TechStars Demo Day has come and gone. It has been 13 weeks since I first met the start-up entrepreneurs in this program. And, after these 13 weeks of mentoring some of the brightest and most talented entrepreneurs I have ever met, I find that I am sad that the intensity is over.
TechStars is a technology start-up company “incubator” or “accelerator” that brings in companies from around the world for an intense program to make them stronger businesses. From thousands of applicants, only 14 are selected for each term. Each is in a different tech-related business and each faced different challenges. I am told that the acceptance rate is lower than that at Harvard or MIT, which are both nearby in Cambridge. That makes it a very select group of young entrepreneurs.
TechStars Demo Day is the official coming out party for these companies. Hundreds of investors came to watch each company present for about 10 minutes to show what they can do.
I found that being a mentor was the most important work-related activity I have done in years. It energized me. It broadened my horizons. And, it gave me a chance to give back to the Boston entrepreneurial community. Perhaps the most amazing thing to me is that I expect that I will be connected with these founders for the rest of my life. It is astounding given that the formal part of the program is for just 13 weeks.
Part of what does it comes from the intensity of the program. Opening day, back in February, felt like a scene out of Project Runway, as the “contestants” found their space and sized up who was there with them. Of course, unlike Project Runway, teams were not “contestants” and nobody was voted off each week. (I never heard Katie Rae, the Managing Director for Boston, say, “One day you’re in and the next day your out.”) The goal was for every company to win every challenge and for everyone to “Make it work.”
As a mentor, I was first vetted by TechStars personnel. Then, I was invited to ”mentor madness,” a series of 30-minute speed dating sessions with any of the entrepreneurs who I wanted to meet. How was the chemistry with the entrepreneur? Could you offer anything to help the company? Did the entrepreneur want to work with you?
I ended up getting closest to Neurala, Rallyware, Qunb and coUrbanize. (I also spent some quality time, but not as much, with several other companies that shined, such as Jebbit.) Click for a complete list of TechStars companies with a description.
As the community developed, we connected. We ate together. We became Facebook friends. We were totally honest with each other and opened up in a way that is uncommon in business. I learned that TechStars entrepreneurs wanted to learn from experience. At other places, I have met too many 20-30 year old start-up executives who think that they have all the answers and just need money from an investor. Instead, at TechStars, I went over business plans, helped to re-write presentations, discussed pricing strategies and even reviewed company names. Barely a week went by during which I did not sit down with Rallyware and Qunb. During the last two weeks of the program, I pulled up a desk with Neurala and started to work on their materials with them. I felt as if I was part of the team.
We rooted for each other. Entrepreneurs from Russia, Ukraine, France and Davis Square told their stories to each other. (I recommend reading the inspirational Three Take-a-Aways from a TechStars Alumnus.)
As for me, I grew from the experience too. Here are some of the things I got out of TechStars:
- Energy. There is nothing quite like working with people who are building something for the first time. All they see is vast opportunity ahead of them. As a mentor, I absorbed some of that energy and felt like a first-time entrepreneur again. I recommend it.
- Perspective: There is something to be gained by being with people who don’t know that their idea “won’t work.” Maybe — just maybe — the idea will work this time. So, don’t give in too soon.
- Broader Horizons: There are amazing new markets that I never thought about before. For example, I worked with brilliant Ph.D.’s at Neurala creating software brains for robots. I had never touched robot software before. Now, I am excited about the market.
- Community: I now feel that I am a part of the TechStars family. I think that I have a new network of people with whom I can discuss ideas and get advice.
TechStars has invigorated me and made me even more excited about the future of entrepreneurship in Boston. Thank you, entrepreneurs, for what you gave to me.