Before applying to The Founder Institute, I had a set of criteria which the ideal incubator or accelerator would need to satisfy. These included:
- Will this allow me to remain in New York with my family?
- Can I keep my day job for now?
- Is this a program that will set me up for continued success post completion?
- What’s their track record?
After doing a lot of research on Incubators and Accelerators I settled on The Founder Institute. They satisfied all my requirements and I came into the program guns blazing as a marketing and tech professional with 20 years of experience ready to kick ass and take names. In reality, the coursework and the arduous task of creating a startup from the ground up kicked my ass 🙂
Here are the top five things I learned along the way.
1 – Humble yourself or prepared to be humbled
I’m an extrovert. I’m good in a room, not afraid to talk to strangers and I’m confident sometimes to the point of coming across as cocky. I can’t help it, it’s just who I am. Oh did I mention, I’ve been in Advertising for 20 very long years. Built some really cool shit and know a lot of people. There you have it, those are my laurels and I’m resting on them.
I was cruising through the program. However, I was struggling to explain my idea of The Weekend SPIN in 3 minutes or less. This led to particularly low scores during one of my pitch sessions. I felt ashamed, upset and frustrated. My classmates were like whoa, he just got a low score. After licking my wounds, I incorporated all the feedback I was receiving from the Founder Institute mentors. I then realized that I was being humbled. Taking their advice worked and my next round of pitches were much better.
2 – Eat, Sleep and Breathe your idea
As part of the Founder Institute, we typically pitch our idea to our working groups each week. We also pitch our idea to the entire class as well as our mentors once every two weeks. This means you need to be ready at a moment’s notice to pitch your idea. In order to do this effectively, you must eat, sleep and breathe your idea. I spent countless hours refining my pitch deck, timing myself, recording myself and going over every slide and every sentence in my pitch. Today, my pitch comes across more naturally and it’s because I ate, slept and breathed my idea.
3 – Learn to trust
Because of the highly competitive nature of startups, my first instinct is to trust no one.
You wanna hear about my idea? Sign this NDA.
You wanna see my pitch deck? Sign this NDA and lets do this via a screen share so that you don’t have a copy of my deck.
You wanna see how our technology works? No
Those are the defense mechanisms that I had going into The Founder Institute and while I still selective use those tactics, what I learned is that you have to be willing to talk about your idea at a moment’s notice. This means talking about your startup’s idea in a bar, over coffee, in the subway, wherever. The Founder Institute taught me that I needed to learn how to trust. Trust my classmates, trust my mentors, trust my advisors and trust other folks who may genuinely want to help you. Furthermore, people retain about 10% of what they hear and it’s extremely unlikely that someone will steal your idea and be able to execute on it as well as you can as the founder.
4 – Step outside of your comfort zone immediately
During the course of the accelerator, we had to create a professional looking pitch deck, craft email newsletters, create a revenue spreadsheet, perform customer research, create a minimum viable product and get an actual customer. While these roles require very different skill sets and focus, these are all requirements of being a founder and running your startup. I saw many folks in my cohort struggle at different points when the assignment didn’t fall into their wheelhouse. I struggled myself but what got me through it was focusing and learning as much as what I needed to for the particular assignment. I never considered myself a financial person or a sales person. However, as the C.E.O. and founder of your startup, you must learn how to play all these roles, you must learn fast and you must step outside of your comfort zone immediately.
5 – It’s all about traction
Having a good idea is good but it’s not enough.
Having a team in place is good but it’s not enough.
Having a product in the market is great but it’s not enough.
I met many different entrepreneurs at The Founder Institute at different levels in their startup journey. Some barely had an idea, others had signed letters of intent and others had a product in the market with paying customers. However, there was one key performance metric which resounded throughout the program; traction.
How much traction do you have?
How many people are actually using your product?
How’s your growth month over month?
These are hard questions to answer for a budding startup but they’re the ones that push you to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate everything about your offering.
Overall, The Founder Institute proved to be a very good learning experience for me. I’m eternally grateful for the connections, advice and exposure to the amazing mentors we had a chance to meet.