You’ve decided to undertake a startup, now how exactly are you going to go about that?
It’s very much like learning to play respectable golf; you can watch all manner of YouTube videos, read instructional books and magazine articles, practice at Topgolf, hit thousands of balls on the range, and get tips from your buddies; but, chances are slim that you’ll ever get to a low handicap until you’ve engaged a professional instructor for a continual series of lessons. When I people ask me about taking up golf, I tell them not to listen to my suggestions but to get a pro to teach them the game from the most basic elements through enough growth stages to reach proficiency and self-confidence. If you pay attention to the PGA Tour, you are aware than even the best golfers have a coterie of coaches, for the mechanics of the game, for the mental aspects and strategy, and for general fitness. Yes, there are a few self-taught naturals, like Bubba Watson, and, uh…Sam Snead (1912-2002). Your first instructor may or may not be the best match for you in terms of teaching style or personal chemistry. If that instructor mostly works with beginners, you may advance beyond his or her specialty. Nobody will be offended if you shop around until you find the one that clicks for you at each step of your development toward whatever is your personal goal for this particular sport. It’s such a difficult and often counterintuitive game that the more time and attention you devote to accepting guidance at the beginning, the more misery you will be spared in your golfing career for the rest of your days.
Allow me to emphasize that native talent and temperament have a lot to do with how you determine your goal, whether it’s golf or creating a startup. I long ago concluded my genetic floor for golf was somewhere around an 11 handicap, but I got my son started with professional coaching as a teenager and watched him become a scratch golfer (0 handicap). I suppose he has a generation-skipping gene or one from the maternal side of the family tree. We are all limited by our natural gifts, but, like most everything else, the more we are coachable at a skill the more we will reap what we can from those gifts.
My recent years have included many thousands of hours of mentoring, coaching, advising, teaching, and encouraging startup founders with prospective ventures across a wide range of disciplines. I have been responsible for organizing and wrangling mentor groups for the Longhorn Startup Program for UT Austin undergraduates when I as an instructor there. I’ve made myself available for lots of office hours both at UT and at Capital Factory, where all comers are welcome. I respond to warm introductions and have frequent one-to-one meetings at my Starbucks office across the street. I’ve taken on highly immersive roles in life sciences, data sciences, and IoT startups that in some cases have lasted for multiple years. In those situations, I have watched over business issues and opportunities so the founders have been able to stay focused on their visions. Sometimes rather than coaching, I’ve been the one actually doing the financial, operational and even rain making work and fulfilling those dimensions of the team until it was appropriate to bring them in house.
My net takeaway is that helping entrepreneurs master the startup process is analogous to my comments about teaching golf. As long as the chemistry is good for all parties, progress is being made, and the founder remains receptive, the longer the period of engagement the more benefit. As a founder you ultimately have to learn the skills to play your leadership role, and having a seasoned booster early on just moves you faster along that path.
Over the course of my adult lifetime the opportunities for learning about startups have gone from near zero to almost a superabundance of choices. The better universities, like GA Tech and UT Austin, are leading the charge in making entrepreneurship part of the curriculum at the undergraduate level. It is taught in a laboratory style, where generally the students coalesce into teams and create actual startups. They learn how to talk with potential customers and de-risk their plans from the start. They are exposed to some classroom teaching and plenty of guest speakers with glorious success stories, and they are given ready access to a large pool of mentors and advisors. Probably the hardest part of my job when I was wrangling mentors was explaining to willing and qualified mentors that they weren’t selected by any students, and that we would appreciate their subjecting themselves to this same dating process the next semester. One never knows when a mentor and a startup team will hit it off, so, just like dating, rejection is a risk. Matches may hinge on personal style, specific industry knowledge and connections, or just availability to time meetings around inflexible school schedules.
Mentors can provide everything from very technical support to basic business skills. They may have the magic first or second order connections you need as a founder to sell your product or service to your most preferred customer targets. Or they may just work on your head to keep your spirits up as you face the inevitable setbacks of the startup journey. Occasionally one of them might right you a check and lead off your angel round, but don’t make that a basic expectation. Clearly the better you get known by a mentor who has earned some success, the better your odds become for raising money from that mentor or his or her connections.
If you have the entrepreneurial itch and managed to graduate without taking advantage of these wonderful university programs, or perhaps you’re a few years older and preceded them, you still have access to incubators and accelerators in every high tech hub around the country. Even the states that don’t really have hubs have designated some farm land as their tech center in an attempt to keep all their young creative class from migrating to the major cities where careers are plentiful. Deciding to be part of one of these incubator or accelerator programs anywhere in the country will get you all the benefits described above, plus often there’s some hard cash on the table as a further attraction. You get access not only to a physical focal point for mentors and advisors, constant educational programming about business and technical skills, daily exposure to high-achieving peer groups both to support you and to challenge you, access to genuine investor networks, and a welcome into the alumni clubs of these centers, among whom are likely to be customers, partners, or collaborators for whatever you are trying to do.
Residency in a quality incubator is a plus. There’s just no substitute for being in the energizing environment of these facilities and being close at hand when the next big deal or next big investor drops in to do some startup shopping. However, if you are an older founder, you may not be able to do that. I’ve spent a lot of time working with more mature teams that are geographically scattered and are at ages and stages where they can’t relocate for a semester of acceleration. They may have family or professional commitments that limit their mobility, and they may just not be comfortable hanging with the 20-something genius crowd that counts on free beer as an amenity and is on the cutting edge of technology literacy. Some of these founders are highly accomplished in their professional fields, and that’s the wellspring of their great ideas. Those ideas are often quite ambitious and quite promising, and they generally tend more toward fat startups with capital requirements that are higher than those of the younger and leaner crowd. I don’t source financing on their behalf, they generally have the reputations and the personal networks to attract capital if I just get it structured fairly. I play a necessary role in validating the plans, but I’m not “the guy” in whom one would invest; I’m a role player in these sorts of advisory situations. I sometimes find myself being essentially being a one-man incubator for mature founders, but I will always jump at the chance to get any of them into a more formal residential setting. I’m never hesitant to work myself out of a job in service of the venture at hand. There’s always another project in the wings.
Let’s summarize some of the important decisions you as a founder must make as to how you are going to learn the golf swing, err startup game:
You should decide to actively seek out and accept help from those who have been around the block a few times and with whom you are compatible. Like the old joke that a psychiatrist can’t change a light bulb unless it wants to change, you have to be willing to listen to those who are willing to help you. You don’t want to waste such a precious resource. You have a limited amount of your own time to spend on this advice reception, so do your due diligence and give out your invitations with care. There will always be more mentors interested in you than you can effectively use; don’t be bashful about being choosey.
You should decide whether the incubator route is best for you. I started every one of my tech businesses after Peachtree Software in the ATDC in Atlanta and was part of the Georgia Tech alumni committee that founded it. The early days preceded the current expansive programming and theories like lean startups, and I was foolish enough to think I knew what I was doing because I had one high-profile win on my resume, but it was still a big plus to be hanging out with other founders. I watched some great success stories emerge from the ATDC in it earliest days. We were all pretty much learning by doing, and we weren’t giving each other any ad hoc golf tips that inevitably ruin one’s swing.
Once you’ve made the decision formally to submit to acceleration, you should put yourself in the best physical and intellectual setting that matches your life situation. Not all incubators and accelerators are the same, and many have adopted vertical specializations and come packing serious heat from major partners in those verticals. Certain sectors of health care, for example, may suggest a half dozen around the US that ought to be your aspirational targets for launching your venture. You would probably prefer to send your child to Harvard than to Slippery Rock (no insult intended for any of you Slippery Rock alumni; note that I restrained from using my alma mater GA Tech as my preferential example). Talk to the leaders of the best and most relevant facilities, but, more important, talk to members and alumni to hear their stories and how they’re benefitting. Look at the funding results for those who have been through these programs; if those are good you can be sure the statistics are readily available and well publicized. Even better, look at successful exits that were incubated in any place you are evaluating. Those are the ultimate measure of success that you want to emulate.
And, finally, once you have been accelerated to a successful outcome in your venture, you should place a high priority on supporting the next generation of founders. Get immersed, and spare them some of the misery that often comes along with self-teaching.