Techstars Boston 2012 – The Startup Forge

 Today is TechStars Boston Demo Day and as usual you can expect a spectacular display of pitching bravado and entrepreneurial glitz.  

For a view of who’s pitching at #tsdemoday, head over to BostoInno.  My twitter stream is currently full of people who are variously stoked, excited, anxious, in <3, pumped and so forth, so I am looking forward to a good show.

Programs like Techstars excel at teaching the Art of the Pitch but don’t fooled by the quality of the presentations: Techstars helps build great companies.  Real business with serious entrepreneurs.  So what sets the good programs apart from the rest ?

Having been involved in Seedcamp and Techstars Boston (both quality incubation or acceleration programs, there are in my mind four key elements to success :

  1. Ruthlessly curate the companies.  There is nothing that will kill a program as fast as mediocre companies and mediocre entrepreneurs.  This is where mindshare matters in attracting the best.  If, say, a hundred companies with world class talent are started every year, how do you ensure you get to those ?  You need a lot of high quality applications, an effective screening process, and a high bar and clear principles as to who will get in.
  2. Curate and iterate the mentors and contributors.  When inventing a new model and creating a community, it’s OK to play a very open game and see where good mentors come from.  But mentoring sessions are sometimes excellent, sometimes painful, usually because of mentors who have normative or downright dangerous advice.  The key to quality over time is to remember that programs are designed to serve the entrepreneurs, not the egos of the mentors, and to do a gradual job of not re-inviting those mentors rated low by the community.
  3. Delivering hard knocks.  Incubation / acceleration programs where “everyone wins” make no sense to me.  Yes, let’s celebrate innovation, but let’s also be intent on building real companies.  Techstars has weekly feedback meetings for the team; I recommend attending one.  I have vivid memories of Hardi Meybaum at GrabCAD (constructively) ripping through fellow entrepreneurs in a way that is impossible to do for an outsider.  Hard love aimed at generating real progress : “we’re here to build companies, not just get to Demo Day” is the underlying spirit. 
  4. The Secret Sauce : mentor matching.  There is no CRM system that will tell you how to match a startup and a mentor.  However, at Techstars Boston, there is a continuously learning system that will achieve just that : it’s called Reed and Katie’s whiteboard.  For me, besides whipping everyone into shape, the real clincher for the success of Techstars is the discrete and efficient way in which our two MC’s direct startups to mentors and vice versa.  Magic comes from getting the mix right.

Forging Steel … and novel alloys

I think of Techstars as a forge.   Entrepreneurs are the raw material, brought to extreme temperature inside the Techstars Forg, to the extent that they become highly malleable (the first phase of mentor whiplash which leaves you bereft of certainty :-)) before the metal is gradually shaped and worked into a highly efficient tool, enhanced along the way (with mentorship and new talent) to create unbreakable alloys.  

A harsh process for sure, but one from which determined teams emerge ready to take on the world.


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