I just got back last night from a TechStars event in Seattle. The event was an opportunity for TechStars teams from all locations and years to get together and share the challenges they’re facing in every aspect of their businesses. Beyond that it was a great opportunity to meet some of the people from the Seattle entrepreneurial community and some of the fantastic mentors out there.
Listening to the other teams speak, the thing that really struck me was the different stages the companies were at based on the year they “graduated” from TechStars. Teams from the first year ranged from completely disbanded to successful exits (some of whom are onto their next big ideas). Teams from year two fascinated me most of all, as they represented the place where Vanilla can be a year from now. Some were struggling, others were seeing great success through bootstrapping alone, and others were considering new rounds of financing. Finally, the teams from this year (my “class”) were all in roughly the same boat – at or near closing their first round of financing, starting to hire staff, and really cranking hard at improving their products and services.
What struck me about the spectrum were the levels of what I’m calling “green”. I believe that we’re never going to know everything, and everyone is always in an intense state of learning – especially in start-ups, where there is always more to do than you had anticipated. I found that the knowledge I gained from interacting with the teams from the first two years was just as valuable – if not more valuable in some cases – as the knowledge I gained from interacting with mentors at the event. I left the event extremely excited about all of the things (yet unknown) that will happen to Vanilla in the next 12 months.
I spoke about these levels of green to some of the other teams from 2009 TechStars, and we all brought up one of our favourite sessions from our time at TechStars – the “Previous Founders Day”. On “Previous Founders Day”, David Cohen invited all of the companies that had previously gone through TechStars to come back to Boulder, sit in a big group across from the new class of founders, and field their questions until they ran out of them. To me, this past summer, those companies seemed so much further along than me, and I felt that we – sitting across from them – were clueless. What I didn’t know at the time was that they were sitting at various shades of green as well.
I, personally, can’t wait for that day to come in 2010. I’ve already started to compile a list of things that those founders should know about the program going in. For example: what it actually means to take on an investment and what the expectations of the investors are. In 2009 when I was going through the program, I was unaware that we’d be placed in front of investors so early in the summer, and I’m sure that to many of them I came across as a complete fool. Another example: how to make the most of your time. I thought I knew what “busy” was when I first entered the program, and by the last month of the program I ached for the heady, lazy days of month 1. Another example: how to approach mentors. In the beginning I was nervous about approaching mentors. I was afraid of saying something stupid and scaring them away. I didn’t realize that they expected me to say stupid things and have silly misconceptions. They wanted to help me work through the things I didn’t know.
Prepare yourselves, future TechStars, for the green room. I can’t wait to see what you’ve been working on, and share my “advanced” shade of green with you.