I am building a habit of writing reflections after making big decisions (such as moving countries), learning a new skill, or wrapping up a big project.
Writing helps me gather my thoughts and pen them down in a structured way. I write for my future self, so I can refer back to my journal to understand why I made a certain decision and what I learned from the jobs I did.
It’s been over a month since I finished my Associate role at Techstars Bangalore and I’ve had enough time to reflect on the program and the stuff I learned. In this reflection, I’ll be sharing some details about the last 2 months of the Accelerator program, my key learnings, and highlights.
This is the 2nd post of my Techstars journey. I recommend reading the first one here before proceeding.
As I mentioned in the previous post, the 3-month program is broadly divided into three 1-month phases:
- The Direction and Mentors
- Execute – Creating a structure to grow
- Launch +Pitch + Fundraising + everything else after Techstars
After finishing the 3-day Design Thinking workshop in Week 4, we were preparing for a busy 2nd month, but we all know what happened in mid-march. COVID-19 started spreading in India and going remote was inevitable.
There were a lot of questions to be answered- how will the program be run, what about the demo day, what happens to all the planned events?
The founders were starting to stress out, a couple of startups even had to stop their operations (physical goods/services companies). They had many questions about fundraising and the looming tension about the future stressed them.
Amidst the confusion and before the lockdown was officially announced, Mustafa (fellow associate) and I almost planned an escape to Goa and work remotely from the beach. That dream was short-lived as the whole country shut down. Fortunately, I managed to fly back to my hometown, as did some of the founders.
The last 2 months
Techstars did a remarkable job of moving remote and setting up guidelines for working and preparing for demo day.
But I have to confess, for a couple of weeks, my workload reduced drastically. A part of my role was to organize and assist with events and workshops in the office. As everything now happened on Zoom, I had much less to do.
The other half of my work was to assist founders in areas such as market research, email strategy, copywriting. Most of this work came out of serendipitous conversations while grabbing coffee or after our wednesday family dinners. And in such uncertain times, all founders were busy managing their runway.
Nonetheless, we managed to keep ourselves occupied. There were lots of workshops and founder story sessions. In our free time, Mustafa and I would call up the founders, ask if they needed help with something or just understand how they’re tackling the lockdown.
In the last 2 months we had plenty of workshops, including:
- Enterprise Selling by Bala
- Pricing strategies for success by Chargebee
- Pitching to investors by Connor Murphy
- Scaling Customer Acquisition by Hubspot
- Marketing 101: Building an Unshakeable brand by Fishhook
- Voice Coaching with Mohan Ram
- Startup Survival during Covid-19 with Hilla Ovil-Brenner
- Techstars talk with Barath Subramanian [Accel]
Further, we also got to listen to the stories of these amazing founders:
- Priya Mohan – Co-founder, Vidyartha (acquired by BYJU’s)
- Kanchan Kumar – Co-founder & CEO, Remitr
- Allen Lau – Co-founder and CEO of Wattpad
- Kunal Gupta – CEO, Polar
And then the intense pitch practice started on March 23. We had over 18 grilling practice sessions and countless pitches by all the founders. I was thinking about the time I used to do a presentation in uni; make some notes, practice a couple of times (sometimes no practice), go on the floor and spit it all out.
Nothing like that here, this is not university. Techstars follow stringent criteria for the pitches, and to ensure that founders practiced every day. Add to that the complexity of doing a pitch on the laptop and troubleshooting technical issues.
One thing that stood out was the persistence and determination of the founders in the last 4 weeks. After a brief hysteria caused by COVID-19, the teams were back in action rather quickly; streamlining operations, rolling out new features, and even re-branding.
The program officially finished on 23rd March and we had a virtual demo day on 30th March. You can watch the full demo day pitches here or below.
The 3 months went by faster than I could imagine. Summing up, here are the key things I’ve learned:
1. Ideas are plenty, execution matters
Everyone is capable of generating world-changing ideas, but it is the execution of that idea in reality that matters.
It’s not exactly that the idea doesn’t matter. It’s that you don’t own your ideas. You don’t know how many other people have the same idea at the same time. You don’t know how many fatal flaws there are in your ideas, fatal flaws that you wouldn’t know until you started executing. Until you do some work for the idea, you don’t own it, and you can’t sell it, so it doesn’t matter.
This is one of the reasons accelerators and early-stage investors focus so much on the team. They want to know that this group can execute, whatever the business concept ends up being.
Derek Sivers said “ideas are worth nothing unless they are executed. They are just a multiplier.” His point being that the vast majority of value comes from the execution, but it is adjusted a bit by the quality of the underlying idea. It is worth reading here.
“We have to execute! In sales, we can review the most effective techniques but unless we pick up the phone and visit our clients, we will never get ahead. As entrepreneurs, we can design a killer business plan, but unless we effectively market and actively drive demand, customers are likely to stay away. As coaches and teachers, we can absorb the latest approach to training, but we will never make an impact on our students and players unless we earnestly connect on an individual basis. Building our tools for advancement is now table stakes. In order to translate that building process into success, we must vigorously put these skills into practice.”
2. What to measure – KPIs, vanity metrics and all that jazz!
How do you know that your business is gaining momentum? The answer is simple: numbers. Numbers are the heartbeat of any business. Tracking and measuring data combined with regular analysis is key.
In the first 2 weeks, the startups spent some time identifying the right thing to measure. Every week we had an All hands meeting discussing KPIs and the startups also sent weekly updates on them.
There’s a bunch of things you can measure to track progress. MRR, LTV, CAC, Activation rate, number of signups/logins, NPS, and many more.
The key is to avoid being fooled by vanity metrics.
We’ve all heard the term ‘vanity metric’. Numbers that grow and make us feel good/look good on paper but they have no substance and don’t tell us anything important.
Just as there are vanity metrics in startups, they are also in life. Some examples include: number of connections on LinkedIn, likes on Instagram posts, number of emails you receive etc.
It’s best to avoid them and focus on numbers that help make informed decisions in our personal development.
“One of the unusual things I like to measure is office morale. To keep energy high around the office, we have a few arcade and table games that employees can play to take a quick break. The games were purchased for fun, but they actually generated some interesting data for us, too: We set up a simple device to measure when the games are active, then came up with a couple of hypotheses for how we could correlate game usage with overall productivity. If employees are spending more time than usual playing PacMan, does that mean that stress levels are low and productivity is high? Or does it mean that things are slow in the office and we need to push more features? The only way to really find out is to track the data, compare it to some other key performance indicators, and see what the answer is. As it turns out, more PacMan actually means more efficiency for us.”Jim Belosic
3. Radical Candor – giving and receiving feedback
There’s a lot of feedback being shared in an early-stage accelerator. Advice from mentors, founders giving feedback to their teams, feedback on the pitch by the MD. In such situations, there’s bound to be some criticism.
This is where radical candor kicks in. It means speaking truth to people but doing so with kindness, which Kim Scott, the author of the book Radical Candor, calls challenging directly while caring personally.
In some of the pitch sessions, I noticed Ray(MD) deliver criticism quickly and share tips for improvement. It was truth with kindness.
It is to be practiced by the receiver too. The founders avoided being defensive and took feedback honestly understanding that it comes from a place of kindness.
4. Community wins
To be honest, I never really believed in the power of the community. I preferred doing things solo, in my own way.
I realized having a team of founders beside you and mentors ready to help can be a game-changer.
The first benefit is the business wins. Struggling with legal issues and want quick advice? Ask on TS Connect (like LinkedIn but just for the Techstars community) and you’re very likely to find someone who has gone through a similar situation who can help.
And the second benefit is mental health. Entrepreneurship is a long and strenuous journey. While rewarding, it can take a serious toll on your mental health. Having people who have gone through the same before alongside can be very helpful.
5. Field of dreams fallacy
“The Field of Dreams” was a movie from 1989 that made the line “If you build it, they will come” famous. It is a beautiful line, but it is almost never true.
This is a hard lesson to grasp. Certainly for me. The lesson is here that building a great product alone cannot guarantee success. Products rarely sell themselves.
I learned this not by personal experience, rather observations. You can’t build a website or an app and wait for people to come. They won’t come to your site without reason. They won’t sign up for your product without knowing for sure why they’re doing it.
What should founders do instead? Start marketing the day they start coding; selling the product the day they start building it. I know, this is much easier said than done.
And marketing is only the first half of the problem. Once you’ve attracted customers to your product, the next step is to talk to them and determine if what is being built will meet their needs. Finding product-market fit.
Even a product as irresistible, in hindsight, as Facebook, had some savvy marketing behind it when it launched. In the long run, the product is the strongest part of marketing. In the short run, you need to build a story that makes the product desirable in a manner that is consistent to what it is really about.
Don’t build it and wait for them to come. If you market it, they will come.
“If you want your product to be successful, you have to start marketing. Start marketing from day one. If you’ve already started building your product, then start marketing today. Put as much effort into gaining traction as you do develop your product, ‘traction and product development are of equal importance and should each get about half of your attention.”Gabriel Weinberg, Traction
While the 3 months were full of exciting events and value-packed workshops, the thing that stood out was the people I met at Techstars.
Mustafa and I would come up with new startup ideas every day and when the program went remote, we explored new cafes in Bangalore. We brainstormed and helped each other on side projects, and collaborated on projects with the cohort companies.
Ray (Managing Director) and Shipra (Program Manager) were always supportive in finding the best ways for us to contribute and also helping figure out the next steps when the program finished.
And of course, the founder family, understanding their individual journeys, seeing them hard at work and all the fun during Wednesday family dinners.
David Brown, CEO of Techstars, also conducted a call with the associates over the globe and answered our questions. Fun session.
In early April, Techstars had around 15 programs going on globally. To take things up a notch, we decided to catch up with all the current associates and hear about their experience and what they’re doing after the program finishes. It was amazing to connect with such amazing people and finish the program with a bang.
Associates Call Last call with TS Bangalore
And that’s it. The end of a fantastic 3 months, diving deep into the Indian startup ecosystem and learning at every step.
Thanks so much for reading. If you have any questions about the Associate program or just want to talk about startups, please reach out.