In November 2015, we embarked on our three-and-half-month journey to the accelerator. I hope to share what I learned from Techstars so that other teams from around the world could better understand what you'll take away when you're done. Here were the seven lessons I learned:
Lesson #1: What It Means to Have a Mentor
In the first two weeks, Techstars arranged 40 mentor meetings for each team. Each team would only have 20-30 minutes for a mentor. We had to articulate our product, and where we needed help, to each mentor so that mentors would know whom to connect us with and what they could offer. Because we had such a short time, being prepared was extremely important.
Before each meeting, we searched for our mentors’ background on LinkedIn, AngelList, Crunchbase, etc. By doing so, we could prepare a series of specific questions for each mentor so that we could get specific feedback. Specificity is crucial for startups because anyone can Google simple, general questions. After meetings, we forced ourselves to summarize each meeting and send emails to influencers recommended by mentors within 24 hours. We benefited a lot by following up closely with them.
Lesson #2: The Best Resources
There were many perks to being in Techstars, including: free resources like mail listing service, server space, accounting services, discounts to many things, people were extremely helpful. Our network expanded pretty quickly because people were eager to connect us with their network. This altruistic networking helped us connect with key people and decision makers in many companies.
At the same time, Techstars provided us lots of documents for reference which included examples of contracts, financial statements, and slides of famous speakers. All of these resources were the basics of being in Techstars. What’s more important was the mentality lied behind it, which was how you made use of all of this information. Simply put, these resources would not be resources if we didn’t know how to make use of it. What I learned was that the best way to learn was by asking. Being proactive and interacting with other people in Techstars was often the moments where we discovered new ideas.
Lesson #3: How Important is Company Culture?
The first Techstars code of conduct is to #givefirst. At first, I thought it was only a slogan to make us devote more time and effort. This all changed one day during a marketing and sales meeting. People from other Techstars teams asked me if they could help in any way. Not fully understanding their sincerity at that time, I randomly said that our blog didn’t have enough traffic. To my surprise, from that point forward, other teams actively shared our blogs and retweeted it. One week later, the traffic on our website literally rocketed.
Frankly speaking, while in Taiwan, I didn’t ask for any favors from others because everyone was doing their own thing. Nonetheless, from this point on, I was completely inspired by the idea and spirit of #givefirst. For the first time, I saw that it was possible to share in a business setting — which wasn’t the case where I grew up. In fact, this mindset creates a much-needed culture of reciprocity. I began offering help and happily gave suggestions and ideas to others.
Our whole team and the Techstars environment became overwhelmingly more positive, passionate and encouraging because of an idea of sharing.
Another vivid memory was when David Cohen (cofounder of Techstars) visited us in San Antonio, and I was about to take on the position of CEO in the company. When I was a COO, I cared a lot about numbers, deposits in the bank, how many customers I visited, etc. Undoubtedly, the shift of the position stressed me out because I had to shift my focus to the bigger picture of the company. Honestly, I had no clue how to cultivate a culture at the moment but I did think that culture was the backbone of a company and we couldn’t live without it.
David said something that I think is worth noting: he told us to write down what we, as a team, cherished and believed and never change stray from those beliefs. That way, when you scale as company and hire new employees, they will all share the same belief.
Lesson #4: Embrace Difference
Coming from Asia, I was against drinking and close physical interactions (hugging, kissing, etc.). They were simply not things I felt natural doing. However, I found out that drinking was a great social behavior in the US, and it opened people up. I even began going to bars! Everything in moderation. What’s more important, I enjoyed the atmosphere a lot. To change was difficult. I could have easily stuck to my old ways, and doing so would’ve caused me to miss out on some amazing memories. Baby steps.
Lesson #5: Try At Least a Hundred Times
You should constantly be testing and evaluating your ideas. Why? Because ideas were worthless, and only execution matters. When I asked a mentor if our product was suitable for using AdWords, he replied to me, “Have you tried it? I don’t know the answer but you should try it so that we could discuss the result and come up with a new strategy.” I used to search for information and refer to other’s opinions but I seldom acted on an idea. Consequently, I stagnated myself and lost many opportunities.
Proper education tells us not to fail or make mistakes. This is dead wrong. In reality, failure is an inevitable part of life. Life is such a variable, and constantly changing, thing that if you didn’t fail, you would never experience it to the fullest. The moment when you truly fail is when you give up trying.
Lesson #6: Teamwork
During Techstars, everyone’s schedule was always packed. We had so much to learn and, as a company, so much to do in order to expand. Needless to say, delegation became a necessary skill: who was going to assist in searching for information, who was going to attend the next mentor meeting, who was going to develop the product, who was going to follow up that email sent 22 hours ago, etc. To be fair, I was terrible at distributing work. Nonetheless, I was lucky enough to have a group of trustworthy teammates that saved my butt.
It’s an incredibly comforting feeling know that no matter what happened, I always had a team to support me. During my days in startups, I had come to believe that people were the most important part of any company. Skills usually come in second. The term “teamwork” transcended its literal meaning.
Lesson #7: The Importance of Physical and Mental Health
Days in Techstars were hectic. Meetings after meetings were really a nightmare, but then again, that’s why it is called accelerator. I was told to learn a sport and exercise routinely, as it would help relieve stress. Did it work? A resounding, “YES!” It was also nice to sometimes just step away from work — just to clear your head. There was a ping pong table in our office and it became the place for hanging out. If you wanted to know someone in the office, you would just ask them to play a game of ping pong.
On top of that, Techstars arranged an assortment of activities on the weekend. We played paintball, went to a shooting range, played basketball with cofounders, etc. Needless to say, it was awesome, and wholly necessary for my mental health. Before, I didn’t take care too much about my health, but after realizing its importance, I wanted to address this notion by sharing it with as many people as possible.
Both mental and physical health are multipliers. If they are both at zero, then everything else in life is zero.