As we were working on finally launching Mentor Bureau after thinking about it for over a year, I was given the opportunity to serve as the Entrepreneur in Residence for the Collider Accelerator program being run by QUTCEA down under in Brisbane Australia. It was a tough decision, and meant that Mentor Bureau’s progress would be slowed a bit by the division of my attention. That said, given our mantra of #SmoothScaling, I realized this is a longer term play, so chose to go for them both. It’s plainly obvious that the experience down here would not only expand our capacity and our reach, but also be a great experience doing what I really love, helping people manifest their ideas into reality in service of creating a #BetterWorld.
All of the scenario planning and imagining gets real next Monday, 29 April, as it is the first day of this, the 3rd Collider Accelerator class. I’ve already grown so much and incorporated so many different perspectives form the team down here, from my other EIR’s (there are 4 of us) and especially from the truly insightful conversations with the other members of Mentor Bureau over the past several weeks. All of which is accruing to the benefit of the great creative industries startups with whom I get the pleasure of mentoring, coaching and advising over the next 12 or so weeks.
In prepping for the class, I put together a set of links of some of the key articles, speeches and thoughts I’ve shared that I am asking them to read/watch. But instead of just sharing it with them, I wanted to share it here with you as well. I will be sharing more of my thoughts from helping to run the accelerator with the team here as appropriate, so also felt it important to start from the beginning…
Requirement 1 – Know why are you in an accelerator program.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen with startups in Google’s Launchpad Accelerator and others with whom I’ve worked over the past several years is that the startups aren’t prepared to get what they really need from the program. Too many think of it as a distraction from the business of building the business, or as a magical means to grow the business with new corporate customer connections or single pitch and yes big investors.
What an accelerator program really provides is the wisdom, skills and systems that are needed to develop better products, better teams and better business models. The better ones will make connections for you of course, but perhaps more valuably will connect you with the thinking you need to solve future problems, not merely solutions to your current challenges. But to come prepared means being able to look objectively at what your real expectations are for the program, what your actual challenges are and what your personal challenges are as a startup founder that you need to overcome.
In short, you need to really know who you are, what you want, why you want it and what is preventing you from achieving it. You need to know which parts of this the accelerator can provide, and which they can’t.
You also need to know more about who is going to be there to help you, and what they can help you achieve. Which brings me to…
Requirement 2 – Come Prepared
Jeff Bezos famously used to require all meeting attendees to review the materials before any meeting so that everyone is familiar with the basics and can dive more deeply into the matters at hand. More recently he has adjusted this strategy so that there is a “Silent Start” where everyone reads the same 6-page narrative memo to literally get on the same page. There is also his no PowerPoint rule and the Two Pizza rule, which you can read more about in numerous articles later, as this is an example not my point.
Not being prepared is disrespectful to everyone in the room who is. Everyone has a lot to do these days, more so if you are an entrepreneur. Of course there are sometimes extenuating circumstances, but to really get the most out of an accelerator program you need to also give the most to the other participants and show you are serious about yourself and your business objectives by being fully prepared and full present instead of being the distraction to everyone else who did make the time to be prepared.
While we will be doing a bit of this preparation in the first week, creating a greater alignment, clarifying expectations and establishing the foundations for a great program together, knowing very specifically why you are in the program and what challenges you have to overcome is essential for your success, for the success of the other startups and for the mentors and experts who will be advising you to be able to best serve your interests.
I’ve got one other reason for emphasizing this so deeply here – the lessons of the Khan Academy especially in regards to the “flipped classroom model.” In short the idea is to watch videos and read articles on your own, and do the ‘work’ in class together. IE, why have everyone sit in the same room watching or listening to the same content that they could do on their own, instead let’s use our time together for interactive dialog, for workshopping through the implementation of the concepts/ideas/frameworks. Wherever possible, I will strive to do more of this with our class, though it is not something I expect to hold to dogmatically given the challenges with free time and speakers etc.
Wherever possible though, I am encouraging my startups to do their homework before the guest mentors/speakers/experts – to watch their videos, to know more about their areas of speciality, to think about how this person might help solve for a challenge, teach them how to think differently, build a better system for managing some process, develop a stronger culture or connect them with others who can truly accelerate their business.
In that spirit, as mentioned earlier, I have prepared a small collection of links on some of the things I have written which will enable me to spend more time helping you figure out how to use these tools I’ve developed to accelerate your business, instead of having to repeat myself dozens of times explaining them. There are a few more I will share later, but it would be helpful if you could have a quick glance at all of this and especially read/view these three items in particular:
- My Linkedin Profile, where you will find a few of the links, but also where you will see what I have done previously, who I know and what sort of skills I bring to the table.
- My post introducing Ecosystem Thinking. Over the past two years I have leaned on this heavily in working with startups around the world with significant impact. More so when combined with my work around Customer Experience design, journey mapping and persona development.
- This video of a talk I gave in Budapest Hungary a few years ago on “Failing Outside & Inside Silicon Valley” in which I recap some highlights and lowlights from my more than two decades of entrepreneurial experience. There are a lot of lessons there, many of which especially apply to the startups in this Collider cohort. This video is 56 minutes long, but I promise you, you’ll want to watch it so I don’t have to keep repeating the lessons around these stories so we can dive into how it applies to your situation. (PS, I’ve never shared this talk publicly before so even friends/colleagues have not seen it)
Requirement 3 – There Are No Dumb Questions
The reason I emphasize being prepared and being clear about your personal and professional purpose is to ensure you get the most out of our very limited time together. If you end up having to process and grok the deeper meaning of what we are discussing, you will end up with less time to discuss how these insights can be valuable to you and your current endeavours.
While this plea for you to come prepared to ask smarter questions is somewhat counter to this third requirement, the only thing worse then not being prepared to ask smart questions, is to not understand what is being discussed and not ask whatever question you have. The only dumb questions are the ones that don’t get asked. More so, for me personally, I don’t know what I know any more – my brain is crowded, but my CPU is overclocked to make random connections and develop original solutions on demand. But it is powered by the quality of your questions and your ability to express it clearly.
So I encourage you to invest in crafting great questions for me and for all the other EIR’s and mentors in the program. Your ability to do this will dramatically affect the outcome of your investment in the program.
Requirement 4 – Be Here Now
As a dreamer, visionary, whatever you want to call me, I am often lost in thought – a true double edged sword. In exploring some of my many personal/professional challenges, I recognized fairly young that I knew many things that I didn’t act upon. Ie, I knew what the right things to do were, but I didn’t do it consistently. I came to think of it this as my “knowing-doing gap”. Despite being right in front of me for decades, it wasn’t until around 2005 when I realized that the solution to this gap, was being present. The sort of presence that comes from meditation, or rather the practice and intent of meditation. Something I still need to practice… better. But which is the point, it’s a practice not a perfection.
So in working with my shrink a couple of years ago I decided to make a mini poster with this phrase on it to be a constant reminder of the importance of this insight. I put it right next to my monitor at my home office in Austin to reinforce it.
For this class, and for whoever is in an accelerator, I encourage you to be there – to be here, in this moment, where you are, right now. Same goes for reading this and for everything else you do. From decades of failing but reflecting, I assure you this is the solution to so many things, a salve for our emotional wounds, a key to transcending conflicts, to building stronger relationships, to finding the right words in a difficult moment and so much more.
Wherever you are, be all there.
For startups in an accelerator this more directly means that if you made the decision to participate in a program, don’t waste your time thinking about all the other things you need to be doing, or about some other alternate version of the present where you decided to not be in the program. You made the decision, you need to make the most out of it. You made the choice to work on the business and not just in the business – make the most of the opportunity to get the full value of someone’s objective views and subjective recommendations about your startup.
Unless the program in question is not providing the value it promised. Instead, start with Requirement 3 and ask a better question to try to get what you need. If that doesn’t work, use the law of two feet to take yourself to somewhere else where you can advance what you need. But seriously don’t trade it simple to work in the business, when you’ve already made the decision to work on the business in the accelerator program. Remember, there are other people in the accelerator class who may be getting what they need, so don’t unnecessarily spoil it with negativity – if you have to look after yourself, best to do so quietly and discuss the challenges with the program managers instead of pulling down the whole cohort. Unless the whole cohort is clearly suffering, in which case work with the program leaders to make the program work better.
Tough for me to write to multiple audiences, especially as someone who has seen good and bad programs, and worked to improve bad programs that weren’t delivering on their promises – while also being in the position to be responsible for some of those promises now myself for the first time, but the advice is still the same.
If it’s not good for you, try to shift it to get what you need. If it can’t be good for you, do what is necessary for you. If it can’t be good for the whole class, work together to make it into what you need, or the best version of what they can offer for you.
Requirement 5 – Strive to Grow Personally
A great accelerator program will push your limits and expand your boundaries. You will learn from the experience of others. In conjunction with knowing your why as mentioned in requirement 1, this means knowing your true strengths and weaknesses for what they are, not for what you want to project them as being. Be real with yourself and others. Demonstrate integrity in word and deed. Figure out where you are deficient and proficient.
I broadly subscribe to the Marcus Buckingham theory from “Now Discover Your Strengths”, which is why I was grateful to work with RallyBright last year on team dynamics and development – I grew a bunch and helped others to grow too. However, there are still some things that we as startup founders may have as a weakness that we must get better at, even if it is not one of our strong points. As Michael Jay Moon pointed out to me in one of our Mentor Bureau discussions, “There are multiple ways to make a gas car engine, but all of them require gas and oil.”
These essentials for building a startup company as any member of a founding team, particularly one in an accelerator are fairly straightforward. While not a comprehensive list, the ones important here include aligning the organization with shared purpose/objectives; communicating clearly; being impeccable with your words; developing your people; creating tensions; building efficient operating systems/processes; and continuing to learn and grow yourself everyday.
In the past 90 minutes I’ve managed to do a lot more then I had planned to do in simply presenting some of the links that I want my Collider accelerator class to review before starting next week. It was a stream of consciousness around some of the expectations and concerns I have for helping startup to get the most out of an accelerator program. It is not complete, but it is a good start. Would love to hear your advice on other requirements and expectations for startups in accelerators so that they get the most out of the program. Please share them in the comments or with me directly as appropriate so we can continue to build this out in service to all the entrepreneurs and founders out there who are invested in finding their success through acceleration programs.
What it is –> is up to us. (thanks Howard!)