Techstars Boston Week 6 - Hangover

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This week at Techstars finally marked the end of Mentor Madness (hence the Mentor Madness hangover), and it was a relief for many teams.  I don't think I've seen the office quieter, or more productive, than Monday, the first day without scheduled mentor meetings.  That said, teams continue to meet with mentors they liked, some often for their fourth or fifth meetings. The Founder Stories and Workshops this week provided some brilliant content, which you can read about below.

Techstars Sponsor Visits

Though the formal Mentor Madness period ended, sponsors began sending their startup teams, and the personnel on these teams also fit the mentor role.  Many have backgrounds in either starting companies or funding them via venture capital, and their experience shows.

While sometimes visiting with sponsors is optional, I've personally seen it be extremely valuable for more than one team over the past several weeks, and I would recommend always visiting with sponsors if given the chance.

The reason: some will be non-technical while others will be technical, meaning you can send different people, and typically only one or two sponsors visit at a time, meaning that you will likely only have half an hour of your day occupied.  Based on the opportunities and connections many can offer (think customer introductions, hugely valuable perks, investor introductions), the potential for return is high for the time committed.

Founder Stories

This week, in addition to the usual Founder Stories from within Techstars, we had a special guest courtesy of a sponsor, from a local startup.

While the industry wasn't one I was generally familiar with, there were some great takeaways:

  • As a founder, you have to make progress every day.
  • Raising a seed round is based on any one of three things: product, team and traction.
  • Traction has a wide scope - things like customer interviews count.
  • Seed fundraising mistakes: talking to big VC firms.
    • Instead, talk to large angels.
  • To get your valuation for your seed round, talk to people who have done similar size seed rounds recently.
  • Getting investment from people you actually like should be a high priority - if investor meetings go badly, think about whether it's because of the person.
  • Set personal meetings (like lunch) with investors to first check the fit, and make that one of the early interactions before you approach fundraising with that person.

Our own Founder Stories tend to be more personal, and this week was no exception.  We had two very different perspectives and styles of stories, so I've broken the lessons from each in two:

From the first:

  • Most obstacles just really aren't that big; whether it's moving countries, changing locations because of someone you love, or someone you've lost, it's all possible.
  • The corollary to the above is that most obstacles we see are self-imposed.  The barrier to accomplishing something is often within ourselves and the perceived obstacles, rather than reality.
  • Businesses that are a result of your past, and/or tied strongly to your own life, are often the most powerful.
  • The corollary here is that when telling the story of your business, it is much easier to make an emotional connection when the story is your own.
  • Your story can be a recruiting tool.  If you've experienced it, others likely have to; who are these people and how do you find them?

From the second:

  • Switching study or career paths isn't something you should be afraid of.
  • When thinking about which areas interest you, consider your interests outside of formal study - how can they be tied to formal studies or careers?
  • Getting funded by your parents, living at home, and doing whatever you can to make your business succeed, is okay (personally, this resonated a lot for me).
  • Great products take a long time to develop.
  • The path to product/market fit is often a long one.
  • Cofounder relationships are precious, and like real relationships, can be ugly when they finish; make sure to think and proceed carefully when considering who you found with.

Workshops

Behavioral Interviewing

This workshop forever changed the way I will conduct hiring.

The highlights:

  • Gut instinct is only good for those who you shouldn't hire.
  • The best predictor for success is previous behavior, NOT previous experience.
  • "The average hard & productivity costs of a bad hire is 15x base salary" - Who, Geoff Smart & Randy Street
  • You need a scorecard for hiring based on three things: behaviors, competencies, and outcomes. Hire for what you want the person to accomplish in THIS job, at THIS time.
  • For behaviors, always ask "Tell me about a time in your career when you _____".
  • Six behavioral essentials: grit, rigor, impact, teamwork, ownership, curiosity, polish.
  • Competencies: technical, cultural.
  • Outcomes: 3-8 specific examples of what a person must get done.
  • CEOs: you are full-time recruiters.  You should always be asking other people who they think is talented, and start relationships with these people.
  • Selection process: filter [resumes], screen [with a call], interview [with multiple teams, for several hours], decide, reference.
  • Use TORQ (Threat of a Reference Check) in questions (ie. "When I ask your old boss about ___, what would they say about ____").
  • Look for STAR answers (Situation or Task, Action taken, Result).
  • You should be listening more than talking during most of the interview (the end is for selling your company).
  • A key interview might take 90+ minutes; make use of the scale and grade people.
  • You should have multiple interview teams; only ask references once you've decided to hire.
  • As usual: hire slow, fire fast.

Resources:

Again, this was a transformative workshop; everyone here will probably hire like this for the rest of their careers.

Exploring Cofounder Conflict & Being Fierce

While this didn't provide the crazy mind shift that the first workshop did, it explored some issues that often aren't in entrepreneurship, mostly on the topic of emotional stability and overall happiness.  The following were the main points for me:

  • In general, make an effort to ask your cofounder(s) and coworkers "How are you?" and truly listen to the answer.  Schedule a meeting if necessary. You should be looking to find out where they are in their personal and work life.  Use a red/yellow/green scale if need be, and it's up to the person whether they elaborate.
  • If you have an issue, use ONFR: Observation, Feeling, Need, Request:
    • O: I noticed _______.
    • F: That makes me feel ______.
    • N: We need to agree on ______.
    • R: Next time please ______.
  • Try and get your whole team asking themselves the following, as they relate to both their work and personal lives:
    • What are you not saying that needs to be said?
    • What are you not hearing that's being said?
    • What are you saying that's not being heard?

Emotional and overall stability is key for a person or team to function long-term.  There is often a particularly masochistic culture in entrepreneurship as it relates to work-life balance, or whatever you like to call it.  Regardless of the balance, make sure you know where both you and your team are on these issues.

Conclusion

The focus this week is definitely shifting.  Despite still being busy with sponsor visits and events, there has clearly been a move back towards fast progress, and it will be fun to watch (and participate in) over the next few weeks.  This also marked the end of the first half of the program.  I expect the second half to be much different, though no less interesting.