Startups aren’t businesses. They’re speculations.


Photo via YouTube

Today, I indulged in one of my guilty pleasures, the TV show “Gold Rush: Alaska”. Despite my aversion to the devastation to the land their mining creates, I just can’t help falling a little bit in love with these scrappy amateur miners. They signed up for insanely hard physical labor in wild, dangerous Alaskan territory to take a chance at riches. They endure setbacks, injuries, and disappointments with sheer optimism that they can “get the gold.”

This is a show about modern-day speculators, gambling their time and physical well-being to make it rich.

Startup founders are speculators too, but I don’t think we talk about it enough, early enough, or provide founders with enough tools to be great gamblers.

Rookie mistakes, Photo via Engadget

Think about it for a second. Once a founder is out on the road pitching their business to investors, they often face the harsh reality that the investors are “grading” them based on a set of metrics, milestones, and indicators that help the investor determine if the startup is investable.

They’re doing mental calculations to see if the business is a good bet.

Meanwhile, most founders I’ve coached have already gone all in — investing all of their time, energy, creativity, and money into their dream.

The problem is that while most people in the startup world understand that startup-building is different from business-building, we haven’t totally defined what that difference is.

My favorite definition of a startup comes from Dave McClure:

A “startup” is a company that is confused about 1) what its product is, 2) who its customers are, and 3) how to make money.
As soon as it figures out all 3 things, it ceases to be a startup and then becomes a real business.

This definition firmly reminds us that startups aren’t even actually businesses. They are just a set of unknowns!

Most activities in startup communities revolve around some form of pitching — 1 Million Cups, networking events, pitch competitions, business plan competitions. These kinds of events pre-suppose that the founder already knows the answers to these questions. What would happen if a founder presented their business at one of these events and only exposed all of the things they didn’t know?

But they don’t do that, because there is a pervasive culture of having to appear to be killing it, growing fast, gaining traction, scaling.

Photo via Engagdet

None of these expectations embrace the fact that founders are speculators and need to prioritize learning and de-risking their startup fast and as soon as possible. As Ash Maurya says, they don’t need to scale. They need to learn.

So why don’t founders do this naturally?

Well, it’s just not human nature to come up with a business solution that seems like it could disrupt an industry or change the world and then sit back and try to think of all of the risks and untested assumptions that could kill the business. Just like those miners on “Gold Rush”, founders are hustlers and hard workers. They want to dive in and start building.

But what if we could set up systems and structures in our startup communities to help founders prioritize de-risking their opportunity before they go all in?

I think we can.

I developed the Founder Roadmap as a tool to help founders think through their riskiest assumptions and find focus as they test and validate these assumptions with their potential customers.

Serial entrepreneurs do this, often because they got burned on their first company or two. Investors think this way.

Smart miners drill to test the ground composition to de-risk their operation before starting to excavate the land. Photo via Northern Miner

We can help first-time founders develop this skillset and mentality as well.

Now in Season 8 of Gold Rush: Alaska, those amateur miners have gotten a lot “smarter”. They have better equipment, invest time and money into testing the mining site before setting up camp, and don’t make as many preventable mistakes. They’re not rookies anymore.

I don’t know if they could have been coached through their first season to avoid a lot of those costly and dangerous mistakes. It certainly would have made for less entertaining television.

But I do know that the founders I coach feel a huge sense of relief when I coach them through a systematic process to de-risk their startup and prioritize what they need to learn from their customers in order to build a healthy, viable, and investable business.

We’re not on TV. We don’t need high drama. We don’t need first-time founders to “learn the hard way” by going all in with their lives and their money.

We need to help them be savvy startup speculators. Let’s help give them the tools they need to do that.

In 2018, I am testing the applications of the Founder Roadmap with 100+ startups in accelerators and startup ecosystems all over the world, starting with Velocity Accelerator and Engler Agribusiness Program. If you’d like to chat about integrating the Founder Roadmap into your program, shoot me an email at beth@fluentstudio.co.

The Accelerator Model isn’t dead, but it needs to evolve


I should start by saying I’m pretty bullish on accelerators. So much so, I plan on doubling down and working with over 100 startups in accelerators in 2018.

Mentoring the inaugural cohort of ICELAB, Gunnison Colorado

But I hear a lot of criticism of the accelerator model, too. Everything from the model is an outright failure to the market is saturated.

There are two ways of approaching the accelerator concept:

  1. Option 1: We understand and accept the limits and limitations of the accelerator model. We’ve know there’s a lot of risk and luck involved, so we are going to optimize it to get the best out of a flawed concept.
  2. Option 2: We’re just at the beginning of understanding how we can rapidly train and prepare creative thought workers to deploy innovative methodologies to change the world. We’re going to continue evolving the model as we learn what works and what doesn’t.

It’s the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. And anyone who knows me knows I’m betting on the second option.

The world is moving and changing incredibly fast. At this point, I’m more likely to agree with Tim O’Connell from HFarm that someday we’ll have as many accelerators in the world as there are currently colleges and universities. As we evolve the accelerator model, I believe this is how we’ll train people to create value in an uncertain and ever-changing world.

In order to reach that point, we need to think critically about what currently works and doesn’t about the accelerator model. And then we need to ambitiously embrace experimentation and continuous improvement.


Here’s what’s working

Time-boxed experience

Putting an end date on the program is a forcing function for productivity, learning, intensity, and focus. The merits of Demo Day are up for debate, depending on the purpose, but there really is nothing like knowing you have to go on stage at the end of the program and show progress to motivate and energize. Founders rarely have external deadlines. I find this one is healthy.

Similar stage cohorts

There is magic in being amongst peers, learning the same skills and concepts and being able to help and collaborate together across industry verticals and business models. Building startups is a lonely endeavor. In many communities where accelerators have popped up, the community of founders is small and most founders are heads-down working on their company. The accelerator experience is a place where founders connect with each other, learn to lean on each other for ideas and moral support, and build a tribe.

Coaching

In the sea of Things To Do, most founders struggle with focus. They work on things that are easy and pleasurable, rather than the most impactful (and often challenging) parts of their businesses. Coaching helps them focus, weigh options, and make progress on the important metrics.

Startup Education

Literally everything a person needs to learn to create a startup is online. If only that were sufficient. Even the best independent learners benefit from focused learning and group discussion around business fundamentals (customer discovery, business modeling, Lean experiments, finances, fundraising) and soft skills (leadership, negotiation, mission & values, agile, communication). This works best when the trainings or workshops are aligned with the stage of their business.

Professional community

Often, I feel like those of us running accelerators are still operating in the Wild West of Startupland. We’re reinventing the wheel, trying things in communities that have never been tried before, and taking a “well, I’ve been a successful founder, so I’ll be able to launch a great accelerator” approach. I’m a huge proponent for the Global Accelerator Network as a professional community for accelerator leadership to share best practices, learnings, and (like the founders we help) build our tribe.


Here’s what we need to continue to evolve

Success Metrics

I’ve written about this before. Our industry (because this is an industry at this point) needs clearer metrics for how we talk about startup progress in our programs. What does two years of progress actually mean? If a company doesn’t choose to fundraise, does that mean the accelerator didn’t help them?

Definition of Success

The accelerator model was developed to boost venture-backable, scalable technology companies in Silicon Valley. But here in the Midwest, and in many places around the world, a startup that reaches $5-$10 million in annual sales (with less risk and funding needs) is a game-changer for those founders and the local economy. These companies need the support accelerators can provide too, but are often edged out because they look too small when compared to potential unicorns.

Mentoring

Accelerators outside of Silicon Valley and big cities like NYC generally do not have deep mentor pools consisting of startup veterans. Our startup ecosystems aren’t mature enough to have founders who have exited or experienced exponential growth in their companies. Most accelerators rely on experienced local professionals, often with impressive business credentials and contacts within their industry. They are incredibly helpful for providing a different perspective and for introductions to other professionals, but often can’t help founders tactically build a startup. We need to continue to iterate on how we train founders when the mentorship model isn’t sufficient.

Stage Focus

I’ve heard accelerators (even big ones) say they’ll consider and accept companies from idea to fully launched. I think this is a big mistake. The psychology of the founders and the needs of the company are very different at each stage. How we help founders at each stage of development is very different. I’d like to see accelerators take a position on the stage of company they work with — this is as valuable, if not more so, than industry vertical.


I am encouraged by the experiments I’m seeing with accelerators all over the country:

  • Telluride Venture Accelerator is testing the Indie.VC funding mechanism and using a combination of in-person and virtual accelerator
  • Valley Venture Mentors offers a weekend-only accelerator, works with 30 startups at a time, and utilizes the peer-selected funding process developed by Village Capital. They have one of the best diversity and inclusion track records I’ve ever seen.
  • Iowa Startup Accelerator & NewBoCo has been experimenting with the duration of the program, accepting startups for multiple batches within a year and having one Demo Day for all teams. They’ve also double-downed on their region’s core competencies and are taking a leadership role in developing local talent.
  • Icelab is applying the accelerator model for ventures of all kinds, focusing completely on serving their small rural community
  • Upramp is narrowly focusing their impact by company stage and industry vertical, accepting only startups that are at the stage where a meaningful partnership or customer relationship with with one of their industry partners would help them grow
  • At NMotion this past year, my team and I experimented with focusing the stage of company we accepted and with new models for coaching and mentoring the teams
  • At Velocity this year, my team and I are testing and refining an accelerator curriculum that can be responsive, agile, and effective at training founders

As I travel and work with accelerators all over the country this year, I’m looking forward to learning more about geographic differences and how they might (or might not) influence how startups receive support. Are the problems and solutions universal? Are there idiosyncrasies to startup communities that accelerators must adjust for? Is an accelerator in a small town vastly different than in a larger metropolitan area? What do these characteristics mean for how we design local accelerators and for how founders evaluate which ones to apply to?

I don’t have the answers (yet!), but I’m excited and thankful to get to work alongside passionate, committed, insanely smart startup community leaders to evolve the model together.

In 2018, I am testing the applications of the Founder Roadmap with 100+ startups in accelerators and startup ecosystems all over the world, starting with Velocity Accelerator and Engler Agribusiness Program. If you’d like to chat about integrating the Founder Roadmap into your program, shoot me an email at beth@fluentstudio.co.

Introducing Fluent & my 2018 BHAG


For the past two years, I’ve had the honor and challenge of leading NMotion, a startup accelerator in Lincoln Nebraska.

Joining an established accelerator program, I set my sights on evolving and maturing the impact of NMotion from strictly a ninety day accelerator into a year-round resource for founders at all stages, from Idea to Series A.

  • My team and I expanded programs like Prelaunch and NMotion Labs to improve the way we helped very early stage founders validate and test their startup ideas.
  • We developed and launched NMotion Fellows, which allowed us, for the first time, to support NMotion alumni and area growth-stage founders through monthly workshops and roundtable events.
  • We experimented with other community-building programs like Spotlight LNK and Hack Your Weekend to increase our reach with creative people considering entrepreneurship in the future.
  • We refined the vision and scope of the core NMotion accelerator program, focusing on supporting startups at a specific stage of development.

I personally learned a lot during this process — about leading a team, aligning stakeholders around a common vision, developing programs that work, and about who I want to be as an entrepreneur moving forward.

Because through all of this, I’ve been a founder first.

And in 2018, I’m returning to the role I’m most suited for — entrepreneur, disrupter, and experimenter extraordinaire.

My personal motto is “Dare Greatly.” One of the things I love most about working in the startup space is the expectation to always level up and to find the next harder challenge after gaining some mastery at the current level.

Having been a founder in an accelerator first, building a startup over the past six years, and then transitioning to managing an accelerator for the past two years, I have a unique point of view on the design and implementation of accelerators. And because I spent twelve years as a private educator and learning coach prior to founding my first startup, I am also most energized on working on the ways we craft the educational/learning components of startup programs.

I’m ready for the next challenge — how I can experiment and positively impact accelerators at a bigger scale.

My new business, Fluent, focuses on serving the accelerator community at large through on-demand accelerator management, curriculum development, and accelerator design consulting. Instead of managing one accelerator, I will be consulting with dozens. Instead of working with one batch of startups, I’ll coach at least 100 companies in 2018.

My first stop is Birmingham Alabama to serve as Managing Entrepreneur-in-Residence with the Velocity Accelerator from January-April 2018. At the same time, I’ll be consulting with and supporting entrepreneurial programs across the country.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to be a member of the startup communities in Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa. Now, I’m looking forward to building and strengthening connections between cities all over the country (and, fingers crossed, abroad). Stay tuned for a lot more content here and on my website as I share my experiments and observations working with 100+ companies next year.

In 2018, I am testing the applications of the Founder Roadmap with 100+ startups in accelerators and startup ecosystems all over the world, starting with Velocity Accelerator and Engler Agribusiness Program. If you’d like to chat about integrating the Founder Roadmap into your program, shoot me an email at beth@fluentstudio.co.