Techstars has launched another “powered by” accelerator, this time with Sprint around mobile health. It’s based in Kansas City (Sprint’s headquarters) and is our fourth powered by Techstars accelerator, joining Nike, Kaplan, and R/GA.
I’m an enormous fan of four things about the Sprint Accelerator – what we call “PBTS” (powered by Techstars), mobile health, Kansas City, and Sprint.
The PBTS strategy is one we started working on in 2012. We knew that we would continue to expand Techstars geographically (in 2013 we’ve added London, Austin, and Chicago). At the same time we were talking to a lot of large companies with outstanding brands about building accelerators specifically around their ecosystems. It dawned on us that the dynamics of an accelerator could work as well for building innovation and new company’s around a particular company/product ecosystem as it could for a city. So far the results have been awesome with outstanding companies coming out of the Nike+ Accelerator and the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator.
As an investor in Fitbit, I’m an enormous believer in quantified self. As the son of a doctor who is obsessed with repairing the healthcare system I’m regularly subjected to hearing about the massive flaws in today’s healthcare system. My dad has beaten into my head that my healthcare is my responsibility, and I’ve become an enormous believer in consumer-driven healthcare. I’ve never been interested in investing in medical devices, but I’m very interested in the consumerization of the medical device industry. And the intersection point of many of these ideas for me is mobile health.
Kansas City has a special place in my heart. I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years, going back to the mid-1990s when I was an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Kauffman Foundation. I bought a house there last year to experiment with Google Fiber in the middle of the Kansas City Startup Village. While I don’t like BBQ or the Kansas City Chiefs, I like the people a lot and think it has one of the most exciting growing startup communities in the United States.
Sprint makes me smile. Many of you know that I have a long history and relationship with Softbank, which just acquired Sprint. I’m very loyal to my friends at Softbank and love any opportunity to work with them – directly or indirectly. Sprint was my first long distance carrier – if I think hard enough I can probably remember my Sprint calling card number – and I used it many times to call my parents and my ex-wife when I was at school at MIT. And Sprint is a great US entrepreneurial story that traces its roots to the Brown Telephone Company in Abilene, KS in 1899.
This is going to be a fun one! Applications are open.
R/GA is part of Interpublic Group of Companies, one of four global ad holding companies, and is the most award-winning agency in the digital world today. R/GA creates advertising and marketing products based in technology and design and has earned countless accolades over the years, including Advertising Age’s “Digital A-List” and “Agencies of the Decade.” They are the force behind the opening title sequence for 1978′s Superman to 2006′s Nike+ platform to 2010′s HBO Go connected device.
The Internet has rapidly expanded beyond desktop, server, laptop, and mobile computers and connected itself to many of the different devices in our everyday life. We’ve been investing in this area since we started Foundry Group in 2007 through our human computer interaction theme and recently added an investment in Dragon Innovation into the mix. It’s super exciting to me to do an accelerator program specifically around connected devices with Techstars.
Founders accepted into the program will have access to the Techstars mentor network and executives from R/GA’s team as well as $120K in funding, co-location space provided by R/GA in NYC, design and development support from talented designers and devs, and the opportunity to pitch to an invite-only launch presentation in Austin at SxSWi and at a demo day for angels and VCs in NYC.
If you’re a founder or startup focused on an innovative idea for a product and/or service in the connected devices space, please consider applying. Applications are open today and due October 11th. Apply now at rgaaccelerator.com.
At TechStars, we talk often about “mentor whiplash” – the thing that happens when you get seemingly conflicting advice from multiple mentors. Talk to five mentors; get seven different opinions! This is normal, as there is no right or absolute answer in many cases, people have different perspectives and experiences, and they are responding to different inputs (based on their own context), even if the data they are presented with looks the same on the surface.
Yesterday, Steve Blank and I both put up articles on the WSJ Accelerators site. The question for the week was “When should you have a board of directors or a board of advisors?” My answer was Start Building Your Board Early. Steve’s was Don’t Give Away Your Board Seats. I just went back and read each of them. On the surface they seem to be opposite views. But upon reading them carefully, I think they are both right, and a great example of mentor whiplash.
For context, I have enormous respect for Steve and I learn a lot from him. We are on the UP Global board together but have never served on a for-profit board together. We both started out as entrepreneurs and have spent a lot of time participating in, learning about, and teaching how to create and scale startups. I’ve been on lots of boards – ranging from great to shitty; I expect Steve has as well. While we haven’t spent a lot of physical time together, all of our virtual time has been stimulating to me, even when we disagree (which is possibly unsettling but hopefully entertaining to those observing.) And while we are both very busy in our separate universes, my sense is they overlap nicely and probably converge in some galaxy far far away.
So – when you read Steve’s article and hear “Steve says don’t add a board member until after you raise a VC round” and then read my article and conclude “Brad says add a board member before you raise a VC round” it’s easy to say “wow – ok – that sort of – well – doesn’t really help – I guess I have to pick sides.” You can line up paragraphs and have an amusing “but Brad said, but Steve said” kind of thing. I considered making a Madlib out of this, but had too many other things to do this morning.
But if you go one level deeper, we are both saying “be careful with who you add to your board.” I’m taking a positive view – assuming that you are doing this – and adding someone you trust and has a philosophy of helping support the entrepreneur. From my perspective:
“… Early stage board of directors should be focused on being an extension of the team, helping the entrepreneurs get out of the gate, and get the business up and running. Often, entrepreneurs don’t build a board until they are forced to by their VCs when they raise their first financing round. This is dumb, as you are missing the opportunity to add at least one person to the team who — as a board member — can help you navigate the early process of building your company and raising that first round. In some cases, this can be transformative.”
Steve takes the opposite view – concerned that anyone who wants to be on an early stage board is resume padding, potentially a control freak, or the enemy of the founders.
“At the end of the day, your board is not your friend. You may like them and they might like you, but they have a fiduciary duty to the shareholders, not the founders. And they have a fiduciary responsibility to their own limited partners. That means the board is your boss, and they have an obligation to optimize results for the company. You may be the ex-employees one day if they think you’re holding the company back.”
Totally valid. And it reinforces the point we both are making, which Maynard Webb makes more clearly in his Accelerator post ‘Date’ Advisers, ‘Marry’ Board Members. When I reflect on my post, I didn’t state this very well. Anytime you add an outside board member, you should be reaching high and adding someone you think will really be helpful. You are not looking for a “boss” or someone who is going to hide behind their abstract fiduciary responsibilities to all shareholders (which they probably don’t actually understand) – you are looking for an early teammate who is going to help you win. Sure – there will be cases where they have to consider their fiduciary responsibilities, but their perspective should be that of helping support the entrepreneurs in whatever way the entrepreneurs need.
The power of a great entrepreneur is to collect a lot of data and make a decision based on their own point of view and conviction. You’ve got a lot of info – including some different perspectives from the WSJ Accelerators segment this week. That’s their goal – now I encourage you to read the articles carefully, think about what you want your board to be like, and take action on it.
Over the past few decades, the most compelling engineers and entrepreneurs I’ve met have tended to be working on problems that can be solved with software. Software has some great advantages but it comes with a few big drawbacks, namely it’s tied to a few standard types of input, although we are trying to impact that with some of our investments in our HCI theme.
Along with the rest of the tech ecosystem, I’m starting to see more and more entrepreneurs with a piece of hardware in their development plan. These are not your parents’ hardware products. Instead, they are software companies that happen to have a physical component in their stack – something I call software wrapped in plastic.
Adding the plastic around the software is no short order. MakerBot, FitBit, Orbotix, Sifteo, Modular Robotics, Pogoplug, Slingbox, and a slew of others have taught me that even though much of the business-side is similar to a software company, the product-side most definitely is not. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s stunning how much damage one bad component on a PCB board can do to a company’s bottom line, or how different industrial design is from software design, or even how the brains of a software person and a hardware person collide in bizarre ways.
I’ve learned how critical it is to get the right kind of help for young companies with a piece of hardware, which is why I invested in Bolt. Bolt is one of the more unique accelerator programs I’ve seen. Ben and his team have designed, developed, manufactured, and financed a long list of successful products and they’ve built Bolt around best-practices for these kinds of companies. Over 6-months, accepted companies get a long list of benefits, the most valuable of which are a full-staff of senior engineers and designers at your disposal and 24×7 access to their $1M of prototyping equipment.
If you’re a startup with a piece of hardware (or plan to have one) check out Bolt and apply to be part of their first accelerator class. Applications close in two days – Wednesday, May 22nd at midnight.
This post originally appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal as part of their Accelerators Program in answer to the question “When and how should you wind down a failing business.”
Some entrepreneurs and investors subscribe to the creed “failure is not an option.” I’m not one of them.
I strongly believe that there are times you should call it quits on a business. Not everything works. And — even after trying incredibly hard, and for a long period of time — failure is sometimes the best option. An entrepreneur shouldn’t view their entrepreneur arc as being linked to a single company, and having a lifetime perspective around entrepreneurship helps put the notion of failure into perspective. Rather than prognosticate, let me give you an example.
My friend Mark’s first company was successfully acquired. After being an executive for several years at the acquirer, Mark decided to start a new company. I was the seed investor, excited to work with my friend again on his new company.
Over three years, this new company raised a total of $10 million from me and several other investors over several rounds. The first few years were exciting as Mark launched a product, scaled the company up to about 40 people, and tried to build a business. But after two years we realized that we weren’t really making any progress — there was a lot of activity but it wasn’t translating into revenue growth.
In year three we tried a completely different approach to the same market with a new product. Mark scaled the business back to a dozen people in an effort to restart the business. Over the course of the year we tried different things, but continued to have very little success.
By the end of the year there was $1 million left. Mark cut the company back again — this time to a half dozen people. He started thinking about how to restart for a third time on the remaining $1 million.
Mark had never failed at anything in his life up to this point. He was proud of this, and the idea that he couldn’t at least make his investors’ money back was devastating to him. But he was stuck and started exploring creating an entirely different business, in a completely different market, with the $1 million he had left.
Mark was newly married and was working 20 hours a day. We were talking at the end of the day during the middle of the week and he was so tense, I thought his brain might explode. I told him that as his largest investor and board member, I wanted him to turn off his cell phone, take his wife out to dinner, have a bottle of wine, and talk about whether it made any sense to spend the next year of his life trying to restart the business with the remaining $1 million.
After resisting turning his phone off, I insisted. I told him that I gave him permission to decide that it wasn’t worth the next year of his life at this point and that as his largest investor it was perfectly ok to shut the business down and declare it a failure. I then said I was hanging up the phone and would talk to him in the morning. Click.
He called me back early the next morning. He was calm. He started by saying thanks for giving him permission to consider shutting down the company. This had never occurred to him as an option. During dinner, he realized he needed a break as he was exhausted. He wasn’t coming up with anything to do to reinvent the business and was just desperate to figure out a way to pay his investors back.
By morning, he realized it was time to shut things down, return whatever money was left, and take six months off to recover from the previous three years while he thought about what to do next.
We gracefully wound the company down and returned five cents on the dollar to the investors. Mark took six months off. He then spent six months exploring a new business, which ended up being extraordinarily successful. And he’s now very happily married.
Failure is sometimes the best option if you view the process of entrepreneurship as a lifelong journey.
This article originally appeared online at Inc.com in an article titled Government Shouldn’t Be In The Accelerator Business. I talk more about this and lots of other topics in my recent book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City.
As a co-founder of TechStars, I’m a huge believer in the mentor-driven accelerator model. But I don’t think government should be funding these accelerators, nor do I think they need to.
A good accelerator can be run in any city in the world for $500,000. Entrepreneurs with a compelling track record and approach should be able to easily raise, or even provide this capital. As evidence of this, there are already hundreds of accelerators in the U.S., without government funding, being run as entrepreneurial ventures for profit by entrepreneurs.
When we started TechStars in 2006, the idea of an accelerator was brand new. We funded the first TechStars program in Boulder in 2007 with $230,000. There were four investors – me, TechStars CEO David Cohen, David Brown, and Jared Polis. All four of us had been successful entrepreneurs and we decided to try TechStars as an experiment to help create more early stage start-ups in Boulder. We figured out the downside case was that we’d spend $230,000 and end up attracting 20 or so new, smart entrepreneurs to Boulder.
That first program went great and has already returned over two times our invested capital with several of the companies still having future value. We ran the second program in 2008, expanded to Boston in 2009, and adopted a funding strategy for each local program which we continue to use to this day. TechStars surpassed our wildest expectations and now runs over 10 programs a year for over 100 start-ups around the United States. We’ve begun expanding internationally with our first program running this summer in London. And there are many other accelerators around the world using the TechStars mentor-driven model that are members of the Global Accelerator Network.
All of this is privately funded. We’ve never taken a dollar of government funding, nor do we plan to.
While the amount of money required to run a program has increased from the original $230,000, it’s still well under $1,000,000 per program cycle. As a result, the amount of capital we need to raise to run a TechStars program is modest, and since we run it to make a financial return, it is actually an investment, rather than an expense. And, by being focused first on the financial return as well as playing a long-term game (we expect to be running TechStars accelerators for a long time), we are very thoughtful about how we allocate capital.
If entrepreneurs can’t figure out how to fund it, why should the government do it? That just seems like a situation where capital is going to be allocated poorly and the incentives won’t be tightly aligned.
I was in a board meeting yesterday at BigDoor where we were benchmarking our current numbers against a couple of recent studies on SaaS-based companies including the 2011 Pacific Crest Private SaaS Company Survey. Several of the things we looked at were averages; the Pacific Crest data was presented as medians. I subsequently had a short conversation in the evening where someone asked me about what I thought the mean was across our investments on a particular metric; I responded that the mean was meaningless – we should be using the median (which I then gave the person asking the question.)
I see people use average all the time when they should be using median. I also find people constantly confusing average, mean, and median. Most of the time when people say “mean”, they mean (oops – I couldn’t help myself) “arithmetic mean” which is the same as “average.”
The Accelerator Data presented on Seed-DB is a great example that entrepreneurs should be able to quickly relate to (unlike the image I included in this post, which I find completely impenetrable.) Seed-DB presents both Average and Median. If you sort by Average $ raised per company, you get one picture. If you sort by Median $ raised per company, you get a very different picture. Now, there’s a lot of missing or estimated data for many of the accelerators, so that impacts the validity / accuracy of the data set, but it’s a great example of how average vs. median changes what you see.
As an entrepreneur, I encourage you to think hard about whether the right thing to compare a particular metric to is median vs. average. While average can be useful, I generally find median to be a much more enlightening number.
Jon Bradford and I have known one another since before the development of the Mentor Manifesto. Today we’re bringing Jon and his team at Springboard in London into the TechStars family as they re-brand to become TechStars London, our first international program. We have every confidence in them as a high-quality extension of the strong ecosystem we have already built here in the US.
Springboard has always been focused on helping entrepreneurs and TechStars’ support and expertise provides UK and European entrepreneurs the best opportunity to improve their likelihood of success. Our priority is to support great companies from the region in London (accepting applications from everywhere) and there’s no requirement or expectation that the companies will need to relocate to the US. We will build on the mentor network that Springboard has already started in London and supplement it with mentors from the broader TechStars network in the States.
Any and I are going to spend two weeks in London this summer during the program. I lived in London for a summer when I was 16, worked for Centronics (the creators of the parallel port), wrote dot-matrix font creation software for the Apple II, got paid with a Centronics 351 printer, learned how to drink a lot of beer, watched Pink Floyd The Wall for the first time, and spent a week wandering around in Paris in August when no one was there. I’ve always felt super comfortable in London and am looking forward to hanging out with the newest members of the TechStars family, while drinking a lot of beer.
If you’re working on a quantified self product or are part of a startup that would benefit from integration with Nike+, you have less than a week left to apply to the Nike+ Accelerator, powered by TechStars (deadline is February 3rd). If accepted, you will receive $20,000 in seed funding and support from TechStars, and mentorship from leaders within TechStars and Nike.
The program begins in Portland on March 18th and will be led by Managing Director Dylan Boyd and TechStars is the investor in your company. Nike offers mentors, executives, technology, access to the developer portal, API, and more.
Don’t be bashful – apply now!
This first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Accelerator series last week under the title Don’t Believe the Hype.
Every year, at this time, I get a flurry of requests for my “predictions for 2013” or “exciting, hot, new trends for 2013 that I’m looking at.”
I respond with “I don’t care about trends and my only prediction is that one day I will die.”
This is usually not a particularly satisfying response to whomever sent me the request. One of two things happen: They either ignore my response and drop me from their prediction request list for whatever article they are writing. Alternatively, they press a little further, usually with something like “c’mon, you’re a venture capitalist — you must have an opinion about what is going to be hot next year.”
Actually, I don’t. I have never been a short term investor, and I don’t think entrepreneurs should be short term thinkers. Creating a company is really hard and it almost always takes a long time. Sure, there are occasional short term success stories — companies founded two years ago that get bought for $1 billion, but these are rarities. Black swans. Things you don’t see in nature and can’t count on.
So don’t. If you are an entrepreneur and following a trend, you are too late. You want to be creating the trend that other people are following. And then you need to work your butt off to stay ahead of them. Every single day. For a very long time. Through many product cycles and multiple trends.
As a VC, I feel exactly the same way. At Foundry Group, we have a set of well-defined themes. We believe there will be investment opportunities in these themes for the next ten to 20 years. We are constantly tuning the themes, learning from our investments, and exploring new themes. But these themes aren’t trends and we don’t predict anything around them, other than they are constructs in which we think great companies can be created and built.
So I don’t really care about the predictions for 2013. I don’t care about hot new trends. I don’t care that some people think the world is going to end on 12/21/12. I take a much longer view. And I encourage you to as well.