7 Ways To Rock a Startup Accelerator Mentor Day

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by serial entrepreneur and marketing executive April Dunford who is currently the head of Enterprise Market Strategy for Huawei. April specializes in brining new products to market including messaging, positioning, market strategy, go-to-market planning and lead generation. She is one of the leading B2B/enterprise marketers in the world and we’re really lucky to be able to share here content with you. Follow her on Twitter  or RocketWatcher.com. This post was originally published in August 31, 2012 on RocketWatcher.com.

I spent the day yesterday at FounderFuel for their Mentor Day. If you aren’t familiar with FounderFuel they are a very successful startup accelerator based in Montreal. And what a day it was – 8 startups pitched and then did roundtable breakout sessions with over 50 mentors including VC’s, angel investors, entrepreneurs and senior executives. Here’s my mentor’s perspective on how a startup can really get the most out of a day like that:

1/ Pick your Target Mentors Ahead of Time: 50 mentors is a lot and they represented a wide cross section of folks that have deep experience in different consumer and business markets, and have a range of skills from technical expertise to sales, marketing, finance, and legal experience. Selecting a subset of the mentors with experience relevant to your business will help you target your discussions.A handful of the teams that needed marketing help reached out to me by email before the day and that helped to make sure that we connected at the session which I thought was pretty smart.

 7 Ways Rock a Startup Accelerator Mentor Day2/ Ask for Feedback on your Pitch: The mentors are both experienced pitch artists, and listen to pitches a lot. What better folks to give feedback on what worked and what didn’t work with the pitch you just gave? In this case the companies are all still in the early stages of the accelerator program so it’s a great time to get feedback that will improve the ultimate pitch you give on demo day. The feedback will also give you a feel for the differences in what an Angel investor might be looking for over what the more traditional VC’s are looking for in a pitch. “Tell me one thing that would have made my pitch better” or “What was missing from my pitch?” would both be great ways to start that discussion.

3/ Ask for Specific Help: The mentors are ready and willing to help but they can’t guess what you need. Coming with a set of specific requests helps shape the discussion in a way that is most helpful to you. Don’t be afraid to ask for specific introductions – even if the folks in the room don’t have the answers you need, chances are they know someone who does.

4/ Listen, Ask Questions (and Filter later): – The mentors yesterday came from really different backgrounds and had worked in a broad range of industries (consumer, gaming, retail, enterprise, financial services). Sure we’re all smart folks but you wouldn’t believe how different our opinons were about questions the startups were asking. For example, at my session with Openera – a tool for automatically organizing files and attachments –  we got into a discussion about selling to consumers versus enterprises as a starting point. I ALWAYS tilt toward enterprises when people ask me that because I know/love enterprise sales. The mentor beside me, Yona Shtern, the CEO from Beyond the Rack on the other hand thought selling B2C (or B2C2B) was just fine. Only Openera can decide who’s got smarter advice for their business (yeah OK, in this case it’s probably the smarty-pants Beyond the Rack guy but hey you get what I’m trying to say here). Another example – in the discussion with InfoActive (a very cool tool that lets you easily create beautiful interactive data visualizations), I immediately saw the applicability to creating interactive marketing materials. I’m a marketer, that’s the obvious use case for someone like me.  The mentor beside me (James Duncan, CTO at Inktank) on the other hand saw the value in selling to IT departments that needed a way to easily create good looking dashboards to help IT communicate to the business side of the house. That’s a great use case that a marketing person like me would be unlikely to immediately think of. Both ideas might be worth investigating but only InfoActive can really decide that. Avoiding “mentor whiplash”, as the FounderFuel gang refers to it, is a critical skill for startups in accelerators that have deep rosters of active mentors. Remember too that time is limited so you don’t want to waste it having a long debate with a single mentor over a specific point. Listen, probe a bit if you need to, and then move on. You can always schedule follow-on time with a specific mentor to explore an idea later.

5/ Take Notes:  You put a couple of CEO’s a VC, a senior exec and a CTO at a table together and guess what happens? We talk. A lot. Not only that but the conversation moves very quickly from one point of view to the next. Some teams were recording the sessions but the room was loud (did I mention we talk a lot?) and figuring out who said what later might be a challenge by voice alone. Having someone taking notes is a good idea to make sure that you’re capturing ideas as they are flowing.

6/ Work the Edge Time: By far the best way to get 1 on 1 time with a mentor yesterday was to do it over the break or over lunch. That also gives the mentor a chance to ask questions they might not get a chance to in a round table session.

7/ Don’t Forget Everyone’s a Potential Investor : The VC’s are easy to spot (and there were a lot of them there) but most of the mentors I talked to are also doing a bit of angel investing as well. For companies at this stage anyone that’s willing to invest time with your company might also be likely to invest cash as well.

So there’s my advice. I’m sure the other mentors all have different opinions – yep, we’re funny that way.

‘Small’ ideas are not the problem

Editor’s Note: This is a cross-post (possibly some sort of reblogging) from Momoko Price’s blog originally posted on August 13, 2012. Momoko Price  is a web writer, editor and communications consultant based in Toronto. She runs a communications consultancy called Copy/Cat and frequently blogs about startup culture and web communications at http://copy-cat.co/.

In a recent blog post called ‘Toronto is Broken’Upverter co-founder Zak Homuth wrote that Toronto’s startup community suffers from an overabundance of ‘small ideas,’ implying that ‘thinking small’ is somehow intrinsically less valuable than ‘thinking big.’

I’m not a web startup founder, but I am an entrepreneur and many of my clients are web startups. And as a writer, sometimes I can’t help but focus on how the wrong word ends up detracting from the soundness of someone’s argument. This is one of those times.

So let’s clear something up right now: There is a world of difference between a ‘small’ idea and a shitty idea. Let’s please stop equating one with the other; it’s not helping to solve the problem (ie: a cultural aversion to creative & original ventures).

CC-BY-20 Some rights reserved by pasukaru76
Attribution Some rights reserved by pasukaru76

Zak isn’t the first person to complain about small uninspired ideas, and derivative product pitches certainly aren’t unique to Toronto. But trying to combat an epidemic of ‘small ideas’ by being ‘frighteningly ambitious’ instead is, well, not exactly great advice. Here’s why:

1. ‘Small ideas’ can be built and launched more quickly.

Creating a successful product involves much more than just the idea, or even the product itself. Testing, marketing, financing, selling, scaling, management — these factors will often end up playing a far more critical role in determining your startup’s success over the long run.

So rather than worry about whether or not your idea is ‘big’ or ‘game-changing’ enough, why not bite off something you know you can chew now, whatever it is, and start getting some real-market experience as soon as possible? That way, you’ll actually know what to do (and what not to do) when that crazy, once-in-a-lifetime idea strikes you.

2. Traction, not ambition, defines a ‘world-changing’ idea.

I often help entrepreneurs structure and refine their pitch decks, and it never ceases to amaze me how frequently they include 5 or more slides about their idea or product, and none about whether the idea is actually taking hold with anyone.

Meanwhile, most experienced investors don’t really care what your solution is, as much as they care about whether lots of people want it.

A product or service doesn’t have to be complicated or even tech-based (as Derek Sivers points out in his popular ‘Ideas vs. Execution’ clip). The important thing is to gauge its market traction.

After all, an idea or product can only change the world if people actually use it. In business, if your solution takes off, then it was a great, world-changing idea. If it doesn’t, then it wasn’t. Simple as that.

Editor’s Note: This is a cross-post (possibly some sort of reblogging) from Momoko Price’s blog originally posted on August 13, 2012. Momoko Price  is a web writer, editor and communications consultant based in Toronto. She runs a communications consultancy called Copy/Cat and frequently blogs about startup culture and web communications at http://copy-cat.co/.

Book Review – Startup Communities: It’s About the Entrepreneur

Brad Feld, managing director of Foundry Group, is no stranger to the Canadian tech startup scene – he was a speaker at the C100’s AccelerateMTL event in 2011.

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to get to know him and he has been a source of inspiration and support to me professionally. Brad is one of those rare VCs, his contributions don’t stop with the money. He is very generous with his advice and has been on a passionate mission in the past year to crack the code on how to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem in any city, hence the title of his new book: Startup Communities

Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City
(pre-order available) isn’t a book you that you will put down easily, but is one you will pick-up often. In fourteen chapters and one fell scoop; Brad makes us smarter and wiser about what it takes to nurture a vibrant startup ecosystem in any community.

Startups are Everything

Feld sets the tone early in the book by stating that “Startups are at the core of everything we do.” Feld implies that it’s easier today to create and evolve startup communities “as a result of our networked society”, and he tosses away long-drawn old-school frameworks and previous theories that were primarily based on macro-economics, socio-demographics or geographical parameters. His thinking is framed around what he labels as “The Boulder Thesis”, a fresh framework that is based on pragmatism and lower barriers of entry. It’s all about on-the-ground reality as a lever to making things happen.

The Boulder Thesis

“The key to every successful startup community is startups. If you do nothing else, make sure all the founders and founding teams are visible and connected to each other.” That’s a golden statement to be reminded of. Remember, his message is aimed at the entire community.

Feld doesn’t mince words when he places the role of the entrepreneurs as the most critical component. “Lots of different people are involved in the startup community and many non-entrepreneurs play key roles. But unless the entrepreneurs lead, the startup community will not be sustainable over time.” Amen.

The Boulder Thesis is grounded in four key components: a) entrepreneurs that lead, b) leaders that commit, c) an all-inclusive mentality, and d) activities up and down the entrepreneurial stack. The book details them.

A 17-year resident of Boulder, Brad observed that while Boulder didn’t have a lot of local VC’s, it did have a large number of VCs that viewed companies in Boulder as attractive to invest in. This fact alone means that any city cannot complain about not having a lot of local VC’s. Rather, they should focus on making themselves attractive to VC’s wherever these VC’s may be.

Rightfully so, Brad advocates that activities such as “hackathons, New Tech Meetups, Open Coffee Clubs, Startup Weekends, and accelerators” are more important than “entrepreneurial award events, periodic cocktail parties, monthly networking events, panel discussions, and open houses” because they engage deeper into the entrepreneurial stack. To each city that’s listening, take inventory and assess your gaps.

Leaders and Feeders

Then comes a key tenet of the book: there are Leaders and there are Feeders to any ecosystem. If you’re in a startup community, know who you are, and what your role is, but don’t confuse the two. So, who is a Leader and who is a Feeder? “Leaders of startup communities have to be entrepreneurs. Everyone else is a feeder into the startup community. This includes government, universities, investors, mentors, service providers, and large companies.” Entrepreneurs, rejoice.

Driving the Leaders vs. Feeders point hard, Brad asserts that “the absence of entrepreneurs as leaders, or the overwhelming leadership by feeders, will doom a startup community.” Message aimed at the Feeders mostly.

Classical Problems

Chapter Six gets at the crux of the community build-out, and something that every city wants to know: What are we doing wrong? Brad nails the classical problems:

  1. The Patriarch Problem, when those who made their money many years ago are still running the show.
  2. Complaining about capital, because there will always be an imbalance between supply of capital and demand for capital.
  3. Being too reliant on Government. This is self-explanatory, but there’s a whole chapter on it entitled: “Contrasts between entrepreneurs and government.”
  4. Making short-term commitments. Well, it takes a long time to build a startup community. Twenty years to be exact.
  5. Having a bias against newcomers. Instead, swarm the newcomers.
  6. Attempt by a feeder to control the community. Why? Feeders retard the actual growth of the startup community.
  7. Creating artificial geographic boundaries. They don’t matter much at all at the state and city level. Waterloo-Toronto: are you listening?
  8. Playing a zero-sum game. This means stop thinking that “Our community is better than yours”.
  9. Having a culture of risk aversion. Make sure you learn something from what didn’t work.
  10. Avoiding people because of past failures. Rather, embrace the failed entrepreneur because it encourages more entrepreneurs to take more risks.

Brad goes on to list in great details the many activities that make-up Boulder’s community what it is. My advice: when you get the book, use it a checklist and see what your city is missing.

Accelerators and Universities

In Chapter Eight, Brad takes us on the case study of TechStars, and in it he rubs in the fact that there is a distinction to be made between Accelerators and Incubators because they are formed differently and have different objectives.

Chapter Nine focuses on the role of Universities and it ends with this advice for the entrepreneur: “The relationship between a startup community and a university can be a powerful one, but is often complicated. By focusing on specific activities and remembering that the university is a feeder to the startup community, great things can happen.”

Myths of Community Building

Aided by Canadian Paul Kedrosky, one of the ending chapters lists the common myths about startup communities. I’ll highlight two of them:

  1. We need to be like Silicon Valley. “If that’s really your goal, save yourself a lot of heartache and simply move to Silicon Valley.”
  2. We need more local venture capital. “Venture capital is a service function, not materially different from accounting, law, or insurance. It is a type of organization that services existing businesses, not one that causes such companies to exist in the first place. While businesses need capital, it is not the capital that creates the business. Pretending otherwise is reversing the causality in a dangerous way.” That fits well within the Leaders vs. Feeders theory.

Startup Communities is a call for introspection aimed at any city, community, entrepreneur, developer, funder, leader or feeder. The book makes you think about whether you’re doing the right thing. It should prompt every city or ecosystem to answer the tough questions: Do we have enough leaders as entrepreneurs? Are we going to stop making excuses? Can we work better together?

If you’re involved in technology startups, this book will not just touch a nerve. It will run through your spine.

How do you think Canada is doing in regards to building entrepreneurial ecosystems in the major cities?

Editor’s Note: The author, William Mougayar is CEO of Engagio, a universal Inbox and Discovery Network for social conversations. You can pre-order Brad’s book on Amazon and ensure delivery as soon as it’s published in September.