Ask David Cohen: Developing an MVP and Reaching Investors

We recently held an AMA with Techstars’ Co-CEO, David Cohen, where he answered commonly asked questions from founders about topics such as forming a team, developing an MVP, and applying to an accelerator program.

This post is the first in a series of five which includes a transcript of David’s answers to these questions in this AMA. To sign up for our next AMA, check out the schedule here!


Any advice to founders who need more resources to develop an MVP or a presentable prototype? What’s the best method of getting investors to hear out the idea/plan when you don’t know anyone in the community?

These are kind of different questions so I am going to go at them separately. I’ll tell you a quick story of a company called Everlater that sold to MapQuest, AOL and came through Techstars. When I first met Nate and Natty, they were Wall Street types and loved to travel. We funded them, but we only funded them after watching them try to learn how to program.

They were so passionate about this idea coming out of their minds into the world that they actually taught themselves how to code — they were terrible at it, not very good at all. But later on, they got better, but it was still a crappy prototype and a crappy MVP. So step one is, having something is better than nothing.

If you can’t find somebody to do it, my question is, why can’t you do it? Do you think that writing a little software code is something that you have no ability to learn? It tells me something about you, that you are not willing to try. You could find a friend who does know how to program to spend a couple hours with you and show you how to get going.

You could say look, this is what I am talking about, it doesn’t work yet, but it’s what I’m talking about.

I believe great entrepreneurs do stuff.

If you can’t do that and you are allergic to keyboards and computers and you’re just never going to code, that’s cool too. Some of these languages, by the way, are very easy to learn now, it’s not like learning a foreign language, you can get a lot of help from the editor, and there are various simple languages out there that you can learn how to prototype things quickly.

There are lots of coding classes available online, so my first question is, why aren’t you doing that? If you can’t get somebody in the world who has those skills excited enough about what you are doing, or you can’t make friends with somebody who can help you with that, that is also a red flag for me as an investor.

The answer to the question is like anything else, just do it. That’s why it is Nike’s slogan, it’s so great and really the easy answer to a lot of things. Plus, I’m an early stage investor, I don’t care if the prototype is presentable, it doesn’t have to blow me away. You just have to start the meeting and say look, I hacked this together myself, we need funding to hire engineers and obviously the user experience is terrible. You know it is terrible, but that’s okay. You’re self-aware, it doesn’t have to be beautiful and great.

I think doing attracts investors. Talking about doing makes me think maybe you’re not an entrepreneur.

For the second part of the question, I would take a quality over quantity approach. I would find someone who does know the investors that you are targeting and I would figure out how to spend time with them. For example, I would go to someone that they funded or someone that they have worked with and mentored before and say, will you help me with this? They are likely more available than the investor and I would use them as a way to create an introduction to the investor.

I would also suggest you read my blog post on DavidGCohen.com called Small Asks First. It’s about the idea of not over-asking, which is really important in entrepreneurship. You are trying to get to a resource, it is very busy, so get an introduction from somebody they know — it’s not that hard, and just ask them for something small.

Let me give you an example of something big — lunch. Lunch is very big — you’re asking them to go spend time with somebody they don’t know for an hour, which is an awkward situation, especially if they’re an introvert like I am. That’s a big ask. I know it feels small to you but it’s a really big ask to me. Coffee — huge ask. I have another blog post called Coffee or Lunch? that I wrote on this topic. They would have to go out of the office, meet you somewhere, and the biggest thing is, I don’t know you… it’s a big ask for a first ask.

Here’s a small ask — send me a paragraph or two of why I can be helpful to you, and the one really simple thing I can do to be helpful to you. I have another blog post that is called The Perfect Email. Somebody wrote me out of the blue, not even introduced, with enough context that I thought it was the best email I ever read and so I reacted to it. I ended up having an exchange of dialogue with that person; I even blogged about it. I don’t know what happened there, probably nothing huge, but hopefully I was helpful in some way.

I think the context of why you’re reaching out to me and asking for something that is easy for me to do is great, because going to have lunch is actually not easy to do — I’m busy, I’m introverted, etc. What is easy is asking me to click on a link and tell you what I think of the messaging on your website, the primary tag line or whatever. If I don’t respond to that, I’m just an ass. That takes ten seconds for me to do. It’s a small ask, it creates engagement, I can just click on the link, see what you’re doing, have to think about it for a second and then respond. Now, you’re actually starting a dialogue by making a small ask of something that is very easy for that investor to do. That is a great way to build a relationship and you go from there. You can do that at scale to figure out who is interested and engage more with those people.

Eventually, you’ll end up having lunch and a meeting.

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Interested in meeting other entrepreneurs and getting a head start on your own entrepreneurial journey? Check out a Startup Weekend near you or apply to an accelerator program.

At Techstars, we believe that no one is “too far along” for Techstars. Conversely, nothing is too early. Techstars has a program for every step of the entrepreneurial journey — from startup programs like Startup Digest, Startup Week, Startup Weekend and Startup Next to later stage offerings, including the accelerator program and venture capital for add-on funding.

This post was originally published on Techstars’ blog.