CO.STARTERS: Class 11 – The Finale

As I write this I am prepping for “Week 9,” the last day of the educational portion of Class 11. The startups have put in a half-day-plus each week to get themselves here. CO.STARTERS’curriculum touts Week 9 as a “Celebration Night,” but StarterStudio is hybridizing things a bit and making it a full-fledged Demo Day (okay, Demo Night) and serving this up as a 10-week journey.

 Next Monday, November 4, 2019,will be the first time there’s been a Demo event that includes both the ideation-stage accelerator companies (Class 11) and the seed-stage companies, the latter being more established companies with actual clients and looking to make themselves more investable.

 The “seeds” are all about scaling to get to that inflection point of a hockey-stick growth stage. Personally, I think the contrast of ideation vs. seed will be a rich opportunity to watch unfold on the stage at The Abbey. Don’t expect Class 11 to necessarily be at a point of investment-ready, but there could be some surprises.

The Pilgrim’s Progress

To get here Class 11 has taken their initial ideas and put them in a pressure cooker, to see if the idea holds together–or blows up. Each week founders have taken their ideas a step further. Identifying the problem, doing dozens of interviews with prospects (one team may break 100 customer discovery interviews), and learning about what their potential customers are doing now to solve their problem.

Honing the solution, even if only in concept, the benefit(s) of their solution, and finding their advantages against potential competitors is no simple task. Using sharp knives to cut back on features and the treacherous area of software development, “scope creep,” is hard and painful work. Many of these teams are developing scope-of-work plans and talking to developers. This stuff is real $$$s for them.

We try to teach the concept of Minimum Viable Product; get your act together enough to be able to talk or show what your solution does out of the box. Kudos to these teams for not building castles in the sky and staying focused on delivering on their core concepts.

By Week 8, Class 11 companies have gone through the exercise of finding their advantages, that Unique Selling Proposition business people have talked about for decades. What makes the founder and her team THE ones to solve this problem is a cocktail of experience, marketing, some soul searching, and more.

Solving for x

This is profound to me. Every single team in Class 11 is addressing a problem they have encountered in their lives. Whether it is generating high-quality sales leads, figuring out where to get a pick-up basketball game, or how to make YouTube a better educator for small children, these teams know the problems–and have solutions.

Class 11 founders have also worked on their message, their “elevator pitch,” and how they will distribute their product. The elevator pitch is seminal. This short summary eventually will influence almost every meeting, networking event, and pitch the founders undertake. And may change dozens of times. Hello, pivot!

When you are at Demo Day (ahem,tickets here) you will see and hear this in a handful of slides. Compared to a thirty-second elevator pitch, their short presentations will seem like War and Peace to them. Okay, I jest, but both the elevator pitch and the presentations are plain hard work.

You’ll see the outcome of all their work at Demo Day (no more links, just get your tickets, please).

Might be worth considering what some founders in Class 11 have to say about this whole adventure. Ashley Hart, founder of She Plays (a platform for women’s professional sports leagues) testified: “I have loved being a part of Class 11 Ideation Accelerator – I’ve learned so much about building a firm foundation for my company, and I’ve been surrounded by incredible mentors and classmates.”

She hits the proverbial nail on the head. Reader, you may not realize that StarterStudio has a network of more than 250 mentors who volunteer their time to help these startups. When they are not in class, attending a workshop on intellectual property or some other topic, Class 11 founders are in the trenches working with one of the fantastic mentors. I could do a whole blog post on the caliber of these mentors.

Of course, all the preceding weeks culminate in hands-on work in developing product costs, gross margin, and break-even analysis. Teams work through this and develop sales forecasts, as well as cash flow analysis. CO.STARTERS does a fantastic job in walking the teams through all this and supplies a multitude of resources to help, but some of this is not for the faint of heart!

Hey batta batta batta swing!

The final days of work for Class 11 is creating a pitch deck. To carry on with this metaphor, each team is, in fact, swinging for the fences. They have only a handful of slides and short minutes to convey to the audience (this means you!) the problem, who the customer is, their solution, and a business model that makes money and leads to a sustainable venture.

Decks are coming together, the teams practice in front of each other, and then here and there a deck might be trashed, and they start over. If “failing fast” is axiomatic for startups,preparing a pitch deck may be the first practical lesson.

This is also the time when the CO. in CO.STARTERS comes to the fore. Community. Collaboration. Both of these are a huge part of the success of these programs. Natasha Kanji, Co-Founder of Kidflix (an interactive learning app for young YouTube watchers) says it best about her experience so far, “What I really love about StarterStudio and the accelerator, apart from the leadership guidance, is the camaraderie and true sense of community amongst everyone in the program. There is a genuine feeling of contribution that fills the space; it’s a very positive vibe to be around. “Hey, contribution,” another example of CO. Sorry, camaraderie doesn’t start with “co.”

This is probably my last post on Class 11. Don’t take my word for how a tech business accelerator can help these startups. Come see it live on Demo Day, November 4. I promised no more links to tickets, but look up above and they are there for you.

Two short non-commercial messages

I just want to give a shout-outto Bob Reed of Reed Scott who has also been part of the teaching/facilitating team for Class 11. Bob is a much sought-after mentor at StarterStudio and has a mind-boggling amount of experience in branding, marketing, strategy and more.And an Ivy League MBA (Columbia) and master’s in electronic engineering and physics. Oh, and he launched the American Express Platinum card along the way!

 My co-captain through these nine weeks is Casey Field, Director of Programming at StarterStudio. For a couple of years now, Casey has treated the accelerator classes as her “kids” and legacy. Not only did she facilitate these weeks deftly, she is also coach, mentor, advice giver, pitch deck master, and much more for Class 11 and members of StarterStudio’s coworking space. Don’t be deceived by her spontaneous dance moves. This woman has serious credentials. She’s coached hundreds (!) of startups, been a mentor to young for-profit and social impact ventures around the state and has packed in a ton of learning opportunities for Class 11 beyond the classroom. Thank you, Casey!

One final thought: What a pleasure it has been to work with Class 11 founders. Here’s to you. Break a leg!