What It Takes to Make It at TechStars
You can think of TechStars as a little bit like American Idol for entrepreneurs. Each year in four cities across the United States, a group of 500 or more applicants apply to be one of the 10 chosen entrepreneurs to be given some start-up cash and three months of intense mentoring from A-list company builders. After 90 days of coaching, each entrepreneur is given the chance to pitch his or her idea to a group of real-life venture capitalists and angel investors hungry for an early look at the next Groupon.
Boulder, Colorado-based TechStars is now spreading its gospel of mentorship-driven entrepreneurship through the TechStars Network. Announced on Monday as part of the 'Start-up America' initiative launched by the White House, the network is an alliance of independently owned and operated start-up accelerator programs from dozens of cities across the United States and around the world. Over the next four years, 5,000 experienced business leaders and investors will mentor and support 6,000 promising young entrepreneurs. The aim is to ultimately create 25,000 new jobs by 2015. Some pretty ambitious stuff.
And if TechStars is American Idol for entrepreneurs, then its cofounder Brad Feld—although he hates this analogy—may just be the Simon Cowell. Feld, no stranger to Inc. readers [you can read an October Q&A with Feld on work-life balance here], is a co-founder of venture capital firm The Foundry Group and has funded or sat on the board of companies like Feedburner (before it was acquired by Google) and gaming juggernaut Zynga.
I spoke to Feld about what it takes to make the main stage at TechStars and his advice for entrepreneurs looking to attract outside capital.
Warrillow: I find the world of venture capital is a bit of a paradox: On one hand, venture capitalists claim to be looking for great entrepreneurs, but if they were really so good, why would they need your money? Shouldn't they be able to bootstrap their start-up and keep all of the equity for themselves?
Feld: It's the interaction with the mentors that makes TechStars special. If TechStars' applicants are doing it for the money, that's stupid.
Warrillow: OK, I understand the value proposition of TechStars is the mentoring, but I still don't see why any entrepreneur worth funding would want or need a venture capitalist's money.
Feld: From a venture capital perspective, I would make the same argument. A lot of what experienced entrepreneurs are looking for is the involvement and resources that come with the investors that are bringing the money. When we make an investment in a company, we're looking for entrepreneurs who want and value our involvement well beyond just the capital.
Warrillow: That sounds like expensive advice to me. Isn't it preferable to keep as much equity as you can until you have no choice but to seek outside capital?
Feld: Not necessarily. One of our portfolio companies is Zynga, who are the guys who make online games like Farmville and, more recently, Cityville, which is the fastest growing online game ever. When we invested in the company, [Zynga founder] Mark Pincus had been funding it up to that point on his own.
He has actually never used the capital that he has raised on the operations of the business. In fact, the business has been self-funded. But what the capital allows him to do is have the courage to make bigger and bigger bets to enable Zynga to be the most dominant player in the market. So there are different motivations for why an entrepreneur would take money at any given point. The value of the people you get involved at the beginning of the business often far outweighs the economic benefits.
Warrillow: Does everyone chosen for TechStars get funded?
Feld: No. Occipital was started by Jeff Powers and Vikas Reddy. They tried to raise money coming out of TechStars but weren't able to, so they kept their burn rate really low—just the two of them—and shipped a product called Red Laser, which is a paid iPhone application that lets you scan a bar code and do comparison shopping to find out the least expensive place to buy whatever you are looking at. [Read Inc.com's 30 under 30 profile of Powers and Reddy]
Their business took off. They generated a couple of million dollars of revenue in the first year, hired a couple of people, and then sold the Red Laser application—not the whole company—to eBay for a substantial amount of money, which allowed them to take some money out and pay themselves for their hard work. They also left a substantial amount of money in the company to be able to build their business.
Their latest initiative is an iPhone application called 360 Panorama, which allows you to take panoramic images by pressing go and pointing the iPhone camera at any image you want a 360-degree view of.
Vikas and Jeff are a great example of founders who tried and failed to raise money, but as entrepreneurs they weren't going to let that stop them.
Warrillow: What book should all new entrepreneurs have on their nightstand?
Feld: MIT professor Ed Roberts wrote a book called Entrepreneurs in High Technology: Lessons from MIT and Beyond about entrepreneurship in 1991 that still has incredible lessons. One of Roberts's conclusions is that entrepreneurs fall into two categories: One group has a need for achievement, and the other has a need for independence. He found entrepreneurs with a need for achievement had a much higher correlation to large-scale entrepreneurial success.
The entrepreneurs whose driving force is a need for independence are the ones who say 'I'm an entrepreneur because I don't want to work for somebody.' That's fine, but they are not likely going to create something truly great.
The entrepreneur who wants to achieve something great says, 'I'm really passionate about changing the way X works' or 'I want to create something that enables people to do X differently.' They are the ones with the biggest ideas, and while many fail, the ones that succeed tend to have a much broader impact and build more significant and lasting companies.
Warrillow: Sounds like you're not supportive of entrepreneurs who start businesses to be their own boss.
Feld: I think there is a big difference between a high-growth company and a small business. My first company was not a high-growth company. We were self-funded, and every month we had to generate revenue because that was the only way we made payroll. I started the business in the late '80s and we grew systematically over seven years and ended up being about 20 people when we were acquired. That's very different from a company that was started three years ago and now employs a couple of thousand people.
Warrillow: How important is an entrepreneur's idea when it comes to building a successful company?
Feld: The very first chapter of our book Do More Faster was written by Tim Ferriss, who wrote The 4-Hour Workweek. His chapter is titled 'Trust Me, Your Idea Is Worthless.' The point of the chapter is that ideas are just the starting point and it's everything that comes after the idea that really matters.
I can't tell you the number of entrepreneurs—or people who want to be entrepreneurs—who are fascinated by their idea but are unwilling to share it or do anything of value with it. They all want you to sign a non-disclose agreement without even a high-level description of the problem they are trying to solve.
I had an e-mail exchange with someone recently who said they have a great idea: 'I can't tell you anything about it, but I want to know if you'd be interested in funding it.' I asked them to write me two paragraphs, without telling me anything substantive about the idea, and in return I agreed to tell them whether it would be interesting to us or not. He said no. I said, I'm not the right target for you. The person can't even give me two paragraphs to let me react to. The thing that is valuable is your execution. Going out there and getting stuff done, building on it, failing and course correcting—that's what matters. Not the idea.
JOHN WARRILLOW | Columnist | Sellability
John Warrillow is the author of Built to Sell: Creating A Business That Can Thrive Without You and the founder of The Sellability Score, a cloud-based software company that helps business owners improve the value of their company.