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Incubator Focuses on Founders First, Then Companies

Some incubators and accelerators focus on creating great companies. This one hones its energy on transforming the hobbyist entrepreneur into a strong founder.
At the Founder Institute, groups of would-be entrepreneurs attend class-like sessions with mentors such as Aaron Patzer, founder of Mint.com, or Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote.

The Founder Institute was started by serial entrepreneur Adeo Ressi, who wanted to improve the rate of start-up success by providing high-potential entrepreneurs with "expert training, critical objective feedback, and peer support in the early stages of building a company."

How does that differ from other accelerator and incubator programs? According to New York chapter Co-Director Gabe Zichermann, Founder Institute--living up to its name--is "less about launching companies than launching founders."

Participants meet for 16 weeks with different sets of mentors. Each session has a theme, such as marketing, funding, or operations. And within that framework, the founders and future founders get off-the-record insights and "no BS" feedback from entrepreneurs like themselves.

The New York City group of founders had its demo night Monday night, with 12 individuals presenting companies in various stages from already operating to early prototype in search of funding.  The founders-in-training have to pitch their company to a new set of mentors at each session, and "the pitch is a proxy for the health of the company," according to Zichermann. "We cut from 40 people who started 6 months ago to 15. In New York, there are lots of smart people who want to play at being founders, but at the end of the day, they're not ready to leave their job to launch their idea. We want people who are ready to commit."

Some technical glitches threw off the presentations of several founders, and there were one or two who should have been stronger after 16 weeks of practice. But the majority of presentations were sharp, focused pitches with thought out markets, clear features and benefits, and targeted "asks" at the end.

Jane Hendrick seemed confident as she presented Fresh Fox,  a collaborative platform for creating shopping collections and getting feedback from private groups via voting and commenting. Think of Pinterest for a very targeted and trusted group of friends. An online marketer by day, she's not quite ready to leave her job until she gets funding.

Asked what Founder Institute did for her, she was clear that, "The program lays out lots of things an early entrepreneur might not realize, from ways to incorporate to the paths and processes to creating a company. The mentors shared their experiences, and helped me to hone the idea and analyze the market research. It let me rework the idea to a much larger addressable market than I had targeted originally."

Upswing.me founder Nicolette Omoile is currently a Teach For America fellow in Brooklyn. She also happens to have curly hair, which requires her to test out a lot of salons.

Her start-up pitch? "When friends, word of mouth, and Yelp can't help someone find a salon and a professional, Upswing.me's platform will be there to help. The program showed me the power of networking and the need to pursue your goals with focus. I ask the mentors questions and tap their networks constantly, all while rushing to class from my kindergarten classroom in Brooklyn."

Mentor and Entrepreneur Week founder Gary Whitehill says he's helped make dozens of connections for entrepreneurs to future board members, strategic partners, and advisors. "As a mentor, it's our responsibility to be helpful--anything we can do to help facilitate an easier journey for founders is important for both the company and the ecosystem of New York City."

What do you think about an accelerator that focuses on the founder first, and then the company? Leave a comment below or on Facebook.

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