All posts made in Mar. 2018:

Mid-program reflections #2 – how to run Founder Stories

It's the middle of week 7 and we had our third Founder Stories session on Monday. (Here's some general background on the program.)

Back in the winter of 2014, Jon Bradford roped me in to be EIR at Techstars London where he was Managing Director at the time. Techstars is the standout global network of startup accelerators. They've worked with over 1,200 startups, all via three month programs built around mentoring. "EIR"--my role in that single program--stands for Entrepreneur in Residence and it's a fancy phrase for hanging out, lending Jon a hand, and getting exposure to all the companies and the programming while figuring out what to do next.

Founder Stories was a component in that program: every week or so, a founder of a more developed startup would come in and present their story, with a Q&A afterwards. I loved it. I'm pretty sure the startups on the program all loved it. When it came to running a program myself, I wanted something that did the same job. So I nicked the format.

Here's how it works:

I have a bunch of buddies who run startups. For a Founder Stories session, I invite one of them in for an hour-long interview with the program cohort as audience. The interview is 40 minutes; the open Q&A is 20 minutes. It's an interview because it minimises prep time for the guest.

The session, ideally, runs 5-6pm. Last year we ran it later, but that meant that people with home lives found it hard to join. So this year we're running events in the evenings as little as possible.

I get everyone in the room to introduce themselves to start with. This opens up the room, and provides practice for founders and team members to introduce their startups in just one sentence. The final person to introduce themselves is our visiting founder.

I have a pattern for the interview:

  • start at the end: what does the company do now, how many people is it, etc. This avoids surprises. Surprises are great for drama but get in the way of learning from vicarious experience
  • then go all the way back to the beginning, and narrate the story more-or-less chronologically. Funding rounds are good milestones for this. I have a discussion with the guest just before the event and take notes so I can keep the conversation on track

If the founder brings up a particular topic, I like to follow it along and see how it develops over the stages of their company. If they are interested in team dynamics, I like to ask how the team has evolved and how processes have been adopted. If fundraising comes up, it's interesting to follow that thread.

Endpoints often seem either unattainable or inevitable. My goal is to point out the steps and to show a chain from then to now. If you can imagine such a journey, you can work on taking it. If you can't imagine your shoes taking those steps, you won't even notice the opportunities and invitations that come your way.

Here's what I avoid:

I prefer to avoid gasping at luck or indulging in struggle. This is entertaining, but puts the founder on a pedestal: they must have been exceptional in some way to get through it. I don't want them to appear anointed. I want the founders in the audience to think, hey, that could be me.

There are small ways of building identity between speaker and audience. One is to avoid stages and use low chairs.

I want the startup story to become normal. Almost mundane. This is delicate because the founders who visit to tell their stories are exceptional. Getting this far is rare. So it's not a matter of popping the balloon but rather steering the conversation to acknowledge that success is a combination of, yes, luck, and also talent and hard work. Sometimes, for a new entrepreneur, the key to unlock success is to recognise their own talent and their own superior knowledge about their domain.

It's such a balance. My favourite founders balance humility to listen and learn from their customers and advisors, with a strong resilience grounded in an understanding of their own talent and a mysterious vision. Plus luck! It takes belief that sometimes the universe hands you luck in order to notice it and drink from it.

Here's why I think Founder Stories is useful:

A startup is as much an approach as anything else--an approach to solving problems (visionary yet iterative and data-driven), language (the strategy of startups is there for the reading, but it's encoded in a shorthand that you can learn through immersion), an understanding of what is normal (it's easier to ride the tiger if you know what to expect), and an ecosystem of reputation, introductions, and people. Reading this back, I realise that I don't mean that startups have an approach. Startups have a culture.

One of the jobs of a successful accelerator is to transmit startup culture.

(Different accelerators do that in different ways, and that they do on-top is what makes different accelerators appropriate for different startups at different stages. And just to be clear, an accelerator isn't a necessary step in a startup's life. There are many other ways to be part of the culture, and joining an accelerator should be a considered decision like any other business move.)

I say transmit because culture isn't taught.

When I think of transmission I think of the way a sourdough starter is created by taking a fist of the original starter, and growing it with flour and water.

My go-to analogy used to be that you can't cold-start a gut biome. If a person unfortunately loses their gut biome, it has to be replaced by taking a sample of a compatible biome from inside another living person and medically transferring it. But the connection with startups always got lost as I started getting into the reasons and methods of fecal microbiota transplants, so I abandoned that particular explanatory method as possibly too distracting.

Demystifying. Allowing a new entrepreneur to picture themselves further along the road. Scouting ahead to build familiarity with the language and the challenges. Hearing the story isn't (or so I believe) directly about learning.

We've been lucky to have Hal from Unmade, Bethany from Tech Will Save Us, and Emily from Blaze share their stories so far. We have a couple more Founders Stories lined up.

After Emily's visit, one of the founders in the cohort said to me that she could see a bit of herself in Emily. Seeing Emily let her know that, in building her startup, being herself was okay.

Big moment.

Mid-program reflections #1 — the story so far

This post is the first of a series of reflections on running a startup accelerator:

  1. The story so far
  2. How to run Founder Stories
  3. Startup cadence versus agency cadence
  4. Six thoughts about Office Hours
  5. Accelerators, corporates, and an ambition to become the Innovation Partner of Record

It’s week 6 out of 12 so I figured I’d write a bit about how this 3 month startup program works, and what I’m learning from it.

The “#1” in the title is entirely aspirational. I'm writing this with my thumb on the tube between Moorgate and London Bridge on my way to a morning meeting. I used to write and look at email on my commute, but in 2018 I've been either reading books or running. The first due to a successful new years resolution, the second a thinly veiled response to turning 40. So let's see how much time I actually get to write these reflections.

In case you missed it, I’m Managing Director of the R/GA IoT Venture Studio which is a three month program here in London, aimed at startups in the general area of the Internet of Things, and it includes investment and hands-on support. This is the second time the program has been run in London, though there have been many more programs along the same lines in the US.

R/GA is a global digital agency.

Mostly, the startups we work with sit with us in the office.

The London program works like this:

The first three weeks are dedicated to meeting mentors and people from the sponsors and around R/GA. The goals are to get feedback on how the founders are building their businesses, and to build personal relationships between the founders and the "mentors." (I dislike the term mentors because it sets up a power imbalance with respect to "wisdom" and this is often inaccurate and usually unhelpful. Instead I prefer to call people what they are, which is experts, advisors, investors, and potential customers. But that's cumbersome so mentors it is.)

The next five weeks, the second phase, is called Services, and it's what we're in the middle of now. A team from the agency side of R/GA, which is much larger than the newer Ventures side, works with each company to refine and professionalise its offer via brand, visual identity, and copy work. Often but not always there are sub-projects focused on areas like the user experience of particular dashboard, or the design of communications at the point of sale.

The idea, which I buy, is that by presenting in a more professional way, you can close more customers, get more traction, and therefore build the value of the company. Professionalising means making decisions and nailing down brand, etc, to deepen appeal to particular customer segments by highlighting particular benefits of the product or service. So the trick is to only nail things down where there is already positive customer traction. You have to avoid carving in stone anything speculative. Untested ideas do not—or at least, should not—survive contact with real customers. Putting work into untested ideas reduces your ability to iterate them. This is toxic for a startup, because a startup is a machine for learning. All of which means there is a knack to Services.

We also lend a hand with more future-facing or operational tasks. Examples of topics hit in the Office Hours sessions (I meet with each company for an hour each week) and in meetings with our program team:

  • Addressable market sizing
  • Outlining the employee onboarding deck, including processes and values
  • Reviewing the sales process, tools, and collateral
  • Calculating unit economics
  • Putting together the direct sales funnel, identifying relevant metrics, and setting the agenda for growth meetings

These meetings happen throughout the 12 weeks, alongside the odd workshop and fireside chat with guests.

The third phase is called Presentations and it’s about refining the pitch, the story, and the deck. R/GA New York has a dedicated presentations team, and they visit to work directly with the cohort.

There’s a demo event at the end which is a kind of finish line for the formal programming, at which point we move into a continuous phase which is internally called Engagement. This simply means that we make sure people in the R/GA agency know of all the startups, and we look for opportunities to make connections that could lead to work.

Other programs—there have been a dozen or so—have a more active strand of building collaborations between corporate partners and the startups in the cohort.

We’re working with nine companies in the 2018 cohort. R/GA Ventures investments to date number in the mid 80s. Here we have our first circular economy startup. We have our first applied biochemistry startup.

I spoke with Fast Company and they did a great write-up of all nine.

We invest £75,000 in each company, in addition to the in-kind investment of the three program phases, in return for equity.

Here’s what W6 involves, for me:

  • Monday was Office Hours in the morning. You never know what a session will be about until you’re in it. These three were: a tactical look at closing sales; a question about a focus on product build; identifying the current soft spot in the future pitch deck. Those were the topics, but my overall goal for Office Hours is remove barriers to growth and to build a habit of momentum. In the afternoon we were insanely lucky to have Joshua Edwards visit from Lab126 which is Amazon’s super secretive hardware division. He took us through their new product development process and also how Amazon makes decisions. We weren’t allowed to record it, or invite anyone in from outside the program (we asked). In the afternoon I met with the Head of Marketing from one of last year’s cohort to discuss how they are taking their product to the US.
  • Tuesday included more Office Hours, and also meetings. One with an accountancy firm, and one with and Stephen about plans for future programs in London. Stephen is the global COO of R/GA and Managing Partner of R/GA Ventures. I have learnt a ton from him.
  • Wednesday is today, which is the day after I started writing this post. I’ve met with investor friends for breakfast, discussed plans for various program events, and hosted the weekly call named “IoT18 - legal sync” in my calendar. I use Outlook. I coordinate the investment deals with the startups, which means that I’m often talking through paperwork and terms with founders, and also working with the legal team on this end. Deal work is fascinating: you move between the macro of commercial intention and the micro of clauses; there’s project management, negotiation and negotiation strategy, and sitting with Excel to model scenarios and so educate one’s intuition.

What I’m not saying is that most of the time I’m not with startups or in a meeting, I’m working with Lisa Ritchie. Lisa is the Program Director here, which means she runs operations, the budget, and the program team. Lisa has been my single hire (for this program she has hired or selected everyone else), from back before the first London program, and we run this thing together. She is even more excellent than I had hoped.

  • Thursday is tomorrow. In the morning we have five “mentors” visiting to spend time with the companies. Usually I would debrief with the mentors over lunch, but I’m in Office Hours sessions instead so Lisa will do that. Then, looking at my calendar, I’ll be sitting down with the program team to review any small projects we might run to unblock progress for any of our companies; I’ll be meeting with Bob Greenberg who is the founder of R/GA and this week visiting the London office; and finally I’ll be doing a fireside chat with Bethany Koby (CEO and founder of Technology Will Save Us) who is visiting to share her story with the cohort. In the afternoon there is a workshop about the implications and opportunities of GDPR.
  • On Friday, I’m not in the office. For the past few years I’ve kept one day a week back to develop future work. Never sell Fridays. That means I go to art galleries and read; it also means I take meetings around more speculative directions; I meet with the companies where I’m an advisor. But this Friday I’ll be on the train to Nottingham because I have a reservation at Restaurant Sat Bains for their tasting menu. I understand it’s pretty experimental. One of the courses is named after the restaurant’s postcode. The name of the course, and the postcode, is NG7 2SA. There are either seven or ten courses in the tasting menu. There are approximately 1,700,000 postcodes in the UK.

When I say “we” I mean any of R/GA, R/GA Ventures, the Ventures team in New London, this program, and the program team. The program team is me, Lisa, Soala, and Amanda. Each "we" is great, but considering this program team in particular, I couldn’t be happier to work with them.

My intention is to write more words like this.