustments to certain mannerisms in order to convey strength and power as the woman in charge in a room full of men.
- The investor connections were at least every week and even included a trip to San Francisco to meet with Silicon Valley investors. Oksana and Joe are constantly pitching us EVERYWHERE they go. There was a steady stream of investor introductions via email or someone would stop by the office and they would introduce me to last minute. You never know where those quick introductions will lead you to!
This time last year Josh and I were in a totally different place, especially before attending Sputnik— our original assumptions about go-to-market strategy and product-market fit did not take off as we thought. We were dragged through what felt like the desert without water as we faced multiple obstacles most every startup struggles with before product-market fit — struggling team dynamics and lack of resources. We dug out of that hole with our bare hands (even losing fingernails) to find our product-market fit. Would we have gotten through without Sputnik? Yes, of course. However, we grew a heck of a lot faster with Sputnik and we are better from it. Josh and I knew we just needed ONE key investor to believe in us and help us get our vision off the ground. For us, that key investor has been Sputnik and we are forever grateful for the experience, love, and support we have received from the whole team and our fellow cohort founders.
If you have any questions about the Sputnik program OR need help finding a place to lease for your business feel free to reach out!
Marissa Limsiaco is President and Co-Founder of Tenavox. Featured in “The Top 20 Female Leaders and Influencers in Commercial Real Estate Tech.” West Point graduate, Division I Athlete, and Army Captain turned 4 X Entrepreneur.