Another year, another round of applications for TechStars Boulder. I’ll be honest, I barely even submitted an application considering my lack of a co-founder and the fact that Harbor is still a few months away from being complete, but I just couldn’t resist. I told myself that my chances were pretty low, but when submitting the application I couldn’t help but think that my concept and functional prototype might be enough to make it in. Of course when you receive your rejection email it doesn’t have many specifics as to why your company wasn’t selected, but I’m going to try and articulate the reasons I believe I didn’t get in and what I’m going to do about it.
This is actually my second time applying for TechStars. Last year, I made it to the 1st round of “personal” interviews via Skype, and was rejected shortly thereafter. My guess is that by adding my buddy Ryan as a co-founder and spending more time on the application last year they took a closer look at the company. Since I don’t plan on stopping the development of Harbor, here’s what I think went wrong this year - and how I plan to fix it when I reapply the next time around.
1. No Co-Founder
Every strong company needs a fierce leader, but even the best leaders have a hard time doing everything it takes to run a business. I’m pretty convinced that not having a co-founder with complementary skills to your own is a huge disadvantage. The only way I can really see overcoming this would be to have some serious traction, and a track record of pure ass-kicking. Even then, I would imagine that any accelerator would want you to start “founder dating” before long. My specialty is building products. I write code like a maniac driven by bits and pixels. My plan is to start “founder dating” to hunt down someone with some business/sales skills and a whole lot of ambition. On that note, if that’s you, email me. I need a cofounder.
2. My App Isn’t Finished
Sure I put blood, sweat, and a few tears into getting Harbor to where it is right now, and I have a pretty awesome demo, but it’s just not finished yet. There’s a solid 3-4 months of work left, which I was completely open about in the application. In hindsight, looking at it from an investor’s point of view, this is yet another red flag. Would I give myself $100,000 based on some future, arbitrary completion date? A solo founder? No. There is far too much risk riding on an app that isn’t even completed yet. With only 3 months in the TechStars program, it would be insanely difficult to deal with writing code, putting out fires, and getting all you can out of the experience. The next time I apply, Harbor will be complete in all of its’ glory.
2.5 Not finished = No traction.
Not having any customers is one thing. Not having customers OR a finished app is an entirely different story. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of how silly it sounds to ask someone for so much money at this stage in the company’s life. Taking time to reach out to potential customers and getting some early traction and/or commitments is even better than showing up with a goose egg for your customer count. It’s time I got far more serious about customer acquisition and market fit. Next time, I will apply having at least one paying customer.
3. A Lazy Application
I’m going to be 100% honest here and just say it. My application sucked. I rushed it. It was totally last minute and I completed it in roughly 20 minutes. I even left out a huge chunk of information in one section that I’d planned to come back to, but lucky enough the sentence that it ended on turned out to be a complete sentence so I didn’t look completely stupid. I thought my video was OK even though I don’t have a team. I tried to show my personality a bit, but you only get 1 minute so it’s not easy. There was so much room for improvement in my application that I was a little embarrassed to read back over it. Your application should be a direct reflection of the passion you have for your company, and a hastily put together application will impress no one. Next time, I’ll dedicate the appropriate hours to making sure my application really shows my company in the best light along with my drive and dedication.
So there you have it. It sucks getting rejected (ahem, non-selected). Especially not knowing exactly why you weren’t chosen. I can only guess at the reasons, so this list serves as a reminder of what I think I can do to be better next time. Also remember that funding doesn’t make your company successful. Hard work, passion, and dedication are what gets the company built and keeps it going. Sales are the gasoline. Focus on those aspects and good things will come. TechStars, in the words of the great Mr. Schwarzenegger,
"I’ll be back"
I was recently given a pocket Moleskine pad as a gift and it has since changed the way I perceive the act of writing things down. As someone who spends ~90 percent of their day in front of a screen, I’m used to leaving a digital paper trail full of notes, ideas, and things that I’d like to remember. However there’s a certain amount of overhead that comes with this digital paper trail. For instance, depending on what type of ‘note’ I’m trying to take, I may use a multitude of different softwares. For quick work notes I use the default OSX Notes application. For more personal ones, I may open Evernote or send myself an email or something. Then there’s the to-do lists for which I end up using Trello or more recently do.com (who is shutting down). The Moleskine pad, though, has completely removed this mental overhead. Now when I need to remember something or jot down a quick note, I reach for a pen and my pocket notebook. It feels like the act of writing things down on paper is forcing me into better writing habits, as well as teaching me the value of simplicity. All of my thoughts and ideas are in a neat little place that I can pull out of my pocket at any time. It’s a great feeling.
The sun will soon rise.
Will I be there to greet it?
Only time will tell.
There is something about appreciating what you have. When you wake up, you have a few options about how you’re going to start your day. You can start by worrying about the stresses of everyday life like having a shitty job, not having enough money, what people think of you, or how your favorite character on your favorite reality show isn’t hooking up with your favorite character of the opposite sex on said show. Often, at the end of the day, you end up wondering why your whole day seemed so stressful and the thought of doing any of it again tomorrow is torturous. Well, a simple answer may be to just be more grateful.
You could start your day by appreciating a few of the small things. The fact that you woke up at all, for instance. In my case, the fact that I have a wife - and a house - and a bank account - and a dog - the list goes on and on. It’s easy to forget sometimes just how much you already have. As Americans, we live with so much excess all the time that I think we’re sort of trained to make the excess - well - more excessive. We can’t comprehend how in some places people live on pennies, and couldn’t imagine having luxuries such as a job that pays $9.00 an hour. Or benefits for their family when they visit the doctor. Or a beater car.
This simple shift in perception makes the whole world look a little different. Your days will begin to become filled with awe and amazement as smaller and smaller things become more significant to you through appreciation and gratitude.
I once read that if the only prayer you ever say in your life is ‘thank you’, that would suffice. Stop and thank the universe or who/what ever you’d like to thank for the things that you have today. Acknowledge the small things. You probably have more than you think.
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Everyday I put myself through a vicious cycle of reading (and re-reading) tech blogs and announcements. Reviewing questions on Quora about startups. Trolling through Techcrunch to stay up on the latest funding rounds. Obsessing over “Show HN” posts on Hacker News. All of this because in the back of my mind I’ve convinced myself that by following the internet activities of other startups or entrepreneurs, that somehow it will help me reach some level of enlightenment or allow me to find that brilliant idea that everyone is searching for. The truth is that this sort of turns into an internet soap opera not very different from those of cable television. I know the names of several founders, what they’ve built, how much funding they’ve received, and even the names of their investors; the startup world is full of the same glitz, glam and drama as Hollywood. The startup world is my main input; and for whatever reason I’ve come to expect this input to make me a better entrepreneur.
In reality, these inputs are unhealthy. I’ve become consumed by funding rounds and acquisition announcements instead of being consumed by real-world problems. I’ve been following founders and their missions instead of finding a mission and founding.
I’ve decided to change my inputs. I’ll still visit HN and Techcrunch now and again, but I think gaining a more broad sense of what’s happening around the world is more beneficial to a wantrepreneur like myself. Besides, the Silicon Valley box is getting less and less interesting everyday.
Lately, I’ve been racking my brain about what I’m going to build next. Of course, everyone wants to build the next Facebook or super-popular-social-mobile-(insert buzzword) app, but I’m more interested in building something that actually solves a problem.
I recently finished a product from start to finish, Kapsl. This was a huge accomplishment for me since it’s rare that I finish a project all the way through. They usually get left behind for the next hyped up idea, or fall to the wayside in favor of my 9-5, so it felt super good to actually get something out there. In hindsight, I made all of the classic mistakes of a first-time entrepreneur. I didn’t talk to potential customers. I thought because my friends said they’d sign up and use the service that they would. I naively assumed that I was solving a problem for people, when really I was just building another website creation tool. Artists already have TONS of these available to them online, and I hadn’t researched where I could provide new value.
I find myself in a strange spot now. After building what I was absolutely sure would be the company I’d always envisioned myself running, it has quickly become another burnout project that I rarely revisit. What happened? I didn’t solve a problem. It turns out that if you don’t solve a problem with your app or startup, no one will get excited about it. In the end, not even you. Sure, people used Kapsl, in fact - some still do. But the number is depressingly low, and it’s because the product provides very little value. How is it different from other ‘1 page website builders’? I can’t really answer that. Why wouldn’t someone just use Bandcamp, they’re pretty good at this? Another question I can’t really answer.
These are the things that I’ve been considering before going head down again and building something from scratch. I spent 3 months creating immense personal value. I learned the importance of finishing. I learned how good it makes you feel to have a project that you’re pouring yourself into. All of these things are tremendously valuable to me. Next time, I’ll focus on providing value to customers. They are the ones who turn projects into businesses.