6 months ago, I was sitting alone on a shore in New Zealand contemplating life, thinking if the path I am following is right and how the future will play out. A lot happened in the ensuing 6 months, and today I am writing this post sitting in the Techstars office in Bangalore, sharing my reflection of the 1 month I’ve spent here.
I feel like a quick background on me might be useful.
After finishing studies in Sydney in May 2018, I moved to Melbourne to work with SPARK Deakin, Deakin University’s start-up accelerator where I helped manage operations and organize events to boost student interest in entrepreneurship.
Fast forward a year, I decided to explore my own entrepreneurial “desires” and quit my job to return to India. The reason was twofold. First, I wanted to come back and see how living in India was like after being abroad for 5 years and second, to work and understand the family business better and see if I’d like to help grow that.
How I found Techstars
As a part of our accelerator in Melbourne, we ran a 4-day pre-accelerator intensive for 20 startups. The workshops were run by Saba Karim, Global Pipeline Manager at TS. Saba is a Melbournian and a Deakin Alumni, so he flew down from Colorado and drilled the startups for 4 days, shared stories of the buzzing startup ecosystem in the US and how much he enjoys working with Techstars.
We also organized a special event for our community where Saba spoke about “The best job in the world” and why he loves his job. (Key lesson: there is no single “best job” in the world, it’s subjective)
4 months later in October, I came across the Operations Associate role at Techstars Bangalore Accelerator on a LinkedIn Post. It seemed like a great opportunity, so I picked up my phone and instantly messaged Saba to discuss it.
But why did I apply
When I made the decision to move to India, I had also decided that I won’t be looking for a job. I had a great job in Australia, and it didn’t make any sense to leave all that and come back to India for just another job.
The main reason to return was to immerse me in the family business and help it grow. But I failed. Failed on the very first day. All the ideas I had thought of working looked dull now and I didn’t enjoy spending time in the business. (Another post soon on why that happened)
The next option was to start something new of my own. But my desire to travel and be at new places and environments, working with new organizations and people overpowered my entrepreneurial desires.
Confusion! Confusion! Confusion!
And suddenly I saw this opportunity to work with Techstars.
Until this point, my knowledge about the Indian startup ecosystem was very limited. I had no idea how stuff works in India, and this opportunity seemed ideal — meet new founders and mentors, build a strong network, polish my skills and understand the ecosystem better in just 3 months.
So, I applied, and a couple of phone calls and an interview later, I was offered the role of an Operations Associate which I accepted happily.
Huge thanks to Ray and Shipra for taking a bet on me.
Wait, but what exactly is Techstars and what does an Associate do?
In their own words, “Techstars is a worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. With dozens of mentorship-driven accelerator programs and thousands of community programs worldwide, Techstars exists to support the world’s most promising entrepreneurs throughout their lifelong journey, from inspiration to IPO.”
In my words, Techstars Accelerator is a 3-month mentorship-driven program, providing access to capital (USD 120k for about 7–10% equity) and rapid, immersive education aimed at boosting the life cycle of young innovative companies. The focus is on early-stage, growth-driven companies, encouraging them to do more faster.
Where do Associates come in?
The associate’s first and foremost role is being an ambassador for the program and helping it run smoothly. We’re expected to jump in and complete any task quickly and effectively.
We have 2 focus areas:
1. Assist in the day-to-day operations of the program.
From helping organize orientation and founder retreats to weekly workshops and the demo day
2. Assist the companies in any areas of need.
Marketing, BD work, research; basically, helping the companies with anything. But there’s no pressure here, you help with the tasks you enjoy doing or want to learn how to do better.
What’s so good about the program is that Techstars gives back in different ways, especially helping us reach our goals.
Before the start of the program, we speak with the Program Manager and the MD to discuss our long-term goals, goals for the program and the tasks we like to do and come up with a plan of success together. You’re never alone in the journey.
You also get to build a rock-solid network as you get to meet lots of founders, mentors, and investors.
And lastly, you get to have fun in the process and work on cool projects with other associates. My fellow associate Mustafa and I have a lot of fun and get work done fast, from brainstorming tons of startup ideas every day to running around the office organizing events and sneaking in a table tennis match now and then.
Phase 1: “the Direction and Mentors”
The program is divided into 3 phases, I’ve dissected what happened in the 1st month below:
Welcome to Techstars! The program kicks off with a quick orientation and team activities to break the ice. We learn unique things about the founders and what they’re building.
Weekly founder stories and family dinner starts; a founder comes in and shares their startup journey and one of the teams from the cohort hosts the dinner for the night. It’s always a fun night, lots of questions and fun after a long day at work.
There was a workshop on KPI’s by Ray and fun elevator pitches by the startups. Week 1 finished on a high with everyone excited for Mentor Madness.
Week 2 -3
Mentor Madness is exactly what it sounds like, madness. It is extremely well planned and runs smoothly. Over 7 days, the founders get to speak with over 60 mentors for 20 minutes each.
There are 10 startups in the batch, so imagine an average of 600 sessions, sounds like madness, right? To understand better, think of it as speed dating but with mentors.
We had founder stories and the usual weekly KPI’s and All Hands meeting in Week 2–3 as well. Needless to say, it was quite an exhausting week.
Founders continue to get new and thought-provoking advice even after the 60th mentor. It can be difficult to understand what to act on and get caught up in an infinite feedback loop. I’ll expand on this in the lessons learned below.
Now we’re in Week 4. Towards the end of Phase 1. But wait, some founders are in a state of confusion. What should we work on? What’s our focus for the next 2 months? Whose advice should we act upon?
The first thing that happens in Week 4 is the Lead Mentor Assignment. The mentors and the founders express desire on who they want to work with over the coming months, and Techstars does the matchmaking and introductions. On average, a team has 3–4 lead mentors with different specialties.
After that, there was a 3-Day intense Design Thinking Workshop where the founders were asked to invite all their team members, so they can collaborate and:
Understand their users, challenge assumptions, craft “How Might We” statements, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.
The design-thinking process is designed to cut down to core focus areas and counteract human biases that balk creativity while addressing the challenges typically faced by early-stage start-ups.
And that’s it, the end of Month 1. This phase can be described as the one where the startups seek clarity and direction, find product-market fit and prepare for Phase 2, which I can broadly say is creating a structure to grow (but more on this later after month 2).
1-month fly’s by quickly. From getting to know each other and understanding each other’s businesses to the many mentoring sessions and figuring what the hell are we building.
It’s equally exciting for the Associate because we get to be part of the journey of 10 start-ups at a time. We have the responsibility of helping run the program, but also the freedom to work with any company we like. Mustafa and I have been working on some cool projects, more on that in Month 2 review.
To sum up, here’s what I’ve learned in this brief time at Techstars:
1. Finding a product-market fit is hard.
Product-market fit is crucial because until that point you don’t know if what you are building satisfies strong market demand. Without clarity on this, one could continue investing in building something that is not viable.
This is an interesting topic and I could go on and on about it, but I don’t think I’m qualified enough to ramble on it, so here’s an interesting blurb from Marc Andreesen about product-market fit:
How can you tell whether you do (or don’t) have a product-market fit?
“You can always feel when product/market fit isn’t happening. The customers aren’t quite getting value out of the product, word of mouth isn’t spreading, usage isn’t growing that fast, press reviews are kind of ‘blah’, the sales cycle takes too long, and lots of deals never close. And you can always feel product/market fit when it’s happening. The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it — or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers. Money from customers is piling up in your company checking account. You’re hiring sales and customer support staff as fast as you can. Reporters are calling because they’ve heard about your hot new thing and they want to talk to you about it. You start getting entrepreneur of the year awards from Harvard Business School. Investment bankers are staking out your house. You could eat free for a year at Buck’s.”Marc Andreessen
2. Doing too much stuff vs focusing on one feature.
Lots of start-ups are trying to do a ton of things.
For example, look at this idea: “It’s a social networking e-commerce portal for live music, where everyone creates a profile to enter all their dates if they’re a musician or venue, or their available dates if they’re a music fan. Then we connect the fans with artists’ dates. Then we can sell the tickets for the events and give a digital download preview of the music. After the show, the artist uploads the video from the night, and people can purchase the video of the show they were at, and connect with other people who attended that same show to create tribes of people, who will recommend other music you may like if you like that. Oh, and it will have a dating component, and real-time chat.” — Derek Sivers
This might seem like a far-fetched scenario, but it’s not. I’ve identified similar patterns with many start-ups in their early stages here or ideas from my friends.
Again, some advice from Derek Sivers that I resonate with below:
“Got a complex business idea? Break it down into its ingredients, and let the specialists do what they do best. Video aspect? Let YouTube handle that part. E-Commerce aspect? Use Amazon’s system. Payments? Use Stripe. Don’t reinvent any of these wheels. Focus on what’s left — what hasn’t been done. Specialize at that one thing and become that go-to company that nobody can beat in your niche.”Derek Sivers
3. Importance of feedback but not getting caught up on it.
Feedback is important. Whether it’s coming from your customers, employees or your mentors. Techstars being a mentorship-driven accelerator, you hear a lot of things on how to do things better or solve a pressing problem.
At the time of writing this, the start-ups here have already met with more than 70 mentors. They come in with their own set of expertise and have a great understanding of their respective markets. Naturally, all 70 will have different advice. Mentors believe that founders don’t need sugar-coated words and they share feedback that is constructive yet honest.
I stumbled upon a post by another Techstars startup (Demoflow) in Boulder, Colorado and the founder (Larson Stair) describes the experience well:
“At an initial glance, you might think that meeting with 71 people in four days is overkill. How could we possibly continue to get new advice after that many sessions? I know we thought this after day 2.
The first half already addressed all our immediate problems, and we were ready to start running.
That said, I encourage you to think a little deeper about not just your immediate problems but also the things you’ll need to solve in a few months.
You’ll likely never get another opportunity to have dozens of highly qualified and experienced professionals vet your idea and give you candid feedback.
Embrace it. Think ahead.
Once you’ve addressed your immediate problems and feel ready to run, pause. Think a few steps beyond that. Come up with new questions for advisors that anticipate impending potential problems. Be proactive!
Why? Because we were still getting new ideas after meeting with advisor #71.
You’ll only get out of Mentor Madness, what you’re willing to put in.
Be prepared. Think ahead. And be open to all suggestions.”
Techstars Mentor Manifesto states that “Guide, don’t control. Teams must make their own decisions. Guide but never tell them what to do. Understand that it’s their company, not yours.”.
It all comes down to using their advice and coming up with your own solutions.
The Way Ahead
It’s been an exciting first month at Techstars and I’m sure the next 2 months are going to be more exciting. Lots of hustle and a lot of fun. I’ll share more in the next post.
Thanks so much for reading. If you have any questions about the program or comments on the post, feel free to reach out to me here.