Mentorship-driven or Why I applied to TechStars

It was about this time last year that I started to think in earnest about TechStars.  I had the original (612 iterations and now one pivot old) idea for TempMine and thought that maybe that nice, stable job I had wasn’t really what I wanted.  So I started digging into TechStars.  I followed everyone TechStars related on Twitter (heck, I *joined* Twitter as a research tool for my application).  I listened to interviews with David Cohen and Brad Feld.  I read blog posts.  Oh my, did I read blog posts!  I devoured all I could find that had anything to do with TechStars.

Through all of that content, there was one recurring theme that rose above all others – “mentorship-driven.”  Everywhere I turned, when I saw TechStars, those two words were not far behind.  And you know what?  They are why I applied to TechStars.  It wasn’t the seed funding (though that did help nudge my wife to agree to the insane idea of my leaving a perfectly good job).  It wasn’t the fact that such a high percentage of past companies had raised seed rounds and gone on to create very cool companies – and sometimes sell them!  It was the people who helped the teams.  It was their bios.  It was what they had done.

You see, it’s not even the intros to these folks (but trust me, those are crazy valuable on their own – especially here in chilly Boston).  It’s also not really the sessions that they give (though there are a ton of those and they are freakin’ amazing, you’ll be shocked afterward at how much you didn’t know).  It’s their availability.   When you meet these mentors, you’ve already crested a threshold that many, many others haven’t.  Where many of these folks are also investors, they are constantly pitched, yet when you’re a TechStar, they are voluntarily lowering their guard for the most basic of reasons – they want to help you.  They all had help along the way.   They know the value of being helped.   They know that we, as a startup community – whether we’re in Boston, Boulder, Seattle, Valley or wherever, will all do better when the more experienced help the less experienced.

So look at those lists of mentors (Boulder, Boston, and now Seattle).  Look at what those men and woman have done.  Look at what they do now.  Are you seeing the value I saw before applying?  Here’s the best part.  As much as I thought I got “the TechStars way”, this mentorship-driven thing, and I did, conceptually -  I was off by an order of magnitude.  It’s way, way better.

The mentors have been there (where you want to go) and done that (what you want to do).  Your mentors will ask you smarter and far tougher questions about your plan, your assumptions, your direction than anyone else.   They will challenge you and sometimes tear your idea apart.  Don’t worry, that’s a good thing.  Better they do it during TechStars, than the market afterwards.

The mentors know everyone.  They knew people who you never knew even existed.  They bypass gatekeepers, email filters, and all the other stuff that was designed keep you out.  They will make intros to folks who just don’t have time to talk to startups, but for your mentor, for you, will.

The mentors care.  They carve out real time, often a crazy amount of real time, in their schedule to help you and your little startup.   It’s amazing how much you can get done in a 30 minute meeting, with an insanely sharp, outrageously experienced { VC | serial entrepreneur | angel | lawyer … } who’s there to ask questions, to push you, to help.

This is starting to sound like an infomercial “but wait, there’s more!”

There is more and if you don’t screw it up, there’s a lot more.  Here’s the real special sauce that I don’t see mentioned enough (so I might get in trouble for letting this slip – oops).  TechStars is not a 3 month program.  Sure, the main program lasts for three months, but being a TechStar does not end with the last pitch on investor day, or when you move out of the penthouse, bunker, or where ever they shack you all up in Seattle.   Your relationships with your mentors don’t end.  Your access to great help, to people who are invested in you (personally as well as in some cases, financially), does not end.  If you do it right, you’ll exit your three months in TechStars with friends who just happen to have IPO’d a company or two, angel invest, and know pretty much everyone – and man, those are great friends to have.

If you’re working on a great startup, something that keeps you up at night and gets you out of bed in the morning, something you’re excited about and you realize the value of great mentors – apply to TechStars.  But hurry up – applications for this Spring’s Boston session close on the January 11th.

Screw serendipity – make it happen!

I’ve heard these stories of startup founders where great stuff just happens to them. They’re telling a friend about their latest idea and are overheard by some angel who immediately writes them a check or they create some neat tool in their spare time, while holding down a real job, and then become superstars earning millions and flying around the world to speak to their screaming throngs, or they create some neat little tool in a weekend and end up selling it a month later for $10 million.

All crap, seriously. I don’t believe any of it. Sure, there might be some fantasized retelling of a startup that starts with these lines, but there not reality. Maybe I don’t believe them because they haven’t happened to me. Maybe I’m just a doubting Thomas after all.

Last spring when we applied to TechStars with the original, now long-dead idea for TempMine, we were very excited to make it through the first cut from a  500 or so companies down to fifty.  But making the first cut wasn’t the goal and we weren’t in yet.  We still had to beat out 40 other teams to get a slot.

I then saw a tweet that Shawn Broderick, the Director of the soon to be first Boston class of TechStars was going to be at Andala Cafe for OpenCoffee the following week.   Did I wait around for someone to overhear me talking about TempMine?  Did I sit in my house and code, code, code hoping to get noticed?  Did anyone buy TempMine for $10M?  No, no, and sadly, no.  I got off my butt, skipped a few hours of work, and got in Shawn’s face.

Applications for TechStars Boston 2010 are now open and getting into TechStars is hard.  The odds are quite literally stacked against you.  Tilt them a bit, go meet Shawn.  Go meet some of the TechStars alums who are going to be there too.  Go find out why I jumped at the chance to leave a great job and chase my dream.

Come learn more about TechStars as Shawn hosts an Info Session at 10:30a on Wednesday, Dec 2nd at Andala.

Screw serendipity – make it happen.

Writing about my summer in TechStars … or not.

When I started this blog it was with the intention of saving some of the great summer experiences for myself and sharing them with my friends / family who weren’t seeing a lot of me.  But then, every time I tried to write something, I couldn’t divorce it from the fact that the reason I was among the missing was that our company, TempMine, had been accepted to the inaugural class of TechStars Boston.

We’d decided that it was best that we keep mum as the word about our TechStars  participation because you only really get one chance to make that first impression.  And frankly, for most of the summer, our product and business model were in such states of flux, we didn’t even know what sort of an impression we wanted to make anyway.

So I started posts, and then left them, to wither on the vine – something that is very easy to do as you have so many other things going on whether it be big sessions with mentors, one-on-one’s with mentors, pitch sessions, weekly updates with Shawn (Broderick, the Director of TS Boston), meetings with potential customers and users, or just plain building something.

When in TechStars you have no time. Everyday is jammed. Crazy jammed full of things that you just can’t miss. Meetings that are far to valuable to skip. So taking time to blog, just didn’t happen, especially when I felt like everything I wanted to say wouldn’t have made much sense without the word “TechStars”.

But now, we’re graduates of the program. We’re TechStars alums – a very nice club to be in btw. We’ve longs since had that first impression thanks to TechCrunch (TechStars Debuts Nine Startups In Boston).

We’re actively raising funding. We’re working on our MVP. We’re talking to customers and users. We’re building our company. But now, now I’m going to take a bit of time to catch up on some of those things I wanted to talk about during the Summer of ’09, but just never had the time to.

TempMine in MassHighTech

So I’ve actively avoided the subject of TechStars since we were accepted last Spring.  The theory is that we don’t want to 1. toot our horn before we have something worth tooting about, and 2. we’ve been iterating so quickly through how exactly we’re going to change the world, that it’s best not to mention it yet.

Well, we’ve been outed. We knew it was coming and were fine with it, but it’s still a bit weird to see it in (lcd) print:  Fast pace, less funding define TechStars.

Here’s how it went down.  Galen Moore from MassHighTech was in the office and was asking questions – in the bathroom.   Once we moved the conversation a few doors away from the urinals, we chatted a bit about TempMine, what’s public and what’s not about our young company, and how awesome TechStars is.  Yeah, I’ve not just drank the Koolaid, I’ve bathed in it.

Galen must be good, because despite my brain saying “yo, you’re not ready to talk to a reporter”, the rest of me sure wanted to talk about TempMine and TechStars.  So I did.  He was kind enough to keep it general, but I’ll be looking forward to talking to him moew once we have more to say.

A day in the life

So yesterday there was this post yesterday on news.yc “Ask HN: Startup founders, would you walk us through a day in the life?” that got me thinking.  What is my day like?

6:20am – One year old wakes up. Grudgingly, I do to.

6:25am – Change diaper, PJs if they’re wet, make a bottle, feed the boy, try to keep eyes open.

6:40am – Catch up on email on the iPhone while the boy plays on the family room floor. Can’t use the MacBook because he’ll want to play with it.

7:20am – Make coffee, clean the boy’s bottles, change his diaper.

8:00am – Wake up wife so I get to shower. Shower.

8:45am – Send replies that were too long for iPhone. Review where last night left us. Review what I want to get done today. Start working.

10:30am – motivate to the subway to go to the office. Pleasure read on the train.

11:15am – get to the office. Talk to office mates. Get situated, try to get back into the groove. Put off lunch as long as possible.

Lunch – try to find something cheap. Generally fail.

Rest of the day – work, have sessions with our mentors. Maybe get some dinner.

9:45pm – head home. Pass out on the subway.

10:30pm – Catch up with wife until she goes to bed.

11:00pm – 1:30am – Work.

Rinse, lather repeat and never second guess giving up that good 4 day a week job I used to have to start my own business.

It’s a pretty fancy life, eh?

Who do I ask for a sick day?

For the last couple of years, I’ve been the lucky recipient of migraines.  They suck, but I’ve learned to better manage them thanks to some fancy (and spendy) prescription drugs and the ability to take a sick day and NOT look at this bloody computer.  Well, I felt a headache coming on last night, but ignored it and went to bed.  When I awoke, there it was, right where I’d left it.   A not so quick drive down to our first investor’s house (Mom & Dad) to drop off our beast and it was full on raging and had turned the corner to a Migraine.

So who do I ask for a sick day?  I’m my boss.  Everything that doesn’t get done by me today, pushes my life, our company,  our future one day into the future.  Who knows what that one day will cost us.  I hope nothing, but the fear of failure in me says it could be everything, so work, work, work.  Thankfully today wasn’t a total loss.  I was able to squeeze in some time, and more importantly make some progress one the meds did their thing.  Usually I’d lounge away the rest of the day, for fear of a relapse, but I didn’t today. My jerky boss made me work.

“So, what does it feel like?” you ask …

Yesterday was a whirlwind of trying to get way too much done in way to little time, of trying to not stiff my friends, and coworkers with too many unanswered questions and incomplete tasks, and trying to make sure I didn’t work a 14 hour day.  I think I succeeded on points one and two but failed pretty miserably on number three.

So what does it feel like to wakeup with your job being the startup you had the idea for over a year ago, the startup, that you’re a few months deep into working at night, on weekends and whenever you can steal some time, the startup that has to pay the mortgage and feed the family?   Insanely, unbelievably anxious, that’s what.  Wow, I’ve not been this anxious since my driving test.  The driving test that I hit (and likely killed) a bird on the way to.  And yes, I passed.  And my Dad swears the bird was suicidal …

The leap

I joined my first startup at the butt-end of the bubble, was employee #44, earned some great experience, worked with some amazing people, and many who just plain weren’t.  I survived a few rounds of layoffs, but finally was out of work when the company ceased to be an ongoing concern in the Spring of 2003.  Thinking I’d learned all I needed to do this on my own, I jumped into a few more startups as number two or one.  All seemed like “the next big thing”, were interesting, educational, and exciting.  All were failures.  It was okay though as I had a good day job.

That job has been so good that I’ve spent the last year since out son’s birth working only four days a week.   Not working from home on Fridays, but not working on Fridays … three day weekends every weekend.  I spent those Friday’s with the boy – something I’d recommend to anyone and everyone with their first (or nth) little one if they can pull it off.  Sure I love my weekends when all three of us are together, but being one on one all day is totally different and rocks.

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll walk out of that great, stable job for another startup.  This Friday the little one will turn one.   More than a few people have told me that I am crazy.  But if you’ve every had to do something, known it was the right thing for you, just known that this was a problem you have to try to solve, then you understand.

There’s a investment adage that I first heard from Harvey Salkin in his Personal Investment class back in college.  It went something like “the cardinal sin of investing is thinking that this time will be different”.   I can’t tell you how many times this has come to mind over the years, but it has to be in the thousands.  That said, this time, this startup is different.  I now have an amazing nearly one year old relying on me as well as a very forgiving, excited, and supportive wife (seriously, try being married to me, it’s not easy!).   This time is going to be very, very different.

So as we grow TempMine I’m going to blog about the process of starting a startup.  This as much for me as it is for you, dear reader.  This summer, this year, this life is going to go fast.  When I finally get a chance for a break, I look forward to being able to sit back, read this, and see what I missed.