LizenUp just graduated the Founder’s Institute Spring NYC 2015 program. I am definitely elated but also filled with a sense of dread. I am elated because the program is finally over and dreaded because the program is over. Let me explain. This is one of the toughest courses I ever did in my life. I’ve graduated college, worked in various companies for 20 years and did many certifications, but during all of that I never felt the way I felt in the FI program. If thought of failing course in college or missing a deadline at work occurred, it doesn’t feel like the end of the world, because I always had a sense of detachment and of course you can have a do over. In contrast, during the FI program, there’s a constant fear of doing bad on the hot seats, not completing your assignments by the deadline or not reaching a milestone, I think it’s because if you fail this, I had a sense of really failing the company and my idea. I am feeling a little sad that its over because of the structure and assignment deadlines, your performance is not optional but mandatory, so I hope my team and support structure will keep me on my path.
Having said that, I really liked the program and met some great people in the other founders, venture capitalists, advisors and mentors thru the program. The best part is being part of a community of like-minded people who are driven and passionate about building something of their own and making a mark in the world. The life of an entrepreneur seems to be a lonely one, especially in the early stages and for people like me who are working in a corporate environment on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard to find people who we can talk about entrepreneurship and startups, because most of the people you meet at work or in life seem like they don’t “get” startup culture or mentality. FI and other accelerators/incubators of its ilk provide that camaraderie and support that is required at the early stages of building a company.
Although I’ve run other software companies before, they were conceived and run as a “business” by my friends and I. We never raised venture funding, and didn’t do any customer research or MVP, as software developers we came up with an idea and started building and then started looking for customers who would buy from us. My past experience really left me in a disarray and when I read stories of the startups that were started the dot com boom, it didn’t match with what I knew and experienced. I really needed to go back to school to really learn about lean startups, fund raising, customer interviews, importance of sharing your idea with EVERYONE (which is counter intuitive to what you think you know as your gut feeling about someone stealing your idea :)), importance of traction, importance of media relations, producing content and most importantly being passionate about your idea and business. Most of all, the invaluable advice and feedback we receive from mentors who are serial entrepreneurs and investors is really worth the grueling schedule and structure of the program.
I chose FI for the only reason that it offered classes part-time instead of committing yourself fulltime to your startup idea. That said, it may not may not work for everyone. If all you have is an idea, FI is the best program to validate your idea and solidify your business model. If you already far ahead with your idea and business model, may be what you need is an incubator like Y Combinator or Tech Stars where your focus is building your product and take your company to market working full time. In fact, many of the FI graduates go on to join other incubators to raise seed funding and develop their products. For people who have fulltime jobs and family responsibilities, FI gives you a platform to really commit yourself to your business by slowly building your company thru various assignments which are real and failure to perform will really kill your business, forget about getting dropped from the program, that’s least of your concerns.
The structure of FI is like this: Every week the entire group of founders meet with a panel of mentors. At the beginning of the session, a few hot seats are conducted, where few randomly chosen founders will pitch their idea in 1 min, 3 min or 4 min intervals (based on the stage of the program), and they get rated their scores are posted on the scoreboard online. Each of the mentors give lectures on the topic of the day, it could be Branding and Positioning, or IP and Legal etc. Then there’s a Q&A session with mentors, and before the close of the session, they do few more hot seat pitches, and finally everybody go to a bar nearby and continue discussions over drinks. There are regular weekly assignments in FI for each of the topics that is covered that week, which requires anywhere from 10 to 20 hours work minimum, in addition, you might be given special assignments. In the beginning of the program, we all dreaded special assignments, but I got a few special assignments, and to be honest, doing them really forced me to get out of comfort zone and perform far beyond what I thought possible, be it pitching videos, signing up new customers, or getting potential customer emails, or surveys etc.
From the advice of mentors, I got to know the weak points in my idea, business model and pitch and got to refine them, but it’s an ongoing process. I also got introduced so many online and offline resources that can help any startup founder, be it a service to track the industry narratives or content generation etc. I also got to know a great bunch of people in fellow founders in the program, who really jump to help out whenever you reach out to them and everybody sharing their ideas, feedback, tools and other resources. It was the best team anyone could ask for, in that sense, it was better than college because this bunch is more mature and their advice or feedback comes from real world experience.
Now that the program is over, the real journey for LizenUp begins, we are working through our initial pilots and refining our production/solution, and I hope to tap into the network of FI and don’t waver from my true north.