My startup, Final, was lucky enough to take part in this year’s Techstars Boulder program. Along with learning that a diet consisting only of free coffee and Cosmo’s pizza gives your skin a weird tint, here are some key takeaways from my experience with one of the top tech accelerators.
1. Getting into a highly competitive, elite tech accelerator is not unlike getting into a highly competitive, elite university — if you rest on your acceptance, you’ll surely fail.
With thousands of applicants and an acceptance rate near 1 to 2 percent, Techstars is not easy to get into. It could be (almost) understandable for a company’s founders to take the opportunity to stop paddling and see how far that wave can take them and their company. Fortunately, I didn’t see that. Even on day one of the program, I never detected a hint of self-congratulatory platitudes. If anything, it was refreshing to see the other founders looking anxious to quickly finish the team-building ropes course so they could get back to the office and their overflowing inboxes.
This was a welcome reminder of what total devotion to a single goal can do to one’s productivity. My advice: if you do get a letter of acceptance, give your co-founders a high-five and get back to work — getting in is the easiest part of Techstars.
2. It’s up to you to decide how and when to engage with mentors, and to be proactive about it.
Mentorship from local entrepreneurs and Techstars alumni is a key component of the program, and perhaps one of the greatest benefits. The speed dating analogy is often used internally, and the parallels are (hilariously) endless. I’m still lost on what getting to “home base” with a mentor was, but I sincerely hope we got there, for both our sakes.
The first interactions happen at Mentor Madness, a founder-mentor mixer designed to connect companies to 50+ tech veterans looking to volunteer their time and wisdom for the projects that best fit under their umbrella of expertise.
During and after that first event, it’s important to realize that throughout the program, Techstars can only help facilitate those interactions, it can’t tell you who you’ll have chemistry with — or constantly remind you to send a follow-up email. That’s on you.
If you can be diligent about communicating the exact ways in which you think that mentor can help you, are transparent about your sticking points, and regular in your updates, the network of Techstars mentors can (and will) be endlessly helpful in getting you past whatever hurdles you’re facing.
Which is a great lead-in to my next point …
3. There is an art to email.
I think we can all agree: Email can be overwhelming. And it’s really not a surprise in startup land that many people are still quite poor communicators in the medium. We discovered we were as well, almost immediately.
Fortunately, public shaming can be a great motivator to quickly improve the quality of your outbound communications, a strategy Techstars doesn’t mind employing if it means putting a stop to shitty correspondence. We had our worst examples read back to us by Nicole Glaros in an all-company setting, which felt a lot like being forced to listen to your own voicemail greeting.
A couple quick tips: Learn how to deftly handle an email intro, including how to provide a double opt-in, and when to move the intro facilitator to bcc. Also, remember that following up within an hour of an important meeting sends a different message than following up three days later, or not at all.
4. A rising tide lifts all ships. We all stand to gain more by helping whenever possible.
Within the program, there’s always a friend nearby who has already dealt with something similar to the problem you’re facing. What that does to a group of people when they realize the significance of that resource is magical. It’s like watching a soldier run into battle in pajamas versus running into battle in armor. It took our class a few weeks to get comfortable enough to ask each other for help, but once it started, it never stopped. Better still, help was offered without solicitation.
This acted as a much-needed reminder that it doesn’t always need to be a competition; startups are not a zero-sum game. When one company wins via funding, an acquisition, or rapid growth, the other startups in the program stand to gain from the exposure and association.
5. There’s a lot of internal focus on Demo Day. While there’s a reason for that, don’t let preparation for a single 6-minute presentation take away focus from efforts that move your business forward.
A huge emphasis is put on the founders’ ability to pitch their company — a skill that can always be improved, especially considering a business in its infancy is an amorphous, ever-changing thing. And as a result of several years as Program Director, Techstars’ Nicole Glaros is one of the best pitch coaches the startup world has. What’s my point? Your shit better be tight. And ultimately, Nicole won’t let you get up on stage unless it is. This alone is a huge motivator to spend late nights, early mornings, and weekends working on your script and deck.
But that might not be a good thing. It’s up to you to understand what moves the needle for your company and recognize that Demo Day is not more important than any of those single goals or initiatives that could potentially push your business towards viability.
Balance is key, and finding a balance for time investment in that single presentation is no different.
6. Those three months will be stressful. Find your own way to cope with it.
There are plenty of articles highlighting the physical and emotional stress of starting a company — its existence seemingly hanging in the balance on a daily basis. And the sheer amount of time and energy dedicated to the pursuit … it seems all-encompassing at times.
It’s very important to avoid this mentality and find time to decompress. Spend even short bursts of time not thinking about the enormous task at hand. Exercise is great for this. My coping mechanisms became gin and cycling, both to help me sleep.
It can be difficult to maintain normalcy when your schedule is full and constantly shifting. One of the ways we found to manage this is to block off chunks on your calendar for personal time and make that time inviolable for other team members to double-book. Also, remember that everyone will have their own ebb and flow of stress throughout the duration, and it’s important to find ways to support your team members and improve stress management over time. If one person’s anxiety has shut down their productivity, find a way to share the load, and be patient.
It feels like a sprint, but only because of the forcing function that is Demo Day. The reality is an ultra-marathon, uphill both ways, in the snow, naked.
7. Set expectations early with your friends and family.
The experience goes by quickly, and it’s important to make the most of it. That said, each person on our team missed events that were important to them. There is a certain level of sacrifice required in joining an accelerator like Techstars that is designed to promote and measure the delta of progress between day 1 of the program and day 90. We were even read the riot act during orientation that went something like, “accelerators accelerate everything — divorces are no exception.”
The best way to avoid compromising your relationships is to be as open as possible with friends and family about why you’re in the program and why it’s important to you. Be apologetic and work to make it up in your own way. Be aware of the relationships you might be putting on the back burner to build your company, and be careful to not use work as an excuse on every occasion. Not everyone will understand why you missed their birthday party, wedding, bris, etc.
Ben Apel leads the charge on marketing strategy and operations for Final. When not at the office, he can most often be found in the Colorado front range on his bike, trying to bait the pros.