Author Archives: Eric Mathews
At Start Co. many founders need not raise capital to keep advancing their businesses. In fact that is the ideal. If they are looking for outside capital we try to not candy coat the reality of how hard it is to raise money. We instruct them that they will need to take 50 serious investor meetings with 50 different investors in order for them to have a chance at raising investment capital.
Why do some startups get funded? DocSend recently teamed up with Professor Tom Eisenmann from Harvard Business School to conduct research on the process of raising money. Their data verify our thinking. They sampled 200 Companies a subset of which successfully raised $360MM in Series Seed and Series A rounds. Take a look here to see the reality by the numbers:
If people are the hardware of an ecosystem, then culture is the software. As an innovation community we ascribe to a set of unwritten rules and norms that lower transaction costs and empower our culture. This software is important to our success, locally and beyond. It enables the assimilation of our startup ecoysystem members seamlessly into Silicon Valley and other high performing ecosystems, which have similar cultural norms and unwritten rules.
Here is a link to the explicitly stated “software” for our innovation community: The Memphis Ecosystem Pact.
Share it. Live it.
Memphis Ecosystem Pact
I am joining a growing tribe of innovators, entrepreneurs, and their supporters in a growing startup and innovation ecosystem that brings an economic vibrancy to Memphis, Tennessee that will last well beyond my lifetime.
The Memphis ecosystem consists of people who share a common faith in the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship and the benefits it brings to our region. While I am a mentor, investor, service provider, founder, innovator, donor, cheerleader, first customer, or other participant, I know that, regardless of my role, personal returns will only come from active collaboration and freely giving my ideas, my capital in all forms available, and my talents.
To enable the free flow and rapid assembly of ideas, capital, and talent for community and personal returns, participants in the ecosystem ascribe to a set of beliefs, values, and cultural norms. These unwritten rules and beliefs will bring economic benefits to me and the community in the long run, but in the short term they defy rational economic thoughts of profit and personal benefit. Like those that have come before me, I ascribe to these beliefs because I am motivated beyond personal gain.
As a part of this ecosystem, I believe and live out to the best of my abilities the following:
Honoring the dreams of others as well as my own.
Giving trust to others before expecting to receive trust in return.
Treating everyone fairly and not seeking advantage over others.
Bringing people together, as none of us is as smart as all of us.
Breaking the rules, experimenting, iterating, and learning.
Knowing that mistakes and failure are acceptable ways of testing new ideas.
Opening myself to learn from other participants, while also nurturing learning in others.
Being intellectually honest with myself and others, while understanding that others will be intellectually honest with me.
Increasing diversity and being inclusive to enhance the value all participants will gain from the ecosystem.
Meeting anyone in this community, listening deeply, and helping as I can.
Understanding that I will receive valuable help and resources from others at no cost and agreeing to “pay forward” whatever positive benefits I receive — for every risk someone takes with me, I will take a risk with a different person.
Ultimately, I believe that while it is important that I support the creation of a specific startup or innovation, it is even more important that I’m contributing to the greater ecosystem. I understand that money is not a sufficient motivator for me or other ecosystem participants, because of the amount of sacrifice needed for success. As a result, what motivates me is helping others succeed, making friends, the thrill of victory, the lifting of others after defeat, the spirit of debate, discovering the unknown together, building things better, solving challenging problems, as well as changing people’s lives — these are the true rewards for my sacrifice.
I will fail in my role at times, but I will persist for myself and for the ecosystem. If there comes a point where I cannot advance my dream or the personal sacrifice becomes too large, I will continue to encourage others as they dream, while applying the knowledge and skills of entrepreneurship in the community.
Each person is a role model for everyone else. I will live these beliefs out as a member of the Memphis ecosystem and show others the way through my actions.
Many people walk in our doors with ideas they believe will change the world and make them rich. The problem they invariably have is that they can’t build it. 95% of these potential founders have an idea for an mobile app or web app and they want the Start Co. team to play matchmaker to a developer. These potential founders don’t realize that the developer probably has his own awesome ideas. Why would he switch from developing his ideas to developing yours? These potential founders will get nowhere with developers because they have ignored the obvious: a developer is your first investor.
Like all investments you need to earn the right to ask!
Here is the typical scenario. A non-technical founder approaches a potential technical co-founder with just an idea. These potential founders usually have very little skin in the game. They haven’t invested a ton of their own time, but expect a developer to contribute 100s of hours. They haven’t even dipped into their own funds to get something mocked up or designed. These potential founders have not invested energy into determining who the customer is, understanding their buying behaviors, or even determined if they would want the app and pay for it. The outcome is always the same. The developer says no, gets annoyed with wannabe entrepreneurs and gets turned off to the startup world.
This is a very bad outcome for our entire community and could all be avoided.
Imagine going to a technical co-founder and saying the following:
“I have been working to validate an idea for a new app over the past couple of weeks. I didn’t know if this was a good idea so I talked to 50 customers and found out that not only was it good, but also determined what the minimum features would be to satisfy the customer. Because I wanted to continue to make progress, I taught myself to code a little bit. With a logo that I paid a local designer to polish up for me, I was able to get a one page website up and running articulating the features of the future app. I also was able to code the website to capture email addresses from future customers. I created a blog to talk about the industry and my perspective on the changes coming. I got a lot of feedback and interest from the blog — one post has been viewed 10,000 times and has 56 comments. I started to market a bit to garner interest and I didn’t get 1,000 email signups — I got over 5,000. Because I figured out how to market more effectively, I get about 100 signups per day on the website and I’m only spending $10 a day on ads. I went ahead and contracted with a designer to get some wire frames done and some screen mock ups. I showed them to some of the customers who signed up and they gave me feedback to refine the app. I’m currently working on a new set of mocks ups with the designer. Along the way I reached out to the CMO of a big local bank and he agreed to mentor me and my future team as we startup. I think I’ll get another rock star mentor to commit next week. I did all this in just 60 days. I’m looking for a technical co-founder that believes in me and how we can change the world. I think you would be a great co-founder. Will you join me?”
Guess what a technical co-founder will say after hearing this pitch?
People invest in execution, not ideas. If you’re willing to do the work you will have no problems getting the right talent on the bus. Prove that you are a worthy founder by doing the leg work before going to a technical co-founder and you will find many people jumping on board.
While we focus a lot of Start Co. energy on ensuring that the founders refine their ideas into real businesses, once these businesses gain traction and/or funding post Demo Day, we continue to support the founders from product launch to product success to business success. The period of time just after an accelerator program turns out to be the most important to the long-term success of a startup.
Start Co. has developed a standard methodology of portfolio management for the startups that graduate from our accelerator programs. However, we understand that as each CEO and founding team carries out their unique vision, they should use our guidelines to adopt their own principles, strategies, and standards. That is to say that our work is only a guide and not a strict set of rules.
This is our process for moving a high growth startup from concept to successful exit. We share these methods with our ecosystem to build a shared understanding of the goals and milestones for the next stages of starting for all parties involved.
The result of this work should be stronger, more successful companies. In the 12 months after Demo Day, we believe that if adopted, the disciplines herein will be EXTREMELY valuable to the new investors coming into the startup – thus we are setting our teams of for greater success in the future.
6 Areas of Focus
The 6 key areas on which we focus our efforts are as follows.
1) Getting the Right People on the Bus
Our first step is to assess the founding to make sure the needed talent for the next 6-12 months is in place. We make recommendations on where changes could be made to improve outcomes in the capital markets as well as within the organization. Further, we seat a board of directors that compliments the founders and investors in the startup. We also solidify expectations for the founders, CEO, board members, and investors.
2) Train the Board
We transition highly specialized business people into more generalized board directors for our teams. These value added leaders are trained portfolio management principles used by venture capitalists. They participate in peer groups exchange experiences and lessons learned as well as continuing education supplied by Start Co. to enhance their efficacy.
3) Train the Founders
Start Co. offers a number of founder support channels post acceleration, including board management support, peer office hours, Start Co.Friday office hours, quarterly reports, and transitional assistance. We educate our founders on the challenges they will face, before they face them so they can meet them head-on minimizing company setbacks and declines.
4) Support Execution on 4 Keys Areas of Business Growth
Area 1: Governance, Culture, People
Start Co. maintains connection with the startups in order to direct their governance, culture, and people. Start Co. guides the company in refining its business plan, aligns the company’s current strategies with its future goals, and ensures that the employees understand their role. There are key human capital milestones that are crossed with growth that need to be navigated carefully for success.
Area 2: Business Model
Start Co. also ensures that the startup’s business model evolves with the growing pace of their company and vision. Start Co. continues to provide financial advice to ensure that the startups continue to grow.
Area 3: Sales and Marketing
Start Co. works to ensure that each of the startups plan and implement effective sales and marketing strategies. This includes competitive landscape, market landscape, and referral customers.
Area 4: Product Development
Lastly Start Co. provides product development support to ensure that the company uses customer feedback to alter the new product at each subsequent phase of growth.
5) Managing Expectations and Disillusionment
From Start Co.’s experience launching startups, we understand the common challenges that founders often face. Thus, we prepare our founders for inevitable rough patches.
After product launch and before product success, founders often experience a period of disillusionment — disappointment resulting from reality — that their startup is not as successful as they hoped. We inspire these founders through this period and mentor them to reach a period of success.
6) If Needed, Manage Failure
If in fact the startups face serious failure, we provide these start ups with the guidance to direct their future plan of action and to optimize the remaining value of their businesses to maximize any return that is possible.
These best practices and the supporting education Start Co. supplies create a set of shared language and conventions that help organize the efforts in each individual company. Our method sets expectations and guidelines for CEO and Founders and further facilitates the adoption of best practices and shared lessons across portfolio companies.
Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the Global Accelerator Network’s Managing Directors Meeting in New York City, where startup accelerator operators from all over the world met to discuss best practices, latest trends, and new opportunities. Time spent with peers facing similar challenges, albeit in different geographies, offered a unique blend of fun, sharing, and even catharsis.
All the sessions were informative and helpful. However, one in particular stood out for its relevance, not only to startups but also accelerator managing directors. I could apply it instantly and have done so already with one startup this week.
The session featured Jerry Colonna, the executive coach to both Brad Feld and David Cohen. His emotionally engaging and powerful discussion will be hard to forget for anyone present. Jerry spoke on the topic of Needs-Based Leadership.
The overall key takeaway was a call to simplify the role of the leader to three disciplines:
1) Hold the vision.
2) Build and manage the team
3) Ensure everyone has what they need.
If 50% or more of the leader’s time is spent on activities beyond these there will be clear leadership shortfalls and lack of organizational efficacy. It is certainly easy to say but hard to practice.
Not long after hearing this talk, I came across an opportunity to share this wisdom when I met with one of our portfolio company’s founding CEO, who was struggling in his role and felt an unbelievable amount of pressure.
It is a common challenge that first time CEOs face – how to manage the guilt of not working constantly in the business with your fellow co-founders and employees. Add in the fulfillment of the being productive working on things you naturally love and a CEO can quickly drift away from the critical role as leader.
This particular CEO had drifted into the business too far and away from the necessary leadership role for the startup. As a result, the business was a touch behind on milestones needed to instill future investor confidence. Furthermore, the leader had lost the edge necessary to hold team members accountable because the leader failed to hold the vision of the business at the forefront. In this case, the CEO needed to step away from the business, revisit proper leadership disciplines and reengage effectively.
If you find yourself in a leadership position facing a similar struggle, take this advice from Jerry:
- Hold the vision of the company and make certain it’s well understood.
- Build and manage a great team and make sure each person understands their job.
- Ensure everyone has the resources — the people, the money, the clarity — they need to succeed.
Take the time to be an effective leader and Never Stop.
Today I remember the life and contributions of one of our founding board members, Dave Barger Jr. A close mentor and friend to all of us at Start Co., Dave was instrumental in getting our organization off the ground in 2008, and his contributions to the technology community will always be remembered.
Dave did so much to heighten Memphis’ innovation community, acting as our personal mentor for building new programs. A true digital guru, he will be remembered as our technological champion. He was always bringing in best practices and the latest social media technology to Memphis. He was even an early adopter of Twitter and had a zealous following.
He was keen on making sure Memphis was on the map. After giving a presentation at SXSW in 2012, Dave was featured in 2012 in the Commercial Appeal, saying: “For 20 years I’ve been hearing that Memphis is behind other cities in regard to technology issues, and I’m tired of it. Now is the time to make a change.”
This is truly representative of what I knew to be Dave’s life mission: raising the “tech tide” in Memphis. He was constantly willing to partner on new programs and bring them to the Memphis tech scene, which sometimes just meant rolling up his sleeves and getting the job done. Dave was never one to shy away from real work and I will never forget his true entrepreneurial spirit.
Dave’s impact on our innovation ecosystem is immeasurable. He was keen on relentlessly advancing our community and did so by generously donating his time, energy and resources. I will always remember his heartwarming smile, kindred spirit and amenability toward advancing Memphis into the emerging digital economy. I’m confident that his spirit will live on in our work.
To read more about Dave’s legacy in the Commercial Appeal, please click here.
In my previous post I discussed the macro-level application tips on how teams are selected. You can read more about that here.
With this post, I’ll be more tactical and talk about how to hack the accelerator application to your advantage. Demonstrating intelligence by moving beyond the flat form of the application to provide a multi-dimensional view of your team and idea is hard to do. Nonetheless there are ways to get your application to the top of the pile. Here are my top 8 tips to answer application questions:
1) Break from the Questions: Realize that the questions are there as a guide, but not a rule. Sure you need to answer the question, but you also need to get attention and interest from the reviewer. Inserting crafty tangents that demonstrate how the team is fierce, flexible, and functioning are key. Note that reviewers do not normally read the questions and instead skip right to the answers one by one. The narrative assembles as you present. Rigidly sticking to the questions reduces the richness you can supply. So be creative in how you use the questions. They should be a springboard to showcase your team.
2) The Why is Most Important: Your company description is your chance to hook the reviewer. People don’t by into what you do — they buy into why you do it. People like to invest with others who share the same beliefs. Do not be shallow in your articulations. Show depth and that you understand the magnitude of the problem and the opportunity.
3) Grandma Test: We have many applicants that say a lot without saying anything at all. This is a failure of communication. The buzz words and jargon are going to hurt your application. You will impress no one. We believe that if you cannot articulate something simply then you don’t fully understand it. Test out your answers on your Grandma — if she understands then you are probably in good shape.
4) Demo or Die: It is true that if you supply a demo then it had better be easy to access and it better work. Don’t expect me to login in with my Facebook, Twitter, or Google account to access your software. I won’t do it and I doubt any other reviewer would to protect their identity. Put your demo on a dev server and give us credentials to login that work. If the SSL certificate is out-of-date and the website flagged then that also will result in abandonment of demonstration. In a lot of regards having no demo is better than having a demo that doesn’t work.
5) Benefit of the doubt: If applications are sitting on the bubble, the go ahead run lies with the team and not the idea. From my last blog post you understand why.
6) Competition Red Flags: If I know your competition better than you do, you have a problem. If your competition doesn’t match up to your problem or your solution, something is wrong.
7) Details: If the application is generic vanilla ice cream with no details or differentiation and the applicant is hiding the “secret sauce,” then the application will go no where. No one is going to steal your idea. If you can’t articulate why the team and the idea are better than others then you essentially have self-selected out of the program.
8) Design: The overall design of your website, materials, channels, and demos matters. Landing pages that are only LaunchRock pages with no customizations demonstrate a lack of understanding of go-to-market strategy. Design and thinking matter beyond the words of the application.
These are just some of the tips for getting your application in order. If you have other questions please feel free to reach out to us.
If you have done much research on investors, you realize that they don’t bet on ideas; they bet on teams. What’s true for venture capitalists is doubly true for accelerators, where the likelihood for significant changes, including a wholesale reboot to another idea, is highly likely for all entering teams.
With this in mind, the selection criteria for all early stage investments is heavily weighted to the team dimension. In fact, we estimate that 90% of the decision for acceptance into Start Co. accelerators is based on the team. Our application questions and our interview process help us uncover these traits. Within the team, we look for the three Fs:
1) Fierce: Willing to face a lot of rejection as well as hard knocks.
2) Flexible: Coachable and willing to change when faced with feedback and data that indicates a change is needed.
3) Functioning: execution oriented, rather than getting stuck in the idea and thinking phase.
The other 10% of the investment decisions are more like table stakes items that can get a team disqualified fast. These include:
1) Communication: Being able to clearly articulate verbally and in written language your business concepts, etc.
2) Idea: Must be high growth potential and leverage a significant innovation. In almost all cases, they must also leverage a technology.
Finally, there is one other important aspect that we consider in a team: number of founders. Being a solo founder is a negative selection criteria. While it won’t totally disqualify you, it will reduce the likelihood of acceptance. Research shows that teams with 2-3 founders function best. There is also such a thing as too many founders. If your team is over 4 people we’ll also start to look hard at the team — too many cooks will spoil your startup soup.
Looking for even more application advice? Check back Thursday and I’ll talk about specifics on application tactics.
As a community, we are quite familiar with the troubling state of the Memphis economy (unemployment 50% above the national average and country-leading poverty levels for comparably-sized cities). The persistence of these and comparable indicators leads to the inescapable conclusion that traditional approaches to talent and economic development are insufficient by themselves to help Memphis re-establish a thriving economy.
Fast-growing entrepreneurial companies helped cities across the US transition their economies and establish the foundation for long-term economic success. Young, entrepreneurial companies generated almost all net new jobs in the US over the last 30 years, and a disproportionate share of high-tech or knowledge workers for the greatest economic impact. Unfortunately, the Memphis economy generated few of these companies and our workforce in high-tech or knowledge jobs is 25% to 50% lower than national averages. With these workers trailing US averages and low levels of investment in this talent and support of entrepreneurship, Memphis has both a challenge and an opportunity.
Today, JumpStart, Inc. and Start Co. are pleased to release MEMx, a plan-in-action to advance the economic future of Memphis with the guiding principle that “Entrepreneurship is for Everyone.”
MEMx was built by JumpStart, Inc., Start Co., and the input of over 200 Memphis area organizations and community leaders who participated in the research and thinking. It is the most comprehensive survey of entrepreneurship support conducted in Memphis and already activates partners aligned for making measured gains in entrepreneurial activity in 2014.
This isn’t just startups for startups’ sake – it’s a culture and a practice to enhance our community in general, transforming the Memphis economy and area talent using entrepreneurship that is inclusive of minorities, women, students, and social sectors. MEMx is certainly built on recent bright spots, but also it is a plan for continued iteration and experimentation.
“Entrepreneurship for Everyone” is the key to transforming the Memphis economy.
Will you join the movement?
The MEMx reports from the past 6 months of work conducted by JumpStart, Inc. can be found here. There is A LOT of detail in there between the primary and secondary research, articulations, plans-in-action, principles, appendices, etc. We certainly encourage you to read about MEMx but also to reach out to Start Co. to learn more and join the movement.
With a strong entrepreneurial legacy and a few recent successes, now is the time for Memphis to invest in strategies necessary to create the much-needed entrepreneurial culture, talent, and companies that will move our community forward.