Why Accelerators Matter

(Albuquerque, New Mexico) – So I’m wrapping up a week-long accelerator program today: our pitch deck has been creatively destroyed over and over, we’ve made our pitch to a room of investors (both Angels and VCs), and in a couple of hours (New Mexico time) we will learn if we placed in the money among 8 other “creative” startups.

Time to unpack a few details. The accelerator is Creative Startups of Albuquerque, New Mexico, this is their second annual cohort, and we’re the only software startup among the nine startups. New Mexico has a strong, proud, and diverse community of “creatives” and artists of many sorts: Creative Startups’g goal is accelerating the success of creative entrepreneurs and economies by having 30-odd mentors (smart successful people) present and meet with these nine startup teams and founders, and introducing them to the tender mercies of VCs and Angels.

Tender mercies?

Actually yes. Unlike the typical startup accelerator programs you’ve heard of, let alone the dreaded (or at least I dreaded) Demo Days where your puppy-like startups gets tossed into a pool of sharks and the water runs red except for a very lucky few, the investors and mentors at Creative Startups have been wonderful, helpful, supportive, attentive and caring. These are not adjectives I as a (former) self-funded startup founder (SFSF) would have ever associated with VCs and their lesser brethren.

Well, you can learn something every day, You can learn something every day of every work hour if you immerse yourself in a setting with a bunch of really smart people with all sorts of experience – which is kind of the point of any Accelerator Program that lives up to their name.

So did it hurt?

Yes it did. We (TheRightMargin.com) started Monday with our killer pitch deck done, our messages on target and compelling, and perhaps a bit of cockiness coming from the center of the startup universe, San Francisco. We got our clocks cleaned, our deck murdered and our message clobbered within 48 hours as mentor after mentor tore into us in the nicest possible way (I’m thinking of you Lena! :)). But they didn’t just rip in and rain on our parade, they helped us understand the process, relationship and realities from their side of the table, the table where the money is. We sometimes quickly, usually painfully, but always with real support, learned how to turn the story of our utterly awesome software around so it would really matter and be worth the time of potential investors of money and time, aka potential investors and more importantly customers.

So get to the point already!

The point is that even if you publicly distain (and secretly are terrify by) investors, getting the opportunity to work with them and their like to understand your software, and your business, from their point of view is awesomely, totally worth it. The experience, with or without funding, if it’s focus is on the process of learning how to think like a real businessperson, will open your eyes. If you’re wondering would I recommend that next year you apply for Creative Startups, the answer is yes! And if you can’t get in, consider other accelerators only if it’s about the mentorship, constructive criticism, reality checks and yes, emotional validation they provide. The money is may be the end of the journey, but it really is all about the trip getting there.


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Bob WalshWhy Accelerators Matter

Quick prototypes and agile startups.

I don’t usually mix my day job at TheRightMargin with my various passions here at 47hats, but an experiment I and three other employees are getting ready to launch was just too useful for people here to pass up.

As self-funded startup founders (SFSFs?) we tend to code first and ask questions later. I’m a programmer dammit, and if I write a cool feature then users will love it! Maybe. But maybe coding is a way to dodge the emotionally hard work of talking to users (ick), finding out what they want, need, feel (more ick), and putting yourself and your ideas out there all alone on the internet stage. Makes getting picked last for a dodgeball team in high school PE sound fun.

But the reality is there are at least a few bits of all this relatively new Lean Startup/Customer Discovery/Gear Up touchy-feely stuff that’s useful, elegant and solves real problems.

Take, for example, testing a new major feature. Not testing in the code sense – rather, but testing if any of your users or prospective users want/need/will use that feature. It’s called “prototyping”: creating a non-code (even paper!) bit of interactive stuff that can test the value of a major feature before spending days or weeks coding it out.

Take for instance adding Timed Writing Exercises (TWEs) to TheRightMargin. The idea came from a common problem we heard from our interviewees–when you’re writing something major you can get horribly, painfully stuck. One way to get unstuck is to do some batshit crazy five minute writing exercise that gets the little grey cells in your head pumping again and makes you a happy writing camper.

So instead of coding this feature, I prototyped it in a quick, non-code way first. With a measly Google Form and a Medium post. Not one line of code. (please give my prototype a try!) We think we’ll get enough data from people’s responses to this prototype to tell us if it’s worth building out. It feels a bit uncomfortable – reaching out to people instead of writing code. But if it works (and I will let you know), we’ll know if we should build it out based on more than just intuition.

In fact, Art has built a ‘staying on track with your writing goals’ prototype (which is mostly him doing things for for you), Christine has whipped up some cool online prototypes for you to try (please let her know what you think!), and Shivani has set up a cool and fun way to onboard you and your writing goals. Please give them all a try, they take only a few minutes each!

Solo founders never have enough time. We have to pick our battles and our features carefully. Prototyping (non-code ways of testing out major functionality on real people) is a smart way of getting some advance intelligence on what the market is going to think of our latest and greatest.

So if you’ve tried prototyping at your startup, or are thinking now about prototyping that shiny new major feature before writing a line of code, share with the rest of us in comments here.

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Bob WalshQuick prototypes and agile startups.

Startup Idea Stuck? Spend a buck!

If you’re stuck for an idea to build your startup on, then I’ve got just what you need – and it will cost you a single dollar. Rene Andreasi-Bassi is one of those rare people who throw off great ideas like way sparks fly when molten steel gets poured. His day job is in the television industry where a thousand ideas live and die before lunch. And he’s done what every good founder does in the age of the Internet – design/define a way to monetize that uniqueness, reach out to build an audience and then a market and disrupt the status quo.

Rene built and is very effectively marketing BuyMyIdea.com, where you can go, browse his ideas and if you find one that makes you jump, buy it for a dollar and up. Pure genius, a clean intellectual property provenance and well worth a visit. Check it out.

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Bob WalshStartup Idea Stuck? Spend a buck!

Think Apps not Books

Years ago, on my first podcast, I interviewed Ned Hallowell, M.D. about his then bestseller, CrazyBusy. Ned’s in the business of helping harried professionals get some sanity back into their lives. The book was a great read, the interview a great listen, but content in doesn’t equate to action out.

Ned’s now launched CrazyBusy Tips (free) with CrazyBusy Pro as an in-app purchase ($1.99) for iOS. Looks awesome – downloading it now, and will post about it in a week or so.

Ned is one smart doctor – I recommend his app sight unseen. But the point here – the conclusion CrazyBusy the App cements in my mind – is the world doesn’t need more passive content – it needs more content designed, structured and delivered for action. Content that people can grab cheap, get into, and get specific measurable results from – be it getting the crazy out of their lives or moving their startups forward.

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Bob WalshThink Apps not Books

So what’s Silicon Valley like?

I was chatting with Alvin of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this morning on my site – he’s a law student thinking about doing a startup. He wanted to know: what’s Silicon Valley is like?

Having lived in the Bay Area and worked in the tech industry 30 years, I’ve got a pretty good sense of that.

The good news re SV is that now it’s digital and online: it’s all available to everyone on the planet. What you need to pick up on if you want to succeed is the habits, mindsets, techniques that work in the Valley and make the Valley work.

Other answer – lots of tech jobs available, great weather, new stuff all the time.

Here’s the habits I mean:

  • You try something, it fails, you learn, you try something else.
  • You help other people, because in this industry, what goes around, comes around, damn quick.
  • Doing beats talking and wondering and trying to work everything out in advance every time.
  • Make stuff people want, let them know about it, and the money will follow.

If you live in the Valley – even if you live in Valley online – the above are obvious. You go to other industries, places, mindsets and they above is anything but obvious. Where do you want to be?

(image from the Onion – a great read!)

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Bob WalshSo what’s Silicon Valley like?

I’m starting a Mastermind Group – who’s up for it?

The hardest part of building a startup isn’t coding, marketing, building the web site, finding your market, defining your product, raising seed money, raising equity money, getting press attention, building a Twitter or Facebook or Google+ following, finding a URL, setting up a VPS, getting approved by Apple, finding a co-founder, making a YouTube video, writing marketing copy, building a blog, deploying to your server, scaling your servers, managing your cashflow, doing your business taxes, or getting Robert Scoble to notice you.

It’s dealing with the doubts, fears, objections echoing around in your own head, dragging you down. Alone.

Mastermind Groups is an idea that’s been kicking around for 85+ years. Find a number of like-minded people trying to succeed, provide each other with feedback, constructive criticism, different points of view, resources, accountability. Meet on a regular basis, what happens in the group stays in the group, mutual respect and support are the rule.

A quick google makes it clear more than a few people have tried to make money one way or another out of Mastermind Groups. Chris Pirillo, whom I respect, started “Gnomies” a couple of months ago and I wish him well. But that is not kind of Mastermind Group I want to build or join.

What I want to do is find up to 1o technical founders closing in on launching a new startup willing to meet once a week via Skype or probably Google+ Hangouts to brainstorm ideas, get and give feedback, and support each other. Lifehack.org did a good writeup on what Mastermind group is really about – I intend to follow it.

Who’s in? Email me at bob.walsh@47hats.com.

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Bob WalshI’m starting a Mastermind Group – who’s up for it?

This will make you feel old… and that’s a good thing

Charles Holbert over at Killer Infographics shared with me one of his agency’s new graphics I found interesting, “The Ten Biggest Entrepreneurs of 2011 under 30.”

Being considerably older than 30, I have to admit my first reaction was not unbounded joy and happiness. I don’t know about you, but I tend to with each story I read about a startup getting funded, sold, etc. feel a sharp pain right around my ego.

But as I thought about it, and reread this infographic, I realized none of these entrepreneurs possess super powers, they all worked their asses off to build their startups, and there’s nothing they did that I cannot do.

I hope you come to that same realization, and act on it for 2012.

10 Biggest Entrepreneurs of 2011
From: Business MBA

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Bob WalshThis will make you feel old… and that’s a good thing

Go back to school for your startup. Free!

Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could take a class in how to build your startup, from a world known authority, at one of the best colleges in the world, for free?

That’s exactly what you can get from Steve Blank, at Stanford University, starting in February. The Lean Launchpad, also know as Engineering 245, is an online class with free enrollment. That’s right, for the price of your email address and name, you can take from the comfort of your computer an Honest-to-God Stanford University class.

How cool is that? (look for me there, third row on the left.)

Here’s the class description:

In this class you’ll learn how to turn a great idea into a great company.

We now know that startups are not smaller versions of large companies. Large companies execute known business models. They use big company tools – business plans, income statements, revenue models, etc. to help organized their execution. In contrast startups search for a business model. And all the big company tools are irrelevant in the early days of a startup. This class is not about how to write a business plan. It’s not an exercise on how smart you are in a classroom, or how well you use the research library. The end result is not a PowerPoint slide deck for a VC presentation. Instead you will be getting your hands dirty as you encounter the chaos and uncertainty of how a startup actually works.

You’ll learn how to use a business model canvas to brainstorm each part of a company and customer development to get out of the classroom to see whether anyone other than you would want/use your product. Finally, you’ll see how agile development can help you rapidly iterate your product to build something customers will use and buy. Each week will be a new adventure as you test each part of your business model.

And who is Steve Blank, you have to ask?

The Instructor:

Steve Blank is a serial entrepreneur and has been a founder or early employee at 8 startups, including 4 resulting in successful IPOs. For the past 7 years he’s been teaching entrepreneurship to Stanford Engineering students. He’s been awarded a Stanford Undergraduate teaching award, and the San Jose mercury news has called him one of the 10 influencers in Silicon Valley.

Already know everything there is to know about building a successful startup (Ha!)? Well, how about a couple of other classes? Technology Entrepreneurship or Software Engineering for Software as a Service? Same deal: free, online, world-class instructors and information.

(A note re the sign up pages above – the html/css coding is kind of funky, at least on OS X Chrome and Safari. After you enter your name, hit tab, then do your email address, then tab to get to the sign up button.)

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Bob WalshGo back to school for your startup. Free!

Weekend Ponderable: The net value of your idea

Derek Sivers nailed it. So what’s the value of an idea? Well, it does have some value, but it’s really a multiplier for execution.

Say ideas are worth 1 to 20. 1 to 20 what? 1 to 20 as ideas in and by themselves. Not exactly enough to retire on, right?

Now do something with that idea. Make it real. Execute on it. Even if your execution is crappy, you will actually have something.

Here’s how he explained it in this AppSumo Action Video – (free, but go grab it now!):

So, if you already had the awesomely amazing idea (like I do – of course! – with ProductivityToDo.com) you’d better focus 99.9999% on execution. (He says to himself.)

An idea alone – that’s nice. Idea times execution: Now you have something.


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Bob WalshWeekend Ponderable: The net value of your idea