This post is well overdue, but 500 Startups deserves this. It’s the absolute least that I can do, given everything that I’ve been able to benefit and takeaway from the experience and opportunity. I hope the future founders of the companies in the upcoming batches in the 500 accelerator will be able to take advantage of my mistakes and what I learned from it.
This is a VERY, VERY long post. If short on time, skim thru, pick the topics that interest you and take in the lessons that I learned at the bottom.
In 14 weeks, I was given a floodgate of connections to the best advisors, mentors, investors in Silicon Valley. I got to immerse myself daily among some of the Valley’s most driven, ambitious and talented founders. Most importantly, I became a better founder, CEO and person through the 14 week journey that is 500 Startups. In week 1, my team and I came in with an idea and a rough prototype. Week 14, we graduated as a company with great potential.
It’s been 5 weeks since our last Demo Day, and the amount of progress and learning I have made and gained since last October when the program started just mesmerizes me. The mixture of being next to talented and experienced people every day along with the hands-on advice you can receive through the super qualified advisors and mentors at 500 Startups, makes me now understand why the 500 Startups accelerator is called an “Accelerator”. It’s the accelerator for not just your company’s growth, but also your personal trajectory and growth as an entrepreneur and founder.
The program has been a complete life and career (what’s the difference?) changer for me, but getting into it was a huge challenge in itself. I’m a 20 year old, college drop out, running my first major tech-startup with no professional background – I still have yet to even pay taxes… My talents are very raw and limited. I am also, to many definition, naïve, and simply just don’t know the things I don’t know. I was and still am – to a great deal – “unproven”. But I knew this and hustled and hustled to be able to get into 500 Startups.
Since 500 Startups is notorious for being the only top-tier accelerator without a formal application process and only considers prospective accelerator investments through referrals from their network of founder and mentors, I harassed the shit out of my friends who were founders of companies in the 2nd batch to harass the shit out of Dave, Paul and Christine to take a meeting with my team and I (special thanks to Elizabeth Yin at Launchbit, Jeff Lu at DailyAisle and the lovely Jinhee and Sarah over at Snapette - I would not be where I am today without your help and support). The quality and genuineness of their referrals really placed my startup in the eyes of the investment partners at 500.
At this point, my team and I had just pivoted into creating the first fan loyalty program application for Facebook Fan Pages. Fortunately, timing worked out to our advantage when my friends sent in their referrals, Paul was actively looking to line up the companies in the upcoming 3rd batch of the accelerator. He took a meeting right away and I met him at the 500 Lair on day 2 of our pivot. Within the first minute of talking with Paul, I knew I was having the worst meeting with any investor I have ever had – not just because he was the first legit investor I’ve pitched, but because it was just bad… Not only did our two day old pivot have no tangible products to show, but worse, my vision for what we wanted to do was as unclear as the guy across the table from me hearing about this company for the first time. But with a bit of luck and fortune, Paul said he “wasn’t turned off by the idea” even though he had “no clear understanding” about what we were doing. He asked to meet again in two weeks with the hope to see that we will make progress on both product and vision for our startup.
We spent the next two weeks with little to no sleep and cranking out on our product as I baked in the vision and potential direction of our company. Even though our product was at best an MVP, Paul liked the team, the referrals and the fact that even though our startup was so raw, it was in one of the fastest growing markets that is wide open for the taking. Later that day, Paul and Dave sent over the term sheets for the accelerator and it was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Getting in – Takeaway:
Hustle your connections and network of smart and trusted mentors, advisors, investors and founders who can vouch for you if you want to get into 500 Startups. “But I don’t know anyone who’s connected to 500 Startups!” Shut up and hustle. 500 Startups now has over 250 companies in its portfolio representing over 400 founders, and they fund more by the day – literally. If you’re serious about your career in startups, you should have one or two direct connections to those people or at the very least be within two degrees of separation.
Being a young founder and having followed Dave and the unfolding and growth of 500 Startups for the last two years, I must admit I was a bit starstruck that I was now part of 500 Startups working literally 5 feet away from Dave, Paul and Christine and in an office that founders of hugely successful startups in the Valley frequently visit. This effect that I had from being inexperienced – admittedly – affected me quite a bit for the first month of the program. I naïvely felt and acted as if I was done – as if I had “made it”. I look back now and ask how I could have been so stupid and small-thinking. There were many days in that first month of the program where I ended the day at 6pm, going out with the fellow founders and Paul and occasionally, Dave [yes, at 500 Startups, the investment partners party with the founders. In the case of Paul, very frequently ]. Anyways, it took my teammates to verbally slap me across the face one night for me to take a step back and realize the stupid mistake I was making.
The feel of the accelerator program at 500 Startups is best described as a co-ed fraternity. The camaraderie amongst the startups is one that creates strong friendships for the rest of your life. I would go on record – from having multiple friends go through the YC and TechStars program – that 500 Startups is the most active, exciting, and fun accelerator to be a part of and do work. Unfortunately, if you can’t be self-disciplined in when you go out (if you go out) as well as even going into the big main room to chat with visitors or other founders – like I had struggled in the first month – this big value of 500 Startups can also act as poison to your startup.
Getting started – Takeaway:
Cool, you’re now part of one of the best accelerators for tech startups. But remember this: you haven’t done shit. Your startup is irrelevant to your market and the work is just starting. 500 Startups – just like any other accelerator – is just a launch pad. Don’t be partying and wasting time on the launch pad when you haven’t even launched off of it yet. Keep your head down. Be realistic and critical of your time management and usage. For the first few weeks, I justified going out every weekend as “networking”. Don’t bullshit yourself, you’re just eating your own shit.
What You’ll Get from 500 Startups Accelerator
Being part of the accelerator at 500 Startups comes with a ton of intangible as well as tangible benefits and value.
- $50,000 investment for 5% of your company (if you think this is a lot of money, stop thinking so small – this is an expensive cost. All accelerators are *very* costly, so get into the program that can provide more value than the cost – ie. 500 Startups, YC, TechStars, AngelPad)
- A year’s worth of servers and maintenance from RackSpace, Amazon, Heroku, WPEngine, you name it. – it might not seem like much, but for us, it’s already saved us about $10,000.
- Advice/Mentorship/Guidance from the industry’s best – make sure to meet every mentor who has office hours. I didn’t but I wish I did as the value I got from it in just opening up more connections, getting advice, or just picking brains with a very intelligent and experienced individual was well worth the 30 minutes. The mentors’ office hours get filled up very quickly so pick it up as soon as you get the email!
- The “500 Startups” brand in itself now is well worth more than the $50K in investment you receive. You’ll have a much easier time raising any future rounds because you already have better “social proof” than 9 out of the 10 startups an investor you are pitching to is likely considering. I’d argue vehemently that the 5% given to 500 Startups in exchange for the investment pays for itself in branding alone at this early stage in the company.
- Access to the “Founders List”. Dave, Paul, Christine and co. have created an amazingly *active* community of 400+ founders of companies in all stages, earliest being accelerator companies to even companies with hundreds of employees. You’ll be able to email the list with any kind of question – however technically difficult or operationally challenging it may be, chances are great that someone on that list has already gone through what you are going through now and they probably came up with a better solution than you would have. I’ve personally asked questions related to Visa issues to asking for warm intros and connections to executives outside of 500′s immediate network. You’ll have your answer within an hour. It’s pretty boss. I’d pay a lot of money for such an access.
- “A natural forcing function (i.e. Demo Day) to rile up the troops and perform at non-human levels“ – TK (founder of Tout).
- Dave’s influence on the Valley. Dave knows just about anyone and everyone who is relevant in tech – but more importantly, everyone knows Dave. No matter how you dice or utilize it, it’s undeniable that having someone like Dave on your side is nothing but pure value.
What I learned through my failures and experience… (aka things you should take advantage of)
#1 – You haven’t accomplished shit. Remember that.
Getting into 500 Startups is exactly that. You are now *in* the program. Remember you are here to accelerate your startup and launch it. This is literally just the beginning. You have all the time in the world to party and celebrate when you actually deserve to party and celebrate once your company succeeds – but you’re obviously not there yet. On a similar note, it may also be difficult at first to adjust to an office environment that is active, at often times loud, fun, and happens to like to party – especially if you are used to working at the comfort of your home with your co-founders. It definitely was for me. While it affected me in being easily influenced to go out every weekend, adjust to it quickly and take advantage of the environment. You’ll find that you can actually be more productive in this kind of setting if you find your inner zen.
#2 – When it comes to funding, strike when the iron is hot.
Having pivoted into PostRocket just a mere 3 weeks before the first Demo Day, we had a lot of mentors and advisors advising us to hold off on fundraising until we can build out a more polished product and prove out traction. We were in a unique situation as our pivot was essentially the natural evolution from the mix of our pre-pivot product and our social media consulting experience. We are just productizing what we’ve already done, but regardless, it made total sense in my mind along with my teammates’ minds in holding off – especially because our fundraising was rather slow and lacking in the first two weeks. With only $50K in commitments by week 2, we nearly put a pause on our entire fundraising. Week 3 started and thanks to AngelList, we picked up almost 50 introductions in a matter of a week. I made the ultimate decision of giving two more weeks to see where it would go. Had we not succeeded in those two weeks in securing a significant chunk of our target round, we wouldn’t have been able to circle back later to the investors who passed. However, had we not followed up with the introductions, the “hotness” would have quickly subsided and I believe it would have been almost throwing them away. “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – Wayne Gretzky. Only a handful of startups ever get so many inbound requests at such a short time, but the heat of your deal only lasts for a couple of weeks. It’s also a strong forcing function. Ultimately, we took a gamble and it paid off. Which leads to…
#3 – Optimize for Demo Day, but it *is* just a day…
Make sure whatever you do, you optimize to have the best numbers, as polished of a product you can have, and your story and pitch nailed for Day 1 of Demo Day. Even though, in terms of fundraising, the Demo Day is literally just the start of your efforts (remember, you’re not going to close your round from a 3 minute pitch), it *is* also the best springboard to fill the foundation to drawing attention to your startup. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig. No single startup at this early stage is as pretty as it seems or is presented, but assuming you are fully optimizing for the best outcome and performance on Demo Day, you’ll have an easier time at hopefully building some “hype” (God, I hate that word) around your startup and in return, an easier time raising your round.
#4 – Practice makes perfect in everything. Especially in your pitch.
Out of the 34 companies that presented in my class of 500 Startups, there was a clear correlation to the startups that had the best pitch on the Demo Days to how much the founders practiced giving their pitch weeks in advance. With the first Demo Day being on the last week of January, I spent majority of my time in January prepping and practicing the delivery of my story and pitch for PostRocket. Did it slow down our progress in product? Yes. In the end, did we benefit from the extra focus and time spent on practice? Fuck yes. We received a lot of press attention being named One of Most Interesting Startups in our batch. More importantly, we were able to snag a few investors who were at the Demo Day. Regardless, it’ll be pretty difficult to not find yourself practicing your pitch when Paul and Dave are breathing down your neck cursing you to improve your pitch. Which leads to…
#5 – Be prepared for the advice overload.
If you speak to 10 people, chances are, you will receive 9 different advice on approaching the same problem. There will be a lot of advisors and mentors including Dave, Paul and Christine who will most likely be giving you advice on solving a business related challenge throughout your stay at the 500 Lair, including the Demo Day pitches. Using the Demo Day as an example, I changed (“pivoted” if you may) my slides for PostRocket 5 different times in a matter of 3 weeks – with every new advice I received from different people. Ultimately, it ended up with me being confused about telling my own story of my teammates and myself and PostRocket. On the 5th time changing the slides completely, I went with what *I* felt was right taking into account all the advice and contradicting advice I received. The moral of this story is that it is your pitch to pitch and it is your startup to build and grow. Advice is advice. Filter through them and make the decision that *you* feel comfortable about making. It’ll save you a lot of time and headaches.
#6 – Most of all, in the midst of all the chaos and craze that is 500 Startups, remember to have fun while Executing Like a MotherFucker (#ELaMF).
You’ll quickly see in the first couple of days at 500 Startups that it’s pretty crazy, but also good. The other founders that you work so close in proximity with every single day for the next 14 weeks will become your friends for life. Have a great time *while* ELaMF’ing.
So here’s to the batches #4, #5, #6, #7 and to many beyond. I wish you the best of luck and success. You are in one of the most prestigious tech startup accelerator in the world. Remember to take advantage of it. Learn as quickly as you can and do it as efficiently as you can. Welcome to the family #500Strong
Dave, Paul and Christine, you’ve got an LP in me and my teammates when we succeed.