My time at DreamIt Ventures, a Philly-based accelerator program for startups, was beyond rewarding. I feel like I got an MBA in three month’s time — and they paid me to attend classes. This is where I set out to build my startup, SnipSnap (coming soon to an iPhone near you).
It’s hard to boil down such an intense, round-the-clock experience into one blog post, but I’d like to at least try to summarize 10 of the major lessons learned.
10. Get to know your startup neighbors. I learned more from the 14 companies we worked alongside than everything else about the program combined. I now count some of the Fall 2011 CEOs among my most trusted confidants — the guys and girls I send my term sheets to for feedback, or who I’ll solicit advice on how to handle a thorny legal issue. I just wish I’d started befriending more of them sooner. There are still a handful I never got to know, and that’s one of my biggest regrets of the program.
9. Practice your investor pitch and term-sheet negotiations. File this as something we didn’t do much of, but I wish we had. Yes, we practiced the Demo Day pitch ad nauseum, but given that all of the DreamIt partners are seasoned investors, I wish we’d done mock one-on-one investor presentations and TS negotiations before leaving.
8. Take care of all your legal needs before graduating. If a law firm is donating its legal services, make sure to finish as much as possible before the real-world meter kicks in.
7. Go to the evening social events. Trust me, I know how hard this is for parents. And I can say that with one toddler at home and a baby born mid-program, it wasn’t easy for me at all. But this 3-month period is one of the best shots you’ll have to immerse yourself in the city tech scene. Don’t miss it.
6. Begin fundraising on day 1. That’s hard, of course, if you’re still fleshing out just what your product is. But if you hope to have any kind of commitments come graduation, you best start early. Even then, you’ll be lucky if you can say that you have 50% hard-circled by D-day. It’s now three months after Demo Day, and I’m only now beginning to solidify our round.
5. Ask other teams for help. The teams that seemed to grow the most, and engage the entire community, reached out to other companies for feedback. Occasionally they would even enlist an engineer or salesperson to help them solve a problem. This is also partly important because …
4. Everyone in the incubator space is a possible hire. It’s a fact: Most of the accelerator companies will fizzle in under a year. Which means there’s a ton of talent out there looking for a new home. I enlisted some DreamIt grads from past years to help on SnipSnap. In some cases, companies recruited employees from other teams before the program even concluded. While this may sound like it’s crossing a line, I think everyone will agree that if you’re able to poach an employee, they were already looking to be poached.
3. Meet with your team daily. Again, file this under “do as I say, not as I do.” I wish team SnipSnap had met this regularly. The teams that did were operating on a whole other level. My new team is indeed having a daily huddle.
2. Minimum Viable Product ≠ prototype. It’s so easy to get sucked into the Eric Ries, “Lean Startup” mindset, where you strip down your product to the bare essentials, that you start to think it’s ok if a certain feature doesn’t technically work. We made this mistake with a half-dozen parts of SnipSnap. When the time came to actually fix them — that is, get them working — we were so stuck on the MVP mindset that it inordinately painful to get un-stuck.
1. Find the right co-founder(s). This one is more than a little painful. My original co-founders for SnipSnap didn’t stick around long past our DreamIt graduation. They had another startup, which was demanding more and more of their time. It was a good business, and I don’t begrudge them wanting to invest themselves fully in it. And in the end, it worked out best for me as I was able to build a new team that was much more passionate about the app we were building. We quickly found a groove and I’m thrilled to say that this new team is humming like a well oiled machine. In many ways, it’s the one I wish I’d applied to DreamIt with.
If I could do it all over again, this last point is really the one I would drive home. It’s tempting to apply to an accelerator with a team pulled out of thin air — people you know, but haven’t worked with on a startup before — but it’s a dangerous gamble. If possible, work together for a few months in advance. Get to know each other. Even if you don’t start finishing each other’s sentences, at least make sure these are the folks you want to spend the next 5+ years of your life with. A good friend — one of those DreamIt CEOs I mentioned — likens the search for a co-founder to a courtship. Very true. And to that point, whatever you do, please don’t propose co-founder marriage before you’ve finished your first date.