Techstars Boston Week 5 - Madness Over!

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This was the last week of Mentor Madness at Techstars Boston, and for the most part, everyone was breathing a sigh of relief.  Usually investors are the last ones to participate, so despite being near the end, you still have to on your game. That also meant that Workshops began; Workshops are often lead by mentors on topics in their area of expertise, and generally follow the focus of the program: Build Team, Build Product, Growth.

This week we had two:

  1. Customer Interviewing: this was a detailed presentation of how to set up customer interviews, the right questions to ask, and the questions to avoid, with an example interview done in the middle.  Super useful.
  2. The Power of the Network: a summary of how to leverage the Techstars network, and the associated tools, which include LinkedIn.  Again, super useful, and Techstars does a great job of utilizing their network in general.  While the opinions I've received on the topic are obviously biased, many would argue it's the most valuable network for entrepreneurs globally.

So, we'll start with those.

Customer Interviewing

I think this is probably one of the most overlooked skills in the entire of entrepreneurship.  Not only can customer interviews help chart your product development, sales strategy, and basically every consumer-related aspect of your business, but this is where you can find out if your startup idea is worth something in the first place.

The key takeaways:

  • Surveys can serve as validation tools, and that's about it.
  • Be as vague as possible to start - don't tell them what industry you're in, even remotely what your startup does.
  • Good interviewing is good listening - you want them to tell stories.
  • Stay away from 'shallow' (yes/no) questions.
  • Avoid "have you ever had ____ problem".
  • Always go for more "tell me about the challenges you've had with _____" (ex. note-taking).
  • Interviews should be conducted with two people, one who is clearly in charge and one who is taking notes - can enter conversation occasionally by asking "do you mind if I ask a question?".
  • You always want to dig deeper and get the stories; good follow-up questions include things like "why?" and "how often does this happen?".
  • Wait for the other person to speak and elaborate themselves - using silence is important.
  • Get people to demonstrate their stories and experiences if possible - you can then ask questions based on the demonstration.
  • Approach interview as "how can I disprove my core assumptions?" - don't be married to your value proposition.
  • Try and find the current way this person is solving your problem.
  • Can source interview people from Craigslist, Taskrabbit - you should be getting valuable information after 2 or 3 if you're doing it right, and you shouldn't have a problem filling more than 45 minutes.

Power of the Network - Techstars & Otherwise

While some of this workshop spoke about how to best leverage the Techstars network specifically, there was a lot to be gained from the LinkedIn and general networking advice:

  • Spend 10 minutes every day responding to points of contact (on LinkedIn) - congratulate people on new jobs, introduce them to someone you know in their new city, comment on their post, etc. (Go to My Network > Connections to see updates).
  • Publish blog posts on LinkedIn - particularly if you post elsewhere too; it's a great way to show off your skills to people, and to dictate your own specialties and positioning.
  • Little-used feature - you can keep notes that are private to you on first-level connections - just look at their profile and you'll see the option below their header.
  • Use Conspire to get introductions.  Look for lowest number of people in pathway, not necessarily strongest.
  • Go to My Network > Connections > Settings to integrate with other services.
  • University affiliation is a great way to turn a conversation from cold to warm, and is underutilized; check out the Advanced Search in detail.
  • Use My Network > Find Alumni to source talent, or VCs/investors.
  • Search former employees of a certain company to get intelligence and background information.
  • Look at who has viewed your profile - if you don't have the right people viewing it, change your profile.
  • Use your skill endorsements as a gauge for how other people view your skill set and expertise.
  • Look at who is the most-viewed in your network - they have the highest social influence and capital; utilize this.

Founder Stories

I won't say much about the Founder Stories this week, since they were so personal and emotional.  That being said, they did really drive home a few key points for me:

  • There is more to life than startups, or career success, or pretty much anything except family and loved ones.  Never lose perspective.
  • Desperation is a great motivator; use it as a tool (and by this, I mean implement it artificially whenever possible).
  • The arguments against immigrants in any country are stupid.  From an economic standpoint, they create disproportionate value.  Aside from that, see point 1 - these are all people seeking the same things as you are.
  • Obstacles are just that - obstacles.  And yours are probably much less daunting than many that many, many, other people have faced and overcome. In other words, if you think your life is hard, it probably isn't.
  • People are amazingly resilient.

I'll use the opportunity to point back to one of my favorite articles from Paul Graham, titled Life Is Short.

The end of Mentor Madness is a net positive for me, and I'll probably dedicate a separate post or two to the whole process.  In the meantime, you can refer to Deb McGargle's post about it.