Mentorship Isn’t Just For Accelerators

Here’s a thou’ (Jay-Z)
A G? I ride with you for free
I want the long-term riches (Memphis Bleek)

Jay-Z & Memphis Bleek (Coming of Age)

If you follow no other advice about startups, follow the advice about finding mentors. It is the single most important thing you can do for your company’s success, your own personal growth and most importantly for your mental health. The minute you start a company your signing up for a ride on Space Mountain, a roller coaster that is in complete darkness. As tough as you are, as smart as you are, dealing with this level of stress and uncertainty is not natural and you need support. The kind of support you’ll want comes from those that have been through the startup grinder before and have come out on the other end intact.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have some truly amazing individuals helping us through the ups and downs. They give selflessly simply to give back to the community that has given to them. I wanted to briefly thank a few of them now:

Tom Higley – You have been through seemingly every situation a startup can go through. Your thoughtfulness, strategic thinking and kindness never ceases to amaze me. Thank you.

David Mandell – We literally would not have been able to create a brand without you. Your creativity, eloquence and understanding of what drives decision making is truly special. Thank you. P.S. I’m so incredibly excited for Pivot Desk!

Holly Hamann – You helped us understand “what women want” and taught us what influencer marketing is all about. Thank you.

Jake Nickel – At the very beginning you told us “it’s all about the community”. The company’s entire model is based on that. Just like your website says, you are one of the “coolest guys on earth”. Thank you.

Mentorship Isn’t Just For Accelerators

5 lessons before launching your startup

“Nine to five is how to survive – I ain’t trying to survive… I’m trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot”

-Jay-Z

Last week I had a discussion with someone considering leaving their job to launch a startup.  They wanted some honest feedback on their business model. It occurred to me that objectively evaluating a startup idea is a skill that can only be learned through experience and that I finally felt marginally comfortable giving advice on the topic. After 8 months of making mistakes, listening to great mentors and thinking through many ideas it felt great to give back. For those of you I haven’t spoken with, I wanted to jot down some of the key lessons I’ve picked up along the way.

1 – Understand your goals – You need to be honest with yourself about whether you want a massive business or a lifestyle supporting income source.  All your thoughts about the startup must flow through the answer to this question.

2 – Passion – If you are creating the next big thing, realize you’ll need to have the passion to devote 70+ hours a week for 3-5 years to make it a success. Is this an industry and product you will stay excited about? Note that I’m not saying the product has to be sexy, plenty of people make huge profits on products others didn’t even consider working on.

3 – Test instead of talk – Try to test your idea without spending money and time on development. If your core-product is a consumer website, there are ways to test your prototype extremely cheaply. Once its built, give it to customers and ask them if they are willing to pay for it. Try to avoid the echo chamber of your friends and family. Their support will carry you through the tough times, but they are terrible judges of what constitutes a great business idea.

4 – Financial resources – You need to eat, you need a roof and you need to provide for your family. If you can’t do this while devoting the time and effort for a startup, then its not for you. Getting funding is a long and arduous process and will likely require that you’ve already gotten traction with your product.

5 –  Product-Resource Fit (Viability) – What resources do you need to make your company successful? Do you have, or can you acquire, the skills, money and other resources needed to implement your idea? Be optimistic but honest. In order to make your dream a reality you will need to fully believe you can do it.

A lot of you are founders of companies, use that comment box to talk about your own lessons or expand on mine.

5 lessons before launching your startup

Why @ZackShapiro wants to be an entrepreneur

This is a guest post by Zack Shapiro, a student at the University of Colorado. He also runs an iPhone
development company called 59thirty and is currently working on a stealth
startup.

Want the short version? I want to be an entrepreneur because I can’t sit still. I work on projects and help others out all while day dreaming about my own goals, my ideas that I can’t seem to shake from the front of my mind.

I’ve had business ideas since I was 12 or 13. That’s as far back as I can remember throwing away small amounts of money on short-lived ideas. I created and developed blogs and then dumped them for a new one. I outsourced web design and small coding projects only to realize I didn’t know what to do next.

I didn’t know this was entrepreneurship. I just thought I was antsy.

In high school I ran my most successful website, a comedy blog. This lead to a podcast that culminated with former Tech TV personality Martin Sargent appearing on our second-to-last episode and his sidekick, Joey the Intern appearing on our final one. That was my first “exit.” I couldn’t top myself there, so I went out on a high note.

Fast forward to my freshman year of college: the iPhone is taking over the planet. I take a computer science class and develop what would become my first app. With the encouragement of my newly found mentor Dave Taylor I finish it and release it as an experiment. 8 months later 1200 copies have been sold.

I’m in.

A friend once told me that he knew most of what he learned in college prior to going, he just didn’t know the associated terms. I guess I’ve always known this was what I wanted to do. I just didn’t have a name for it.

So now I’m two years through undergrad, sure of what I want to do, and tapping my foot impatiently to do it full-time. Classes like astronomy are a waste of my time, so I’m auditing an MBA class on venture capital. I’m hungry for knowledge and dying to apply it.

Once I walk across that stage I’ll put in an order for business cards that screams with a full ethos, “I’m an entrepreneur.”

Why @ZackShapiro wants to be an entrepreneur

The importance of a blog for entrepreneurs

Writing is an important tool for entrepreneurs because it helps them clarify their thoughts, reach new people, and build their brand. We’ve had this blog for 4 months now. The blog has been a great decision not only for our business but for me personally. I’ve learned to love an important medium that I largely discounted and neglected for a long time. In my previous job, pitch pages and verbal explanation were the sole communication medium. Obviously, both of those mediums did not necessitate the power of good writing.

In verbal communication, people aren’t focusing fully on what you are saying. A lot of times people miss something you say, are just waiting to make another point, or have already turned off because they don’t like what you are saying. Writing helps minimize these issues by presenting a unified, structured and concise explanation of your thoughts. If you still manage to confuse them, they can stop and reread until they do. In addition, the mere writing down of your thoughts forces you to be structured and prioritize the key arguments. It’s not a coincidence that I’m able to talk more clearly and influentially about subjects that I’ve written about.

An ex-girlfriend had a tendency to write emails to me when she was upset. At the time, I thought it was because she was nervous about discussing it in person and I attributed her writing “habits” to her insecurities. In both personal and business situations, I’m now the one writing emails when I am dealing with difficult situations. It has helped resolve issues in a better way than trying to tiptoe around the issue in a verbal discussion.

I normally write about the subjects that I dealt with heavily during the previous week in order to clarify my thinking on them. In the past this has included my thinking about entrepreneurship, big decisions Chad and I have made, and how-to guides for overcoming technical challenges for technology startups. I could have just written all this to myself if it were just about clarifying my thoughts. Instead we’ve made it all public. The benefit is that it builds a following, helps us solicit feedback, and helps potential partners and supporters understand our thinking process. Some entrepreneurs have built huge followings that have helped increase the success of their core businesses. A few examples include: 37 signals, Brad Feld, Fred Wilson amongst many others. This week ~110 people will read our blog post and for 12 of them, it will be the first of our posts that they read. By being open, honest, and doling out our honest statistics, we’ve convinced readers to support our business and follow our progress.

Interestingly I often find myself asking people if they have a blog and read whatever they have written. The blogs my friends are about a lot of things, from volunteering in Africa to business learning from mentors:

Sebastien Desmarais – Downshift
Ahn Ei – Flatiron Flavor
Steve Lowtwait – The CampSteve Blogazine
Monika Runstrom – BLOG
Al Doan – Hard Knock MBA

Clearly some of my friends are not technology startup founders, but they all feel the act of regularly writing has improved their writing, thinking and decision making skills. Writing—and blogging—isn’t just reserved for founders but it is a powerful vehicle of expression and brand building that no entrepreneur should neglect.

The importance of a blog for entrepreneurs

How Boulder increases our company’s chance of success

We moved to Boulder four months ago and it was a fantastic decision. The town’s values, and abundance of willing mentors make it a perfect place for new entrepreneurs trying to learn the ropes. It’s a place that values risk takers and those that take big swings to try and make a difference in the world. There are just under 100k residents here and yet it contains an outsized number of accomplished people and budding superstars who are willing to help the newcomers.

Risk taking and lifestyle design aren’t desirable career traits everywhere but in Boulder they are admired. This attitude has drawn hundreds of startups to town and the passion and energy from those endeavors is infectious. When we’re working at coffeeshops we’re surrounded by our fellow bootstrappers and it gives us energy to try even harder. Of course there are failed endeavors, but people view those founders as wiser and experienced from the ordeal rather than as personal failures. Its a positive environment where we are not afraid to take big swings.

The mentorship driven growth strategy made famous by TechStars is at the heart of what makes Boulder a great place for startups. The town has an absolute plethora of accomplished entrepreneurs, financiers and academics that are passionate about business and willing to give honest feedback. Some of the most popular VCs attend networking events like the Boulder Open Coffee Club and even hold office hours so people can chat with them. Breaking into the startup ecosystem was one of our top priorities and thanks to the collaborative environment here, we’ve had access to the level of mentors we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

Boulder has given us confidence, mentors and fundamentally shaped our thinking about startups in a positive way. Its budding reputation as an important startup hub is evidence that outsiders are starting to see what the locals already know. If you are thinking about moving your business here, do it! Call us when you do, we’d love to give newcomers the welcome that we received.

How Boulder increases our company’s chance of success