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.