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“Do More Faster: Lessons to accelerate your startup” is a book of advice and learnings that have derived from the technology accelerator program, TechStars. Do More Faster is written by TechStars founders David Cohen and Brad Feld and includes contributions from many of the mentors and past participants of the program.
TechStars in a mentorship accelerator program that started in Boulder, Colorado, but now has classes in Boston, New York and Seattle. Successful applicants take part in an intensive 3 month accelerator program where they get access to mentors in order to create successful companies. At the end of the program, the startups have the opportunity to pitch their company to Angel Investors and Venture Capitalists.
Do More Faster is based upon 7 themes of what it takes to start a successful company. Each theme contains lessons that mentors and previous TechStars participants have learned through their entrepreneurship endeavours.
The 7 themes of Do More Faster are:
- Idea and Vision
- Legal and Structure
- Work-Life Balance
Idea and Vision
Part of the application process of TechStars is submitting an idea that the team will work on. This can either be a currently operational company, or merely just a vision for what is hoped to be achieved. In either case, TechStars accepts applicants based on the merits of the team, and not the idea.
It is this freedom to change ideas that allows TechStars participants to pivot into a completely different opportunity should the current assumptions reveal themselves to be wrong. This freedom enables a more iterative approach to finding a really big business opportunity.
A second common theme around ideas in TechStars is that ideas are worthless and execution can’t be copied. New entrepreneurs are often scared to share their idea in fear that someone copies them. The mentors of TechStars encourage participants to share their ideas with everyone in order to gain feedback and test their assumptions. Execution is really the most important aspect of creating a successful company. Even if someone else is working on the same idea, the execution of that idea will usually be quite different.
TechStars encourages applicants to get their ideas and products out into the open as quickly as possible, talk to customers and focus on the one thing that they can really do well to solve an important problem. All of these things can seem inherently difficult to first time entrepreneurs. By exposing an idea to the world, you gain feedback on it’s value and you are able to progress the opportunity quicker.
The second theme of Do More Faster is People and how it is the people that are involved in a company that really make the difference. TechStars is a mentorship driven programme and so it values the input of people within the community, mentors and fellow company founders.
The majority of TechStars companies are founded by at least two co-founders. Whilst it is possible to found a company as a single founder, it will require you to take on more work and stress if you choose to go it alone. A co-founder can not only do half the work, but she should also be a sounding board for ideas, advice and a comrade when the going gets tough.
The early employees of a company are really important for creating a good company culture. The culture of a company will usually originate from the actions and attitudes of the founders and early employees, so it is extremely important to choose the right sort of people who you want to work with. Skills and experience can always be taught over time, but a bad attitude will be like a cancer in your company. Many of the TechStars mentors advise to hire for culture and to hire slow and fire fast. If someone is not working out as an co-founder or an early employee you need to do something about it as soon as possible.
As mentioned in the Ideas and Vision theme, TechStars value a team’s ability to execute their plan. An idea is worthless without execution, and so the TechStars mentors push the participants to continuously and relentlessly execute their vision.
As the title of this book suggests, one of the mantras of TechStars is “Do more faster”. This does not mean reckless execution, but rather, creating a feedback loop to test and prove assumptions as quickly as possible. If a team can prove that an idea will not work, they can more quickly move onto an idea that will work. As a TechStars participant, you are encouraged to make decisions quickly, even when you don’t have all the information. A quick decision is usually better than a delayed decision, especially when the company is young.
Startups have a lot of disadvantages against established incumbents. Startups have no money, no customers, no partners and no leverage. However, Startups have nothing to lose and so they can take risks or focus on one precise opportunity without having to maintain legacy customers. If a Startup can’t take risks and move quickly with little information, they lose the one advantage they have over their established competitors.
During the 3 months of a TechStars program, each team will be getting a lot of different advice from some very experienced and respected mentors. TechStars teaches it’s teams to treat everything as data, and they should use their own synthesis of the various bits of data in order to make a value judgement on the future of their companies. This could mean completely neglecting the advice of a mentor, and instead, doubling down on an insight from a customer or a gut feeling.
The product is obviously one of the most important aspects of a company because it is the product that becomes synonymous for Customers. Many Entrepreneurs will try to build a product from their vision or an assumption, when really, a product needs to be created for a market opportunity.
As mentioned above, TechStars teaches it’s participants to move quickly. TechStars companies are encouraged to get their product into the market as quickly as possible. Many founders will be scared to put out a product that is not finished, not polished or lacking in features. However, it is this scope creep that will handcuff the company from ever releasing the product. The quicker you get a feedback loop with your customer, the quicker you can achieve product-market fit. As the old saying goes, “If you are not ashamed of your first release of your product, you launched too late”.
Part of launching a product is dealing with either established or new competitors. Every good idea will have competitors in some form, even if they are not directly competing against you. It’s important to find your differentiation and to market yourself as a clear solution to a concrete problem. Going after the entire market is too big for any company, you must find a single customer cohort, and a single opportunity to attack first.
When you are excited about your product and you are starting to gain traction, it can be difficult to stay focused on the current goals of the company. Usually as a startup, you will have an assumption of a market opportunity that you should try to either prove right or wrong as quickly as possible. Along the way you will have business development deals, partnerships, and new possible market opportunities at every turn. It’s important to stay focused on completing the current goal of the company before starting to chase every opportunity. Working with large companies can be great for distribution, but the opportunity cost of neglecting your other goals can be worth even more.
Creating companies on the Internet has a huge advantage over traditional companies in that you have a wealth of data about every possible metric. You can accurately track your marketing and how every penny you spend converts into revenue. You can track how your product is being used, how it is growing, are your customers coming back, or are they getting stuck or confused on a certain aspect. None of this data is available to traditional companies. The wealth of data that is available can be overwhelming. It’s important to only track the things that are important to your product and your opportunity. Tracking the wrong metrics can be worse than doing no tracking at all.
Whilst fundraising is an important aspect in the lives of many of the startups that go through TechStars, each of the participants are encouraged to take a step back and question whether they actually need to raise money at all. Some of the most successful TechStars alumni are actually bootstrapped companies that took no investment at all once the program had concluded.
Raising money might seem like the natural next step, but it is actually not such an easy decision. When you take money from an investor, you are giving away part of your company and you lose at least some control. Investors are looking for a return on their investment and so they plan for a liquidity event at some point in your company’s future.
Bootstrapping a company can mean slower growth, but you retain full control over your company and you are not forced into a liquidity event.
Recently there have been many startups that raise money when they really don’t need to. Some companies are capital intensive, or it will naturally take a long time to get to cash-flow positive. These types of companies need to raise investment or they could never get off the ground. However, it’s highly unlikely that your Software as a Service startup needs to raise money to get started.
If you are looking to raise investment, taking part in a program like TechStars will make the process considerably easier. You will be introduced to the right type of investors through mentorship and you will be immersed in a community of people who you can ask questions and get the right type of advice. Fundraising is a full time job, and so anything you can do to smooth the process will be beneficial to your startup.
Legal and Structure
When you are starting a company, it’s important to remember the legal and structural implications of doing so. During the life of the company, you will be entering contracts, taking on debt, handing out credit and dealing with partners, customers and competitors. It is your responsibility to ensure that the legalities of your company are correct before taking further steps.
You should ensure that your company is recognised as the correct legal entity. Choosing the wrong structure could lead to personal liabilities should your company default or you become involved in a legal battle.
Your relationship with your co-founders should also be drafted in a legal document. Equity agreements, vesting schedule and Intellectual Property rights are important things to get right from the start.
Nobody starts a company with the expectation that something could go wrong, but it is your responsibility to take the correct precautions just in case. When you start a company with a co-founder, you expect to be both committed to the vision of the company. But outside events, or a change in personal circumstances can dramatically change things very quickly.
Despite a lack of money in the early stages of a company, you should invest in a startup lawyer who has a lot of experience of dealing with companies in your situation. General purpose lawyers won’t have the same expertise or guidance that a specific lawyer will have, and so it will mean you will have less problems further down the road when the legal agreements are actually needed.
Starting a company from scratch can seem like a tremendous amount of work in the beginning as the future success of the company is entirely in your hands. Striking the right work-life balance is important because it is likely going to take years to really build a successful companies and so no-one can sustain an all work-lifestyle for that period of time.
It probably goes without saying that you should only start a company in an area that you are passionate about. When you naturally combine your interests with building a company it means you can dedicate more time to not only working on your company, but also acquiring knowledge of your domain.
But even still, it’s important to be able to escape the pressure and work-load that you are putting yourself under so you can continue making the right decisions for the future of your company.
Do More Faster is a fantastic book for anyone who is interested in building a startup. The book is comprised on many very short essays on lessons to learn. This make it very easy to read and to take actionable advice in very small chunks.
TechStars has become a world-renowned model for mentorship-driven entrepreneurship. If you are interested in applying for TechStars, or simply want to take the lessons and advice and apply them to your startup, Do More Faster is definitely worth your investment.
Buy Do More Faster: Lessons to accelerate your startup on Amazon (Affiliate link)
Q: My partner at Roaring Fork, Lee Lemon, is based out of Fort Wayne, IN where he is helping promote a startup community. There are many potential angel investors Lee knows in the area (some quite significant), but most of their experience comes from manufacturing, real estate, and some medical. They want to invest in tech, but feel they just don’t have the expertise to vet opportunities in that sector. How can the tech community help these angels?
One of the powerful things about startup communities that embrace the philosophy of “give before you get” is how easily n0n-tech angel investors can engage with tech related entrepreneurs. If the tech-related entrepreneurs recognize that they will help expand the startup community by helping the angel investors understand what and how they should invest in, magic can happen.
Here’s the way it works. You’ve got a bunch of wealthy business people who made money in non-tech businesses. They are excited about investing in tech-related companies, but they have no idea how to evaluate things. Several of the local tech entrepreneurs, who have both experience and resources to invest, can start leading the charge on a few tech-related angel investments. They hold their hands up to help evaluate the companies for the non-tech angels, and commit to investing their own money, even if it’s a modest amount ($5k or $10k per deal is fine), in the companies they choose.
More importantly, the tech-related entrepreneurs now turned angels do not take anything additional – either equity, fees, or an expectation of any quid pro quo – from the non-tech angels. This is the key – the tech entrepreneurs have to build trust and community with the non-tech angels. So they should be completely aligned financially, and playing a long-term game of getting more non-tech angels into the mix. This is give before you get at its core – you are “giving your time, energy, and credibility” with an effort to increase the size of the angel community, which will increase the startup community, which will pay off in the future in many ways.
As Amy and I gear up for the publication of Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship With An Entrepreneur (pre-orders available now on Amazon), we’re going to pick up the tempo of the posts here, including some awesome guest posts from friends. The following is from Bart Lorang, CEO and co-founder of FullContact (Brad is on the board).Bart is two months into a new marriage with his wife Sarah, and the original version of this post is on the FullContact blog.
I’ve made some angel investments that didn’t work out in my life.
Once, I invested in a cryogenic company. They cryogenically treated things to last longer. Think “cryogenic brake pads.”
That company didn’t end up so well.
Another time, I invested in an online gambling company.
That didn’t really work out either.
I’ve got a few more angel investments I’m not sure will survive. But, that’s simply the nature of the game.
However, I’ve got one particular angel investment that I’m absolutely, POSITIVELY certain will work out. I’m so excited about this investment I can barely contain myself. It’s a lead-pipe, stone-cold lock to be a winner.
What is this investment?
It’s an investment in an actual, real-life Angel. I’m investing the rest of my life in my relationship with Sarah Benson – and we’re getting married in September!
I’m actually kind of shocked that we agreed to terms and Sarah is actually going to marry me. But I’m not one to second guess or kick a gift-horse in the mouth.
Instead, I’ve promised Sarah that I’ll work hard for the rest of my life to make her happy, as I definitely don’t want her to back out of the deal.
That would suck.
So how did this investment close? If you read my post on 126 NOs and 1 Big YES, you’ll understand that like any investment, it’s about hard work, persistence, and never say die attitude. This was no different.
This is our story (in pictures) – read on for the full blown version.
Sarah and I first met in August of 2009. We had both enrolled in the Executive MBA program at Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.
I had recently exited my last venture and figured an EMBA would be a good “gap-filler”.
Sarah had decided she wanted an MBA to advance her career.
A little about the EMBA program – it’s an 18 month program – no summer breaks, much to my chagrin. Students are organized into Cohorts – about 40 students per cohort. We all take the same classes on alternating Fridays and Saturdays. To be accepted, students must have at least 10 years management experience. The average age is 37.
Sarah was 29 when the program started entered. I was 30. We were the two youngest members of our Cohort. Ironically, the third youngest member was Ben Deda, who now is the VP of Business Development for FullContact.
When we first met, it was hardly love at first sight.
I sat behind Sarah in class, but it turns out that she found me obnoxious, loud, and brash. She actually moved seats to get away from me!
I thought Sarah was a little too obsessed with her dog, Parker. And given her high-end luxury resort background, thought she was a little too high-brow.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In our EMBA program, we had been assigned “Study Groups.” These study groups gathered every week to drink beer, study and do group projects.
My study group met exactly twice at the very beginning of the program. After that, I kept pressing for meetings but none of the other members seemed interested.
One day, Sarah was telling me about her study group – they met every Wednesday at Hanson’s Bar and Grill. She talked about Ben Deda and how he really drove the group with assignments.
I expressed my frustration with my current study group (the fact they wouldn’t meet). Unbeknownst to me, my study group was actually meeting – just without me and in secret. Apparently my focus on beer or something about my personality clashed. Whatever.
So instead of telling me this, Sarah graciously invited me into her group. Her group took a vote, and allowed me in.
Her decision would prove prescient.
Our study group wrapped up at the end of the quarter. We decided to still meet over the holidays.
One night at Hanson’s, it was just me and Andy Funk – everyone else was on holiday and Sarah was in Tuscany for work. The two of us proceeded to get really, really drunk.
I remember thinking to myself – “Man, it’s just not the same without Sarah and everyone else – she is the glue that keeps this thing together.”
So, on my cab ride home, I decided to call Sarah and tell her just that. To my surprise, she actually answered my call (it was 5AM in Tuscany).
I told her that our study group sucked without her, and demanded she come back as soon as possible. Ever patient, she just laughed it off.
At that time, I had way too much time on my hands. I was currently between ventures and fiddling with angel investing. All I had was the EMBA program – but it was winter break and I was bored.
I told Sarah I needed to go on vacation and asked “where I should go?”. Sarah knew I had a soft spot for Four Seasons, and recommended the Four Seasons in Florence.
Drunk off my ass, I thought that was a great idea.
I hung up, then promptly booked the next flight to Zurich, Switzerland. I then booked a Hertz rental car and several nights at the Four Seasons in Florence.
Around 1AM Denver time, I emailed Sarah the info and said “On my way!”
I got an email response saying something like “WTF” at which point I called her and said “Thanks for the advice, I’m comin’ to Italy.”
At this point, I’m pretty sure that Sarah thought I was completely insane.
However, Sarah indicated she had a day off and was planning on visiting Milan for the day.
I said “Great, want to do lunch in Milan? It’s a three hour drive from Zurich.”
We agreed on lunch in Milan (at this point, Sarah felt really sorry for me).
The next morning I rose, still hungover and probably still a little drunk, and got my ass to the airport.
8AM Zurich time, I landed. My iPhone didn’t work (forgot to turn International plan on) so I purchased a pre-paid cell phone from an Airport kiosk.
I then proceeded to make the drive to Milan.
Milan is pretty chaotic, and after a few hours trying to triangulate each other’s position, Sarah and I managed to meet up for lunch.
We had some lunch at a quaint little restaurant then decided to walk around.
Soon thereafter, it started snowing in Milan. Then it started snowing some more.
Knowing that I was alone, Sarah felt sorry for me and invited me to stay with her at her Tuscan villa instead. This ‘villa’ was on 4,200 acres and the house had 7 bedrooms. Nice.
I said “Cool, I’ll just leave my car here in Milan and we’ll ride down together”
So we departed Milan, and that’s when the snow really started to fall. And I mean really fall.
Turns out, it was the worst blizzard Italy had seen in 40 years.
Our 4 hour drive turned into 5…then 6….then 7…then 8….
10 hours later and a whole lot of conversation, we arrived at the villa at 5AM.
Not so fast.
The little piece of shit Peugeot couldn’t get up the snowy hill to the villa. It was another 3 miles to the villa.
At that point, I was exhausted, but we’d come so far.
So, I told Sarah to take the wheel and I got out and started pushing the Peugeot up the snowy, slippery road.
After about an hour, totally spent, we finally got to the villa.
We were wired from the drive and Sarah was scared out of her mind (snow wasn’t her thing – she’s from Phoenix).
Naturally, we decided to crack open a few bottles of wine to unwind relax. It was 6AM.
A few hours and a few bottles of wine later … stranded in a snowed-in villa in Tuscany ….I’ll let you decipher the rest.
And that’s how it all started.
The Formative Period
Over the next year, we focused our energy on our new relationship. We quickly grew on each other.
Basically, Sarah found me less obnoxious every day.
As it turns out, Sarah and I are complete opposites.
She’s sweet and forgiving. I’m angry and judgmental.
She’s patient. I have no patience.
She’s kind and thoughtful. I’m selfish.
She’s highly analytical and careful. I am emotional and impulsive.
She worries about other people’s feelings. I have to really remember to think about anyone else’s feelings.
She likes to go on walks in the morning. I’m cranky in the mornings.
Basically, she’s a terrific human being. I’m a shitty one.
Somehow, she still stuck around.
We were both working 60+ hours a week, plus EMBA (20-40 hours / week). Honestly, I don’t think I would have gotten through it without her. I had started what would become FullContact, and I didn’t have the patience for school.
But every week, Sarah dragged my ass to class. She forced me to do the work – even though I didn’t want to.
She supported me during my down times (there were many) and during my triumphs (far fewer).
I fell in love with her dog Parker. He’s hard not to love.
Over the next 15 months…we ended up becoming…. inseparable. A far cry from how it started (Sarah unable to stand my mere presence).
Graduation & TechStars
In March of 2011, Sarah and I graduated from our EMBA program together.
True to form, when it was my turn to come up to the microphone and announce my name, I seized the moment and thanked Sarah for everything she had done – told everyone I couldn’t have done it without her.
Immediately following graduation, FullContact was accepted into TechStars. So for me, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Sarah agreed to move to Boulder with me during the summer and commute to Denver for work.
We rented a shitty college apartment at Arapahoe and 19th.
I loved every second of it. I had always wanted to move back to Boulder and TechStars gave me the opportunity.
During this time, it was a little rough.
Sarah put up with my 18 hour days.
She put up with me coming home smelling like Tequila after every TechStars Wednesday night 9:09 meetings.
She put up with the commute.
She put up with me closing our first seed round during her appendectomy.
She put up with the lack of cable TV.
She put up with the college parties raging until 4AM.
She put up with the endless pitch practices I made her sit through.
Basically, she was a Saint, while I was a Selfish Dick.
But then, TechStars ended, and everything turned out OK.
So, at the end of the summer, we had a decision to make: move back to Denver, or stay in Boulder?
As Sarah was looking for places to stay, she stumbled upon a great place at 9th and Spruce. It had been listed 45 seconds earlier on Craigslist.
She called me immediately and told me to go make a deposit.
I did, and that’s where we decided to stay.
As we settled into our new life in Boulder, we fell into a good rythym.
Sarah absolutely fell in love with Boulder and we decided that we were going to live here – even if our work lives were in Denver.
Parker loved Boulder too – the squirrels, the trees, the weird remnants left behind by college kids partying the night before.
Sarah really started to appreciate my obsession with the NFL – particularly on Sundays. Eventually, she figured out she just needed to go shopping instead of listening to me scream and curse at the top of my lungs.
We started visiting a new restaurant every few days.
Sarah started to become obsessed with our neighborhood (Mapleton Hill) – tracking every home, who lives in it, and the history behind it (somewhat creepy, but endearing).
We started making new friends – many from TechStars – but others from the startup community as well.
Eventually, Sarah started a new career in tech at Name.com, leveraging her five star hospitality skills to become their Director of Customer Experience.
Even though her commute was going to be longer (an hour each way each day) we still decided to stick in Boulder.
We just loved it too much to leave.
I had been planning on proposing for a long time.
I knew Sarah was The One six months into our relationship – it was merely a matter of timing.
So, one night, I took Sarah for a walk. Got down on one knee in a quiet part of Mapleton Hill, and asked her to marry me.
She actually said “Yes”
And we couldn’t be happier.
The moral of the story? Invest in an Angel. It will pay off in the end. I promise.
Happy Life Dinner, Sarah. I love you. Thanks for putting up with me.