Jan 30, 2013
Table of contents:
“Do More Faster: Lessons to accelerate your startup” is a book of advice and learnings that have derived from the technology accelerator program, TechStars. Do More Faster is written by TechStars founders David Cohen and Brad Feld and includes contributions from many of the mentors and past participants of the program.
TechStars in a mentorship accelerator program that started in Boulder, Colorado, but now has classes in Boston, New York and Seattle. Successful applicants take part in an intensive 3 month accelerator program where they get access to mentors in order to create successful companies. At the end of the program, the startups have the opportunity to pitch their company to Angel Investors and Venture Capitalists.
Do More Faster is based upon 7 themes of what it takes to start a successful company. Each theme contains lessons that mentors and previous TechStars participants have learned through their entrepreneurship endeavours.
The 7 themes of Do More Faster are:
Part of the application process of TechStars is submitting an idea that the team will work on. This can either be a currently operational company, or merely just a vision for what is hoped to be achieved. In either case, TechStars accepts applicants based on the merits of the team, and not the idea.
It is this freedom to change ideas that allows TechStars participants to pivot into a completely different opportunity should the current assumptions reveal themselves to be wrong. This freedom enables a more iterative approach to finding a really big business opportunity.
A second common theme around ideas in TechStars is that ideas are worthless and execution can’t be copied. New entrepreneurs are often scared to share their idea in fear that someone copies them. The mentors of TechStars encourage participants to share their ideas with everyone in order to gain feedback and test their assumptions. Execution is really the most important aspect of creating a successful company. Even if someone else is working on the same idea, the execution of that idea will usually be quite different.
TechStars encourages applicants to get their ideas and products out into the open as quickly as possible, talk to customers and focus on the one thing that they can really do well to solve an important problem. All of these things can seem inherently difficult to first time entrepreneurs. By exposing an idea to the world, you gain feedback on it’s value and you are able to progress the opportunity quicker.
The second theme of Do More Faster is People and how it is the people that are involved in a company that really make the difference. TechStars is a mentorship driven programme and so it values the input of people within the community, mentors and fellow company founders.
The majority of TechStars companies are founded by at least two co-founders. Whilst it is possible to found a company as a single founder, it will require you to take on more work and stress if you choose to go it alone. A co-founder can not only do half the work, but she should also be a sounding board for ideas, advice and a comrade when the going gets tough.
The early employees of a company are really important for creating a good company culture. The culture of a company will usually originate from the actions and attitudes of the founders and early employees, so it is extremely important to choose the right sort of people who you want to work with. Skills and experience can always be taught over time, but a bad attitude will be like a cancer in your company. Many of the TechStars mentors advise to hire for culture and to hire slow and fire fast. If someone is not working out as an co-founder or an early employee you need to do something about it as soon as possible.
As mentioned in the Ideas and Vision theme, TechStars value a team’s ability to execute their plan. An idea is worthless without execution, and so the TechStars mentors push the participants to continuously and relentlessly execute their vision.
As the title of this book suggests, one of the mantras of TechStars is “Do more faster”. This does not mean reckless execution, but rather, creating a feedback loop to test and prove assumptions as quickly as possible. If a team can prove that an idea will not work, they can more quickly move onto an idea that will work. As a TechStars participant, you are encouraged to make decisions quickly, even when you don’t have all the information. A quick decision is usually better than a delayed decision, especially when the company is young.
Startups have a lot of disadvantages against established incumbents. Startups have no money, no customers, no partners and no leverage. However, Startups have nothing to lose and so they can take risks or focus on one precise opportunity without having to maintain legacy customers. If a Startup can’t take risks and move quickly with little information, they lose the one advantage they have over their established competitors.
During the 3 months of a TechStars program, each team will be getting a lot of different advice from some very experienced and respected mentors. TechStars teaches it’s teams to treat everything as data, and they should use their own synthesis of the various bits of data in order to make a value judgement on the future of their companies. This could mean completely neglecting the advice of a mentor, and instead, doubling down on an insight from a customer or a gut feeling.
Many of the lessons of TechStars can also be found in Steve Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany and The Startup Owner’s Manual, or Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup.
The product is obviously one of the most important aspects of a company because it is the product that becomes synonymous for Customers. Many Entrepreneurs will try to build a product from their vision or an assumption, when really, a product needs to be created for a market opportunity.
As mentioned above, TechStars teaches it’s participants to move quickly. TechStars companies are encouraged to get their product into the market as quickly as possible. Many founders will be scared to put out a product that is not finished, not polished or lacking in features. However, it is this scope creep that will handcuff the company from ever releasing the product. The quicker you get a feedback loop with your customer, the quicker you can achieve product-market fit. As the old saying goes, “If you are not ashamed of your first release of your product, you launched too late”.
Part of launching a product is dealing with either established or new competitors. Every good idea will have competitors in some form, even if they are not directly competing against you. It’s important to find your differentiation and to market yourself as a clear solution to a concrete problem. Going after the entire market is too big for any company, you must find a single customer cohort, and a single opportunity to attack first.
When you are excited about your product and you are starting to gain traction, it can be difficult to stay focused on the current goals of the company. Usually as a startup, you will have an assumption of a market opportunity that you should try to either prove right or wrong as quickly as possible. Along the way you will have business development deals, partnerships, and new possible market opportunities at every turn. It’s important to stay focused on completing the current goal of the company before starting to chase every opportunity. Working with large companies can be great for distribution, but the opportunity cost of neglecting your other goals can be worth even more.
Creating companies on the Internet has a huge advantage over traditional companies in that you have a wealth of data about every possible metric. You can accurately track your marketing and how every penny you spend converts into revenue. You can track how your product is being used, how it is growing, are your customers coming back, or are they getting stuck or confused on a certain aspect. None of this data is available to traditional companies. The wealth of data that is available can be overwhelming. It’s important to only track the things that are important to your product and your opportunity. Tracking the wrong metrics can be worse than doing no tracking at all.
Whilst fundraising is an important aspect in the lives of many of the startups that go through TechStars, each of the participants are encouraged to take a step back and question whether they actually need to raise money at all. Some of the most successful TechStars alumni are actually bootstrapped companies that took no investment at all once the program had concluded.
Raising money might seem like the natural next step, but it is actually not such an easy decision. When you take money from an investor, you are giving away part of your company and you lose at least some control. Investors are looking for a return on their investment and so they plan for a liquidity event at some point in your company’s future.
Bootstrapping a company can mean slower growth, but you retain full control over your company and you are not forced into a liquidity event.
Recently there have been many startups that raise money when they really don’t need to. Some companies are capital intensive, or it will naturally take a long time to get to cash-flow positive. These types of companies need to raise investment or they could never get off the ground. However, it’s highly unlikely that your Software as a Service startup needs to raise money to get started.
If you are looking to raise investment, taking part in a program like TechStars will make the process considerably easier. You will be introduced to the right type of investors through mentorship and you will be immersed in a community of people who you can ask questions and get the right type of advice. Fundraising is a full time job, and so anything you can do to smooth the process will be beneficial to your startup.
When you are starting a company, it’s important to remember the legal and structural implications of doing so. During the life of the company, you will be entering contracts, taking on debt, handing out credit and dealing with partners, customers and competitors. It is your responsibility to ensure that the legalities of your company are correct before taking further steps.
You should ensure that your company is recognised as the correct legal entity. Choosing the wrong structure could lead to personal liabilities should your company default or you become involved in a legal battle.
Your relationship with your co-founders should also be drafted in a legal document. Equity agreements, vesting schedule and Intellectual Property rights are important things to get right from the start.
Nobody starts a company with the expectation that something could go wrong, but it is your responsibility to take the correct precautions just in case. When you start a company with a co-founder, you expect to be both committed to the vision of the company. But outside events, or a change in personal circumstances can dramatically change things very quickly.
Despite a lack of money in the early stages of a company, you should invest in a startup lawyer who has a lot of experience of dealing with companies in your situation. General purpose lawyers won’t have the same expertise or guidance that a specific lawyer will have, and so it will mean you will have less problems further down the road when the legal agreements are actually needed.
Starting a company from scratch can seem like a tremendous amount of work in the beginning as the future success of the company is entirely in your hands. Striking the right work-life balance is important because it is likely going to take years to really build a successful companies and so no-one can sustain an all work-lifestyle for that period of time.
It probably goes without saying that you should only start a company in an area that you are passionate about. When you naturally combine your interests with building a company it means you can dedicate more time to not only working on your company, but also acquiring knowledge of your domain.
But even still, it’s important to be able to escape the pressure and work-load that you are putting yourself under so you can continue making the right decisions for the future of your company.
Do More Faster is a fantastic book for anyone who is interested in building a startup. The book is comprised on many very short essays on lessons to learn. This make it very easy to read and to take actionable advice in very small chunks.
TechStars has become a world-renowned model for mentorship-driven entrepreneurship. If you are interested in applying for TechStars, or simply want to take the lessons and advice and apply them to your startup, Do More Faster is definitely worth your investment.
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