My 2018 wrapped with a fulfilling finish after mentoring entrepreneurs in the Techstars Montreal AI Accelerator. The selected startups were an eager, smart group of founders focused on the development and application of artificial intelligence across all industries and markets.
Through the Techstars program, they gained traction through deep mentor engagement, rapid iteration cycles, and fundraising preparation. It was an immersive and busy three months, but at the end of the accelerator, the companies had leveraged their mentors and learned to balance vision with execution.
As many entrepreneurs and investors can attest, the balance of staying true to your company's vision while building with customer-centered needs is a tricky one.
Stay too fixated on your vision, and fail at market-fit and execution of the idea.
Swing too far into the customer-needs camp and risk-taking orders from a customer's perceived problem, and missing the solution for the customer's real problem.
To achieve this balance, take a page from the Techstars program curriculum and mentor-focused network: build your business with intentional balance.
Find and listen to mentors that challenge your assumptions.
Identify mentors that will challenge you, share insights, and ask the right questions to help identify the right problem and market fit.
One participating startup, Crescendo, learned first-hand how mentorship can help drive a vision beyond strategy, into execution.
Crescendo strives to create inclusive workplaces by helping employees develop empathy. Their technology delivers bite-sized content to employees on a weekly basis, using machine learning to create unique learning paths for each individual.
At the start of the Techstars program, Crescendo planned to solve the problem of toxic workplaces by creating a system that would analyze workplace communication to create a learning profile for each employee, then recommend how they could change their behavior.
Through different mentor sessions, the mentors questioned whether the solution was something customers would buy. While it may fit the founders' vision, would an HR executive buy a solution that created a polarized work environment where employees felt policed?
The team listened and worked to challenge their own assumptions by talking with more of their potential customers. Initially, their feedback was that they loved the idea of improving workplace diversity and inclusion. But through more interviews, Crescendo learned that the product they were building wasn't something they would buy.
The customers appreciated Crescendo's vision but felt only a small portion of their company's employees would feel comfortable using it, and that it wasn't worth the data privacy risks. In short, they wouldn't buy it.
As Crescendo co-founder Daniel Tuba D'Souza shared with me, "The best advice we got from a mentor: don't build anything until you sell it."
The mentors helped the founders to get beyond their vision and think about business viability and customer needs.
Rally around the problem statement.
Crescendo went back to their vision and evaluated what solution would be a market fit. The founders believed their vision was on target, but the product didn't fit the customer's needs.
As a team, they did a post-it note session to articulate a clear and concise problem statement, outlining the issue they wanted to solve. They wanted to identify what their solution could do to change workplace bias behaviors. This centered the team, giving them a place to validate ideas and a vision of what the world would look like if they solved the problem.
The founders wanted to ensure that with every pivot the company made, they stayed grounded to their ultimate vision.
The team went back to mentors and customers and conducted 360 degrees of feedback. Some of the feedback helped to shape the product and others were considered and disregarded when it didn't fit the vision and customer's needs.
"Advice came in from all directions. One thoughtful mentor suggested we focus just on the technology and build a one-time assessment tool. It was a cool idea, but it didn't help us solve the problem we want to solve," D'Souza shared.
Ultimately, the team landed on a solution that balances vision and customer needs. Crescendo built a solution integrating bite-sized diversity and inclusion education within a company's slack community, building empathy and creating change in behaviors.
The tension of staying true to your north star while attuned to the customer-centered needs is a tricky one. Engaging with mentors for feedback, and grounding in the right problem statement will help you guide your team and product toward success.
In reflecting over coffee on the first cohort in the Montreal program, Managing Director of Techstars Montreal, Bruno Morency shared that successful entrepreneurs will surround themselves with people that question the vision of the company.
"For an entrepreneur, find mentors that will ask the right questions, and help you to turn a vision into execution."
Feeling like your startup would be a fit for Techstars? They are opening applications in late February for the second class in Fall 2019!