I’ve just gotten home from New Exhibition Room’s Stone Soup fundraiser and ran into enough people who knew I was doing something in the startup space but weren’t sure what exactly that I think I should take a little bit of time to clarify some details.
I’ve been enrolled in the Founder Institute since December which has meant an almost weekly commute to NYC (it’s 3 weeks on, one week off, to be specific). Luckily for me, I know a bunch of great people in the NYC area, so finding places to stay hasn’t been an issue. I’m still employed by ITA Software and on a typical week I either take 1/2 day on Wednesday and work remotely for a 1/2 day on Thursday or take all day Thursday off and go down in the morning and come back at night. On (nearly) any given thursday at 11pm I will be on a bus just leaving NYC scheduled to arrive in boston around 3am.
So that’s what I’ve been occupying myself with, but why?
When I started thinking about launching a startup last spring I thought I’d bootstrap the whole thing myself, at least until revenue started coming in. Which would have been great, but I focused on the wrong things. I incorporated before flushing out a business plan. I began building a prototype before extensively researching my competition. I had a name that was meaningful to me, but that I had to explain to anyone I shared it with. It was taking forever to get off the ground because anytime I had a new idea I had to start most of the process over again.
So during this process I had begun looking at the various startup incubators that are out there. The advantages of these programs were clear to me, and I stacked them up in roughly this order:
1) Mentorship - In theater, the mentors I was lucky enough to know had a hand in everything from how your idea is flushed out to how you overcome major obstacles. How could I say no to the same thing for my business?
2) Peers - Rather than figure it out on your own and build an entrepreneur network over time you can inherit one just from being in a program? Sign me up!
3) Roadmap - As much I was confident I would figure out the path to a successful launch, I’d made a number of wrong starts that a solid roadmap would have helped me to avoid.
The trouble was, when I looked at the startups that were out there, I saw a number of things I didn’t like:
1) Most require founding teams - There are great reasons for doing so, chiefly that your odds of success go up dramatically as more founders get involved. I’d love to find a cofounder, but I won’t let my standards slip to meet the application deadline for a program.
2) Equity - Most incubators offer between $5-20k for 2-10% of your company. While the mentoring experience, peer groups and structure seem worthwhile to me, I don’t have a need for the $20k (I’ve been saving aggressively during my time at ITA), and certainly not at that kind of valuation.
The Founder Institute got around both of those problems by allowing individual founders to apply, taking only a 3.5% warrant priced at your first round (and if you bootstrap, nothing). On top of all that, they don’t encourage you to quit your job when you’re accepted. At least, not according to the brochure…
The program has been very different from what I expected. For starters, they started encouraging us to quit our day jobs on the first night. And the mentors haven’t been the most rewarding part of the program, the peer group has. It makes sense if you think about it. There’s only been a dozen or so mentors at this point and the Institute class size started north of 40, so a lot of people are clamoring for their attention and they’re already busy people. But your working group, by contrast, is 4-6 founders with experiences you’ve never had, willing to go to bat for you whether that means pushing you to refine your idea, helping you shape your pitch, or suggesting you investigate a potential competitor or market opportunity they heard about. I don’t when I’ll get my company beyond 10 employees, but I know that I already have more than 10 people at FI who will let me know the minute they see a threat or opportunity I should know about.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. But I might have timed my application differently. I didn’t account for the program impacting my idea so drastically (my nearly complete prototype is now almost useless). And there’s a project I’m working on for ITA (my current employer) that I need to finish before I can leave the company happily. And given the pace of FI, I think I’ll need to bring on some coding talent to get the new prototype underway. That is, unless somewhere in all of this I find the right cofounder. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last two months that’s impacted everything I do, it’s that finding the right people is priceless.