So you have a startup idea, perhaps some level of execution or traction, but you or your co-founders are doing it blind; you trudge along with a little advice or knowledge you’ve picked up in torrented audio books after finally having made that decision to quit the 9-5. You continue to build your venture as lean as possible and hit a personal make it or break it point with a couple of unsuccessful investor meetings and very little guidance. So what’s the next step? You have faith in your idea and your company but the littlest things are occupying the biggest blocks of your time and you feel like you’re getting tunnel vision.
Every entrepreneur at some point has probably felt like this and asked themselves the question: “now what?” Perhaps it is time to seek some funding, but how do you get advice from the same people that you’ll need money from? Perhaps you have been paying developers and really need more solid legal advice to keep things running smoothly. Well, perhaps it’s time to consider an incubator/accelerator program: Programs like Silicon Valleys’ Y Combinator which essentially put entrepreneurs through a 3+ month startup boot camp. These programs offer everything from mentorship meetings to collaborative work spaces to pre-scheduled investor sessions and pitch presentations. Great benefits and a no brainer for your ‘next big thing’ idea right? But big surprise, now your old questions are replaced with new ones. How do you apply for these programs? What criteria do you need to hit in order to qualify? What’s the working process like, is it even worth the time? etc. etc. etc.
Courtesy of upStart.LA, our very own local accelerator based out of Santa Monica, we were able to get some of these questions answered by some very real people. To a room of a couple hundred, they hosted a panel of four accelerator program alumni that went through the gauntlets of well known incubators and came out with stronger companies. The panel included the following and discussion was moderated by upStart.LA co-founder, Dan Dato.
- Joey Flores, founder of Earbits (a Y Combinator company), a music-related marketing platform with interactive radio experiences.
- Alex Benzer, founder of FanMix (a TechStars company), a social media engine that allows you to find who cares about what and how to engage them.
- Mark Evans, founder of NetPlenish (a 500 Startups company), a price comparison and shopping subscription tool that helps you replenish the items you use on a daily basis.
- Rafi Gordon, founder of StyleSpot (an Idealab company), a personalized shopping engine combined with high quality editorial publications.
We really appreciated that the panel had a diverse mix of individuals with a good variety of company functions and positions as well as four completely different programs. And as they answered some of the big questions in shooting gallery style right down the line, the audience was given a slightly different perspective on the same issue. Invaluable to a room of entrepreneurs who are used to finding 10 different solutions for one problem.
The panel addressed everything from giving a breakdown on the differences between each of their events to how they got accepted (or rejected). They talked about the day-to-day experiences and overall their biggest value points from their time and money investment. And while some of the answers slightly differed between speakers, it seems like the one HUGE tying value point for these incubator programs is guidance and the network.
Each panelist spoke fondly of the mentor meetings (a couple described it as mentor/investor speed dating), the accessibility to high level and successful personnel, whether they be successful entrepreneurs who had grown and sold companies before or investors who had also grown successful companies. But as one straight shooting audience member blatantly asked: “Is it all roses? There has to be SOME drawbacks”, they were able to paint a grim but realistic picture of the arduous 3 month process, where they worked pretty much the entire time, meeting investors, attending workshops, helping other founders in the program, and working on their own projects in the comfort of their apartment kitchens, subsisting on nothing but coffee and adrenaline.
In the end to me, the benefits (and even the whole experience) sounded eerily similar to undergraduate days and the benefits of joining a fraternity. But instead of promises of booze and bitches, you get a class of highly motivated entrepreneurs that are truly looking to strike gold. Well, a little booze maybe. Alex mentioned that the TechStars “Bunker” had a keg and ping pong table. And of course, the ladies come after you succeed (j/k). But there is a lot to say for joining a group/program where you literally have hundreds of successful entrepreneurs and execs on hand to answer a quick question. One of the panelists gave an example of how they needed some advice on online credit card security and got multiple replies with leads and advice in just under ten minutes. Really brings it home that most of the time, networking is everything.
Each respective program offers their own “pay scale” with investment amounts of $15,000 to “undisclosed amounts”. What was most surprising to me was that a couple of these start ups already had some traction and funding, but still decided to apply and go through the program (while taking less funding). Guess you can’t really place monetary value on getting solid guidance and advice.
A fantastically informative evening with a great positive vibe. Thank you upStart.LA!