How To Mentor First-Time Founders?

Lessons Learned From Startup Accelerator ReaktorX

This January together with Diana Koziarska I launched ReaktorX, a new idea stage startup accelerator in Warsaw, with the aim to help first-time founders launch their startup. I know what you’re thinking: it’s a crowded market, most of the programs suck and almost no one makes money. But that’s all right. We’re different! At least that’s what I was thought. Now that the first batch graduated it’s time to look back and see what worked and what… well… did not.

Photo by Dariusz Orlicz

Let’s start with the good things!

Even though we’re aware of a lot of things that we could have done better, there are definitely things that went well, so let’s start with them so that we can feel a bit better about ourselves!

  • Seven out of ten startups that were accepted to the programme graduated.
  • The founders of the three startups that died, did not go away. They either joined other startups from the batch or pivoted into new projects (like Travelly.me or Boson Identities).
  • Graduates raised significant seed funding: over 1.5M PLN in total only three months after graduation:
  • Boson Identities, a ReaktorX offspring, were accepted into Huge Thing acceleration programme
  • GetLine and Boson Identities both are both preparing for ICO later this year.
  • Sum The Sun raised a small round from Beesfund and are getting ready to launch a crowdfunding campaign on the platform soon.
  • 100% of graduates were either happy or very happy with the programme and all recommended it to others.

OK, now that we’re done with the sweet part, let’s go back to the failures…

Lesson 1: Startup is a full time job

One of our initial assumptions was that professionals don’t launch companies because even though they have the domain knowledge, they don’t have the time and ability to learn how to be an entrepreneur. We invited to the accelerator both students and seasoned professionals. Most of the latter had daily jobs. This was a mistake.

The startups that performed best like Sum The Sun or GetLine worked on their projects full-time or, as in case of Baballoon or PieClass, while studying. Those who connected working on a startup with a day-to-day job showed little progress with a noble exception of Joywork (formerly Evibrave). Next time we’re going to think twice before accepting a team that cannot focus fully on their startup. It’s a recipe for almost certain failure.

Lesson 2: Workshops work, lectures don’t

This one seems easy but we missed it anyway. The biggest value added by a good accelerator are personal connections. Founders are not looking for textbook knowledge. They are looking for experience. They want to meet mentors who can share with them insights that are specific to what they are going through, “not general startup advice” aka bullshit talk.Those workshops which involved all the participants and their business (i’m thinking of you Kamila Sidor, Kasia Dworzyńska) were a success. Those that turned out to be lectures, were not.

Lesson 3: Mentors need to be either 100% in

I’m a strong believer in having an advisor in your startup from day one. I wrote about it back in 2012! (see: I wish I were incubated). My advisors (hello Chris and Mark) were a big reason I kept going in spite of all odds. You need to be able to talk to someone honestly while everything is falling apart. You need a sanity check from an outsider who cares about you and can tell you whether you’re already going insane or it’s yet to come. That’s the reason why we put emphasis on one-on-one mentorship in ReaktorX.

Those startups who were lucky to match with a dedicated mentor gained a lot. Fortunately that was the case with most of the participants. However, we had a few cases where this connection did not work quite well and sometimes we were late to come back with a solution. In the future we’re going to work even harder to make sure each startup meets with their key mentor regularly during the program and gets the most out of this unique experience.

Lesson 4: Interdisciplinary teams are hard

One of our our other goals was to help the geeks find the business people and the other way around, so that the teams that go through ReaktorX are truly interdisciplinary, ideally comprising of the mythical hustler, hacker and designer. We had some success helping the participants build teams. Olaf and Kacper got together to form a new startup Boson Identities. Dominika (a physiotherapist) teamed up with Arek (marketplace expert & hustler) to build homedi.

In general however we were not able to help most participants find co-founders outside of their domain. I’m not sure this is even possible during the 2–3 weeks between the participants are being accepted and starting the programme. That’s why our new approach is more long-term. We are going to run a series of events called ReaktorY (the first one happened in June), where the sole purpose is to match hackers with hustlers and let them work on something for a full day. We’re hoping some of the teams set up on those events will eventually launch their own startups and apply to ReaktorX already as a full team.

Lesson 5: Demo Day: cut the bullshit

I know what some of you think of the demo days. There is too little time to understand what the startups do, no transactions are ever made just because someone pitched well on stage and the events are usually plain boring. Some accelerators are ditching demo days whatsoever. We’ve decided to still throw a demo night for two reasons: (i) because it’s excellent for networking and (ii) because it’s a great way to market the accelerator itself. The attendance was great, 100+ angel investors, VCs and corporate executives showed up to meet the graduating class and (in more cases) each other. And they had a good time over wine.

We did a good job marketing the event, but a poor job preparing the startups for the event. We wanted the event to be a show, but despite amazing efforts by our host Drew Stachnik, it wasn’t. We wanted to go beyond a number of quick pitches. We wanted to show the whole story about each founder and their startup. But startup founders are not as funny as TV stars. Forcing them to explore the unknown territory while combating stress and still produce a great pitch is asking too much, especially with a group of very young and inexperienced people.

Cut the bullshit, go straight to the point, make sure all the guests stay in the audience at least for the duration of the pitches and later talk to the founders — that’s our plan minimum for batch 2.

What’s next?

It should be easier the second time, right? We’re definitely believe so. We’ve changed a few things about the rules of the programme, so before applying, make sure to read the FAQ. The general mission stays untouched, though. We’re aiming to help first-time entrepreneurs from anywhere in Europe launch their first startup, starting at the idea, and closing with a seed round of financing. With the incoming buckets of PFR money for Poland-based companies, the latter seems more achievable than ever before.

Feeling up for the challenge? Apply to ReaktorX
Deadline is October 11th. 
Don’t be late.