Techstars opened up applications for their 2010 classes a couple weeks back. If you’re thinking about quitting your job to start a company, or you’re already working on a company but haven’t got all the kinks worked out yet, you should apply. (Full Disclosure: Baydin is a TechStars alum from Boston’s 2009 program)
I’ll be putting up a couple additional posts over the next couple of weeks (then a couple more to follow on in a couple months) about my experience in TechStars, what to do while applying to the program and before it starts, and a few thoughts on how to make the most of it for the teams who are getting started in the program.
For now, I want to shill a little bit about how valuable and helpful and exciting the program was. There are three reasons a startup should seriously think about TechStars – all more valuable, in my mind, than the ramen-level-funding and the investor access.
TechStars is mentorship-driven. As soon as you arrive at the office, you’ll start connecting with 60+ mentors, most of whom have been in the trenches at least once, and understand how the sausage gets made. They’re eager to help, excited to teach, and even more excited to learn.
Both Boston and Boulder have amazing entrepreneurial ecosystems. There’s a really strong culture of “giving back” to the entrepreneurial community after running a successful startup (or funding a few). And the recent buildup of “valley envy” in Boston means that the community here has closed ranks and is serious about helping first-timers.
That means you’ll get tons of help figuring out novel business strategies, tons of folks who will give you product feedback, and a lot of help avoiding common pitfalls, like not knowing who the CEO is or building your product until it’s finished inside a vacuum, with no feedback from customers.
Eran Egozy, one of the founders of Harmonix (the folks who made Guitar Hero and Rock Band) told us our product was too slow and hooked us up with an ex-Microsofter at Harmonix who shared some tricks for optimizing it. Warren Katz, founder of VT MAK, taught us about SBIR grants, a nondilutive grant program for commercial technology research run by NASA, the Department of Defense, and a few other agencies. David Skok from Matrix Partners came in to teach us how to build a sales and marketing pipeline on the web – and what to measure to find out if it’s working. And that’s just the beginning – Richard Dale met with us almost every week to keep us on the straight and narrow. When nobody else would even think about installing our 3-week old protoype crap software inside MS Outlook, Will Herman ran it every day. He also helped talk me through some of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.
When things are going smoothly and everything is working right, mentorship is a nice-to-have. When the crap hits the fan (and it pretty much always hits the fan at least a few times for a tech startup) that mentorship is the difference between a company in the Deadpool and a company that is still fighting. You want these folks on your side.
TechStars called the relationships that form between the companies during the summer “cooper-tition” in one of the handouts to the mentors. For a kind of cute phrase, it’s amazing how accurately it describes the way we interacted during the summer.
We all helped each other out and we were all there for each other pretty much anytime. If you need some help figuring out where to find good interns, one of the companies will know. If you are trying to figure out how to reach an elusive blogger, someone at one of the other companies will have been there. If you need to know which version control system makes the most sense, someone from one of the companies will be able to get you started. Because we were all in the same boat, we all understood, and we all had valuable information to share.
And if things are going crappily (which they will), you just waxed an important blogger’s data, or you can’t get any customers, or one of your most promising potential investors just said no, there’s someone right there who’s been there too.
At the same time, when you’re seeing the LangoLab folks still working until 4 in the morning and the TempMine guys in the office before the crack of dawn, and one of the TechStars community interns crashing in one of the “conference rooms” after an all-night marketing blitz session… it inspires you to work harder too.
Plus ping pong, a medium-well stocked beer fridge, lots of free food, and a handful of pretty awesome gatherings.
Paul Graham said in one of his essays that in many cases, the most valuable thing companies get from Y Combinator is the kick in the ribs to abandon a stable job with a salary and take a chance on really making the startup idea work.
TechStars validating our idea and our team was critical to starting Baydin. Without that kick in the ribs, it probably would have remained a weekend project and never really gotten off the ground. It’s totally different working on a startup full time. And you’ll find out, a lot faster, whether or not it’s the right product and the right company if you go full time.
If you get into TechStars, or even become a finalist, you’ll get feedback on where the strengths and holes in your business idea fall. You’ll know whether this is the right startup to take a chance and commit with, or if you’re better off figuring something else out, or if you’re best off bootstrapping this idea on nights and weekends.
Either way, you’ll get that feedback just for applying. Plus, the application process will force you to crystallize your idea and make it stronger.