My Summer Building a Startup and Working For an Accelerator

BY STEFANO GASPERINI

This Summer, I had the opportunity to intern in Boulder, CO. I worked for UpRamp, a later stage Accelerator, and participated in Startup Summer, a program focused on starting a startup in ten weeks. The following is an overview of my experience along with my learnings in a practical form.

But first, I must say that I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the help of the people at StartUP FIU. I worked there for nearly 8 months and learned virtually everything I know about Entrepreneurship. Having said that, let’s now begin!

UpRamp

UpRamp is an accelerator under Cablelabs, a research and development non-profit for the Cable industry. Every year, they help 3–6 later-stage startups get deals with huge companies like Comcast, CableONE, and others.

Last team meeting

My job consisted on building their operating system, automating several processes, and doing anything needed for the team to succeed. Unfortunately, I left just before the program started, but I did get a chance to attendSummerConference and meet the cohort! These are some of the things I learned:

Always do world-class work: If you do, you will become reliable, and you will be assigned more meaningful work. If you have too much work, use your best judgement to determine what to prioritize, and if you cannot make that decision, ask the person that can. Just make sure to not settle for anything but excellence.

Being yourself is the right strategy: Understand who you are and only take actions that align with that identity. It is the only way for you to find the place where you belong. Prestige, ego, fear, and others will seduce you into deviating from this path. Don’t do it.

Also, make sure you express your real self to the world; that way, you will attract the right people and opportunities.

Startup Summer

Startup Summer is a 10-week program where 50 students from around the country form teams, build a startup, and participate in a pitch competition. In order to participate, one must also get a full-time internship in Colorado, but they help you with that. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Entrepreneurship.

On week 1, we bonded and attended several events, including a TEDx talk that I really enjoyed. On week 2, we had already pitched our ideas, formed teams, and started to work on the startup. I joined a team of 4 people to create an experiential company that designed educational field trips. It was the only slightly social project, so I decided to jump on it.

We followed the Design Thinking methodology to build our startup, so we began by empathizing with our customer. Ultimately, we realized there was no problem to be solved, so we pivoted. We started to work on Likability.org, a review platform where individuals with disabilities can find the right service provider to meet their needs, whether that’s an educational institution or a theme park.

After several weeks of work, we pitched at the final competition. All the pitches were on point, but we managed to win 1st place and were awarded $3000!

Minutes after winning the pitch competition 

It was phenomenal to win, but honestly, it wasn’t nearly as valuable as the network we built and the lessons we learned during those 10 weeks. These are some of those things:

Giving is the right strategy: You will be happier and more successful in business. Try it for a month. Whenever you meet someone, seek to understand how you can add value to that person and then do it. You can add value by listening, by giving your time, by making an introduction, by recommending an article, etc. If you want to read more about this idea, read The Go-giver; it’s a wonderful book.

Get as many experiences as possible: I saved some money and decided to drive to San Francisco and Los Angeles once the internship was over. I met many smart people, visited several universities, and tried plenty of new things. This trip ended up changing my plans for next Summer, which in itself provided me with a positive return on investment.

Let’s sum up!

This was a wonderful experience, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in Entrepreneurship. Also, in case you were wondering about the future of Likability: two of my team members will continue to build it from Denver, hopefully launching in early 2019!

I moved back to Miami and will be competing on this year’s Hult Prize, so you will probably find me in StartUP FIU working on that for the rest of the semester. Feel free to reach out if I can be of any help!

About Stefano: 

Stefano is an FIU student passionate about Traditional and Social Entrepreneurship. Within the last two years, he has worked for two accelerators, including StartUP FIU, and participated in a startup programcalled Startup Summer. He is currently participating in the Hult Prize, where he is working with a team to create 10 million jobs in the next 10 years. He is always looking for new people to meet and intriguing articles to read, so feel free to reach out! stefano.marco.gasperini@gmail.com

The 3 Data Streams That Every Founder Needs

BY STEVE BLANK

Gathering real-world feedback from customers is a core concept of Customer Development as well as the Lean Startup.

But what information to collect?

Yesterday I got an email from an ex-student lamenting that only 2% of their selected early testers responded to their on-line survey. The survey said in part:

The survey has 57 questions, the last three of which are open ended, and should take about 20 minutes to complete. Please note that you must complete the entire survey once you begin. You cannot stop along the way and have your responses to that point saved.

If it wasn’t so sad, it would be funny.

I called the founder and noted that there are SAT tests that are shorter than the survey. When I asked him if he actually had personally left the building and talked to these potential customers, or even had gotten them on the phone, he sounded confused, “We’re a web startup, all our customers are on the web. Why can’t I just get them to give me the answers I need this way?”

Customer Development suggests that founders have continual and timely customer, channel, and market information. Founders need three data streams or “views of information” to truly understand what is going on in their business:

  • First-hand knowledge
  • A “bird’s-eye” view
  • The view from the eyes of customers and competitors

1. First-hand knowledge

First-hand knowledge is “getting outside the building” and talking to potential or actual customers. Customer Development proposes that the best way to get customer data is through personal observation and experience — getting out from behind your desk and getting up close and personal with customers, competitors, and the market.

Founders of tech companies often confuse web metrics like A/B testing and online surveys as the entirety of first-hand knowledge—it is not.

In fact, this mistake can be a “going out of business” strategy.

Metrics tell you that something is happening, but not why. A/B testing can tell you that one something is better than another…but not why. Getting survey responses back from customers will give you part of the answer, but you can’t watch their pupils dilate or hear the intonation of their voice. And without that, it’s just not something I’d build a business on.

Of course you need to collect metrics. It’s just that without having founders “get outside the building” you are missing a key point of Customer Development — the numeric data you collect may be blinding you to the fact that you’re more than likely working to optimize the wrong business model. Customer needs are non-deterministic.

2. Bird’s-eye view

The second picture founders need is a synthesized “bird’s-eye view” of the customer, market, and competitive environment. You assemble this view by gathering information from a variety of sources:

  • web sites
  • social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, et al)
  • sales data
  • win/loss information
  • market research data
  • competitive analyses
  • a/b tests
  • customer survey data
  • …and so on

From this big-picture view, founders try to make sense of the shape of the market and the overall patterns in the unfolding competitive and customer situation. At the same time, they can gauge how well industry data and the actual sales match the company’s revenue and market-share expectations.

Just remember that most market research firms are excellent at predicting the past. If they could predict the future, they’d be entrepreneurs.

My test for how well you understand this “order of battle” is to hand the founder a marker, have them go up to the whiteboard and diagram the players in the market and where they fit. (Try it.)

3. See through the eyes of customers and competitors

The third view is of the action as seen through the eyes of customers and competitors. Put yourself in your customers’ and competitors’ shoes in order to deduce possible competitors’ moves and anticipate customer needs.

  • In an existing market this is where you ask yourself, “If I were my own competitor and had its resources, what would my next move be?”
  • In looking through the eyes of a customer, the question might be, “Why should I buy from this company versus the incumbent.”
  • In a new or resegmented market, the questions might be “Why would more than a few early adopters use this app, web site or buy this product? How would I get my 90-year-old grandmother to understand and buy this product?”

Think of this technique as playing chess. You need to be looking at all the likely moves from both sides of the chessboard. What would we do if we were our competitors? How would we react? What would we be planning? After a while this type of role playing will become an integral part of everyone’s thinking and planning.

Putting it all together

First-hand knowledge is clearly the most detailed and essential data stream, but offers a narrow field of view. Founders who focus only on this information risk losing sight of the big picture.

“Bird’s-eye view” data provides perspective on the market but lacks critical detail. Founders who focus only on this image risk missing the “ground truth.”

Seeing through the eyes of customers and competitors is a theoretical exercise limited by the fact that you can never be sure what your customers and competitors are up to.

The combination of all three data streams helps founders form an accurate picture of what is going on in their business and help them hone in on product/market fit.

Even with information from all three views, founders need to remember there will never be enough information to make a perfect decision.

Building an Information Culture

The most important element of data gathering is what to do with the information once you collect it. Customer information dissemination is a cornerstone of Lean and agile companies. This information, whether good or bad, must not be guarded like some precious commodity. Large company cultures reward executives who hoard knowledge or suppress bad news. In any of my companies, that is a firing offense.

All news, but especially bad news, needs to be shared, dissected, understood, and acted upon.

This means that understanding poor click-through rates, retention numbers, and sales losses are more important than understanding sales wins; understanding why a competitor’s products are better is more important than rationalizing ways in which yours is still superior. Winning startups build a startup culture that rewards not punishes messengers of bad news.

Lessons Learned

  • There are 3 data streams that every founder needs: First-hand knowledge, “bird’s-eye view,” and the view from the eyes of customers and competitors.
  • Startups often fall into the trap of confusing metrics, testing, and surveys with real-life customer interaction.
  • The goal should be to build an information culture to help you get to product/market fit.

Learned something? Hold down the 👏 to say “thanks!” and help others find this article.

How to Build a Startup that Gets Acquired

By Steve Blank

May 16, 2016

There are many reasons to found a startup.
There are many reasons to work at a startup.
But there’s only one reason your company got funded — liquidity.

——

The Good News
To most founders a startup is not a job, but a calling.

But startups require money upfront for product development and later to scale. Traditional lenders (banks) think that startups are too risky for a traditional bank loan. Luckily in the last quarter of the 20th century a new source of money called risk capital emerged. Risk capital takes equity (stock ownership) in your company instead of debt (loans) in exchange for cash.

Founders can now access the largest pool of risk capital that ever existed –in the form of Private Equity (Angel Investors, family offices, Venture Capitalists (VC’s) and Hedge Funds.)

At its core Venture Capital is nothing more than a small portion of the Private Equity financial asset class. But for the last 40 years, it has provided the financial fuel for a revolution in Life Sciences and Information Technology and has helped to change the world.

The Bad News
While startups are driven by their founder’s passion for creating something new, startup investors have a much different agenda — a return on their investment. And not just any returns, VC’s expect large returns. VC’s raise money from their investors (limited partners like pension funds) and then spread their risk by investing in a number of startups (called a portfolio). In exchange for the limited partners tying up capital for long periods by in investing in VCs (who are investing in risky startups,) the VCs promise the limited partners large returns that are unavailable from most every other form of investment.

Some quick VC math: If a VC invests in ten early stage startups, on average, five will fail, three will return capital, and one or two will be “winners” and make most of the money for the VC fund. A minimum ‘respectable’ return for a VC fund is 20% per year, so a ten-year VC fund needs to return six times (6x) their investment. This means that those two winner investments have to make a 30x return to provide the venture capital fund a 20% compound return — and that’s just to generate a minimum respectable return.

(BTW, Angel investors do not have limited partners, and often invest for reasons other than just for financial gain — e.g., helping pioneers succeed — and so the returns they’re looking for may be lower.)

The Deal With the Devil
What does this mean for startup founders? If you’re a founder, you need to be able to go up to a whiteboard and diagram out how your investors will make money in your startup.

While you might be interested in building a company that changes the world, regardless of how long it takes, your investors are interested in funding a company that changes the world so they can have a liquidity event within the life of their fund ~7–10 years. (A liquidity event means that the equity (the stock) you sold your investor can now be converted into cash.)

This happens in two ways:

1. You either sell your company (Merger/Acquisition)

2. You go public (an IPO.)

Realistically, M&A is the most likely path for a startup to achieve liquidity.

Here’s the thing most founders miss. You’ve been funded to get to a liquidity event. Period. Your VCs know this, and you need to know this too.

Why don’t VCs tell founders this fact? For the first few years, your VCs want you to keep your head down, build the product, find product/market fit and ship to get to some inflection point (revenue, users, etc.).

As the company goes from searching for a business model to growth, only then will they bring in a new “professional” management team to scale the company (along with a business development executive to search for an acquirer) or prepare for an IPO.

The problem is that this “don’t worry your little head” strategy may have made sense when founders were just technologists and the strategy and tactics of liquidity and exits were closely held, but this a pretty dumb approach in the 21st century. As a founder you are more than capable of adding value to the search for the liquidity event, even if that event is an acquisition.

So, let’s talk about how to do that.

6 Steps Toward Acquisition

As a founder, you need to be planning your exit the day you get funded. I’m not suggesting that you build in a short-time “let’s flip the company” way, but rather that you should be thinking about who, how and when you can make an acquisition happen.

Step 1: Figure out how your startup generates value
For example, in your industry do companies build value the old fashion way by generating revenue? (Square, Uber, Palantir, Fitbit, etc.) If so, how is the revenue measured? (Bookings, recurring revenue, lifetime value?) Is your value to an acquirer going to measured as a multiple of your revenues? Or as with consumer deals, is the value is ascribed by the market?

Or do you build value by acquiring users and figuring out how to make money later (WhatsApp, Twitter, etc.) Is your value to an acquirer measured by the number of users? If so, how are the users measured (active users, month-on-month growth, churn)?

Or is your value going to be measured by some known inflection point? First-in-human proof of efficacy? Successful Clinical trials? FDA approvals? CMS Reimbursement?

If you’re using the business model canvas, you’ve already figured this out when you articulated your revenue streams and noted where they are coming from.

Confirm that your view of how you’ll create value is shared by your investors and your board.

Step 2: Figure out who are the likely acquirers
If you are building autonomous driving aftermarket devices for cars, it’s not a surprise that you can make a short list of potential acquirers — auto companies and their tier 1 suppliers.

If you’re building enterprise software, the list may be larger.

If you’re building medical devices the list may be much smaller.

Every startup should have a working idea of who potential acquirers might be.

It’s helpful to also diagram out the acquirers in a Petal Diagram. When you do, start a spreadsheet and list the companies. As you get to know your industry and ecosystem, the list will change.

It’s likely that your investors also have insights and opinions. Check in with them as well.

Step 3: List the names of the business development, technology scouts and other people involved in acquisitions and note their names next to the name of the target company.

All large companies employ people whose job it is to spot and track new technology and innovation and follow its progress. The odds on day-one are that you can’t name anyone. How will you figure this out?

Congratulations, welcome to Customer Discovery.

  • Treat potential acquirers like a customer segment. Talk to them. They’re happy to tell anyone who will listen what they are looking for and what they need to see by way of data or otherwise for something to rise to the level of seriousness on the scale of acquisition possibilities.
  • Understand who the Key Opinion Leaders in your industry are and specifically who acquirers assemble to advise them on technology and innovation in their areas of interest.
  • Get out of the building and talk to other startup CEOs who were acquired in your industry. How did it happen? Who were the players?

It’s common for your investors to have personal contacts with business development and technology scouts from specific companies. Unfortunately, it’s the rare VC who has already built an acquisition roadmap. You’re going to build one for them. It will look something like this:

After awhile, you ought to be able to go to the whiteboard and diagram the acquisition decision process much like a sales process. Draw the canonical model and then draw the actual process (with names and titles) for the top three most likely acquirers

Step 4: Generate the business case for the potential acquirer
Your job is to generate the business case for the potential acquirer, that is, to demonstrate with data produced from testing pivotal hypotheses why they need is what you have to improve their business model. You will offer reasons like:

  • filling a product void
  • extending an existing line
  • opening a new market
  • blocking a competitor’s ability to compete effectively
  • Etc.

Step 5: Show up a lot and get noticed
Figure out what conferences and shows these acquirers attend. Understand what is it they read. Then show up and be visible — as speakers on panels, accidentally running into them, getting introduced, etc. Get your company talked about in the blogs and newsletters they read.

How do you know any of this? Again, this is basic Customer Discovery. Take a few out to lunch. Ask questions — what do they read? — how do they notice new startups? — who tells them the type of companies to look for? etc.

Step 6: Know the inflection points for an acquisition in your market
Timing is everything. Do you wait 7 years until you’ve built enough revenue for a billion-dollar sale? Is the market for Machine Learning startups so hot that you can sell the company for hundreds of millions of dollars without shipping a product?

For example, in Medical Devices the likely outcome is an acquisition way before you ship a product. Med-tech entrepreneurship has evolved to the point where each VC funding round signals that the company has completed a milestone — and each of these milestones represents an opportunity for an acquisition. For example, after a VC Series B-Round, an opportunity for an acquisition occurs when you’ve created a working product and you have started clinical trials and are working on getting a European CE Mark to get approval.

The time to prepare for an acquisition is on day 1

When to sell or go public is a real balancing act with your board. Some investor board members may want liquidity early to make the numbers look good for their fund, especially if it is a smaller fund or if you are at a later point in their fund life. If you’re on the right trajectory, other investors, such as larger funds or where you are early in their fund life, may be are happy to wait years for the 30x or greater return. You need to have a finger on the pulse of your VCs and the market, and to align interests and expectations to the greatest extent possible.

You also need to know whether you have any control over when a liquidity event occurs and who has to agree on it. (Check to see what rights your investors have in their investment documents.) Typically, a VC can force a sale, or even block one. Make sure your interests are aligned with your investors.

As part of the deal you signed with your investors was a term specifying the Liquidation Preference. The liquidation preference determines how the pie is split between you and your investors when there is a liquidity event. You may just be along for the ride.

Above all, don’t panic or demoralize your employees. The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club! The same is true about liquidity. It’s detrimental to tell your employees who have bought into the vision, mission and excitement of a startup to know that it’s for sale the day you start it. The party line is “We’re building a company for long-term success.”

Finally, do not obsess over liquidity. As a founder there’s plenty on your plate — finding product/market fit, shipping product, getting customers… liquidity is not your top of the list. Treat this as a background process. But thinking about it strategically will affect how you plan marketing communications, conferences, blogs and your travel.

Remember, your goal is to create extraordinary products and services — and in exchange there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Lessons Learned

— The minute you take money from someone, their business model now becomes yours

— Your investors funded you for a liquidity event

— You need to know what “multiple” an investor will allow you to sell the company for

  • Great entrepreneurs shoot for 20X
  • You need at least a 5x return to generate rewards for investors and employee stock options
  • A 2X return may wipe out the value of the employee stock options and founder shares

— You should plan for liquidity from day one

— Don’t demoralize your employees

— Don’t obsess over liquidity, treat it strategically