Admittedly many of these are applicable to all startups, but I target the TechStars specifically because of my own experience with the program. This is also partially in response to Rob Johnson’s post where he calls out to me (among other previous TechStars) to share our advice to the new class. So, onto the tips…
1. Delegation – I can’t stress this one enough. Make sure that there is as little overlap in responsibilities within the team as possible. Also, just as importantly, make sure everyone knows their role. In our experience I ended up with a hand in just about everything we did as a young company. I attended every session, every meeting, and worked on every aspect of our project. Part of the reason in my case was situational, but in general I would highly stress that people should break up into at least two camps: the product/project and networking/business. Try to be as firm in this regard as possible, if there’s a session/meeting about Amazon and infrastructure then send the product/project people, but if it’s just about the best corporate structure for startups you probably don’t need to send them. The business/networking people should spend their time finding key mentors and building these relationships, while the product/project people need to be cranking out code as fast as possible. There is a lot of opportunity in a very short time, and the best way to capitalize on the experience is to divide and conquer.
2. Get your product out there – Even if this means releasing a product with an extremely stripped down feature set I think it’s extremely important to get something out as soon as possible. You’ll have tons of people around to give you feedback and help to build out the product and you want to use them as much as you can. It’s a lot harder to get feedback on an idea or a screenshot than it is to get feedback on a working (even if it’s only “working-ish”) product. You’ve got mentors, other teams/startups, and (hopefully) some early users all with plenty of helpful feedback that can save you a lot of time in the long run and overall make your product better. I would encourage stripping down the feature set instead of cutting back on quality and working around a prototype that finds its way into production. This is one area that I think we missed the mark on, trying to do too much too fast instead of perfecting a smaller feature set from the get go. People in general seem to have more tolerance for “we’re still young and that’s not done yet” than for “we’re working on fixing it”.
3. Don’t try to connect with everyone – When you’re working in a startup, if you’re lucky you’ll have tons of opportunity to connect with some really great people. In particular, in the TechStars program there are plenty of really amazing mentors that are all available at your fingertips. It is important, however, to remain focused and not try to connect with every single person. Instead, find a handful of mentors/people that you respect the most and that can help your startup succeed and focus on them. With relationships in general, quality over quantity is often underestimated. This is exceedingly true with mentors to early stage startups, as the level of attention and help is key.
4. Force feedback, and don’t take it personally – This one can be tough for people, but I think it’s very important. As you work your way through the startup, be sure to ask the people around you for feedback periodically. In particular, look for negative feedback. Positive feedback might make you feel good, but the truth is the negative feedback is much more valuable as it provides a plan for improvement. Be sure to ask the people you respect around that you respect the tough question: “What do I/we suck at?” Sometimes it’s tough to get a truly honest response to this question, but you can’t take it personally. Just focus on assuring that you understand their criticism, deciding if you agree with it (most likely you should), and finding the best method to address the issue. Improvement over time is an important characteristic. Most people won’t hold failure against you as long as you learn from it.
5. Know what is a competition and what isn’t (and act accordingly) – When we first got into TechStars we saw ourselves as competing with all the other teams. I think part of this was seeded by David and part of this was just that we didn’t know what to expect, but we definitely all learned over time that in general, we’re not competing with the other teams. In most cases the startups are different enough that competition is unnecessary. Instead, leverage the other teams for feedback, advice, and networking…you never know who will end up making it big. There are times, however, where there is a bit of a competition. The biggest examples of this in my mind are demo days and investor day. In these situations you’re fighting for the attention of the crowd which puts you in direct conflict with the other teams. You want to make sure you’re the one that is remembered. This can be hard, but be sure not to be caught blindsided by this. Have a plan and execute it, but don’t go too far; after the event you’re no longer competing, so be sure not to burn any bridges.
So that’s my list of tips (for now). Hopefully someone will find these helpful and can learn them from my short comings instead of going through them on their own.