Rethinking corporate innovation at Techstars

At Techstars, we’re building the best global ecosystem for founders to bring new technologies to market. One of the impacts that I think we’ll have long term is to change the way that corporations engage with startups. We want to help make those engagements effective and efficient for both parties. We do this in a few different ways.

First, we have an internal team of five people that focus on corporate relationships. They’re the folks who do amazing things like BizDevDay at Foundercon where there were 1500 meetings in a single day between big companies and our portfolio. They also work on M&A when necessary, and we recently completed our 100th M&A transaction out of the Techstars portfolio. They have deep relationships with most of the important large corporations in our space, and are constantly making connections to Techstars companies. From the large corporations perspective, they might think of this activity as corporate development or “corpdev.” We think of it as leveraging our scale to assist our portfolio of amazing startups.

Second, we partner with large corporations to build accelerators, like Techstars Music, Techstars Mobility, or Techstars IoT.  In working with so many large corporate partners, we’ve learned that some of them engage with these accelerators with a short term view, and some with a long term view. Let me explain.

When a corporate engages with an accelerator or with startups in , their short term view might entail them thinking about which one or two of these companies could “move the needle” for their stock, or fill some current strategic gap. They engage with the accelerator as if their job is to cherrypick. That’s all well and fine and it produces near term results in many cases, but it’s also short term thinking.

Other partners engage with a long term view. They lean in, and #givefirst which may at first feel somewhat alien to them. In this mode, the partner is thinking about how this could impact their business in 5, 10, or 20 years. They’re thinking about the startup ecosystem they are building around their own company, technology, and areas of interest. They’re trying to grow more cherries to pick later. The long term thinkers understand that current opportunities are only a small part of their role in growing an ecosystem around themselves. They lean in long term.

Startups are a long game, not a short one. As our partners actively re-think what corporate innovation means, they’re learning that it’s about both long and short term focus. They’re learning that they need corpdev programs that move the needle now, but they also need to grow the right ecosystems around themselves. And that times time, and patience. It takes good and helpful behavior around startups with a 20 year view. They are learning to be consistent in their approach to #givefirst. They are learning to leverage startups for innovation. And when they get it, when they start thinking long term in the context of startups… it’s pure magic.



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My first post about Yoga Pants

This is my first post about yoga pants, but hopefully not my last!

Believe it or not, dress pant yoga pants is a huge tech story. Better yet, a Techstars story!

Betabrand is a online clothier that outfits Web communities, and, this month, they’re donating to the Techstars Foundation based on sales from their top product! That’s right, dress yoga pants!

Go buy a pair or three and you’ll not only look amazing (or help someone you love look amazing while being super comfy), you’ll be contributing to help women and other underrepresented groups in high tech entrepreneurship! We call it Yogaid. No brainer!

If that’s not enough motivation, you can see some of the super-awesome female founders of Techstars companies wearing the Betabrand gear on that same page.

Time to go check it out!

Here’s a click to tweet if you want to spread the word!

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Pitch Your Insiders First

Imagine you’re about to go out for your next round of funding. Who do you pitch first?

It should be your insiders! Pitch first to those who have already invested. They are the most likely to give you direct and honest feedback to help you make your pitch better. They’re also more likely than anyone else to invest (again).

At Techstars, we’ve invested in more than 800 companies. We helped hundreds of them raise Series A rounds after their initial seed round. We’ve helped our accelerator program alumni raise billions of dollars. We want to help, and we are good at it. Yet it amazes that some companies still just hit the market without asking us or their other insiders to give them critical feedback on their pitch!

From our vantage point, it’s easy to see a correlation between those that pitch their insiders first and those who have the shorter and more successful follow on fundraising experiences. It’s not just about the feedback they get by pitching insiders first, it’s the awareness they generate. This often leads to introductions, re-investment from the insiders, and other goodness.

Don’t be silly. Pitch your insiders first!

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The 20 minute VC

I love the 20 minute VC podcast. It’s the perfect amount of time and Harry Stebbings does a great job attracting interesting guests and asking them the right questions. I was honored when asked to be on the show, here’s that episode.

Harry asks me questions like:

  • How did I make the transition from Founder to VC with Techstars and Fund I?
  • Fund I is one of the most successful funds in history; what was the structure with Fund I? Why did you choose a $5m fund size? How did you decide initial to follow on ratio?
  • Why were you so valuation sensitive with Fund I? Why were you so rigid on a consistent check size on Fund I?
  • Why did you decide to expand from being a solo GP fund? What are the challenges and complexities of fund scaling and how did you approach this?
  • What do you think about uncapped notes?
  • Why do you like big boring companies?
  • How did you meet Ryan Graves @ Uber and how did the Uber investment come about? (even more about that here)
  • Where does David still see inefficiencies in the current venture model?

I hope you enjoy it. I had fun doing the interview.

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The “lead investor” dance

The term “lead investor” is often code. Just like the word “quaint” is code in the real estate business for “small.”

Let me know when you have a lead investor.

Loosely translated, these words often actually mean “I’m not ready to commit.”

You see, many angel and seed investors view it as their job to establish a “free option” on investing in your company. They have no incentive to commit early so they tiptoe up to the line of commitment, making sure not to cross it. By telling you that they’re potentially “in” if you have a lead investor, they establish the free option to decide later. After all, they are so close to commitment, you’ll likely come back to them first once you do have a lead investor. It’s a way that they feel safer and don’t have to be an early committer.

Fight through this using direct communication. Break it down. You can ask them what it is about a lead investor that will cause them to commit. Perhaps they will say they want well defined terms. Perhaps they will say they want to ride on the due diligence and pricing of a professional. Perhaps they will say that they just need to see the terms.

Ask them to commit with the assumption that you’ll later have those things. Tell them you’d never hold them to their commitment if they didn’t like the terms once they’re established later. If they truly want to invest and they want to be helpful, this is what actually helps you. Commitment, even if it’s soft based on assumed conditions that you’ll ultimately satisfy.

And if you’re an investor, consider no longer using the “once you have a lead investor let me know” gambit. You can be much more helpful by simply defining the conditions under which you will commit to invest. And if you’re not ready, just say you’re not ready and be clear about what you need in order to make the decision. And most of all, if you’re a no, just say no! That will save everyone some time!

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Group think vs Group smart

We’ve been running Techstars for almost a decade now. Every time we select ten or so companies for one of our accelerator programs, there’s some kind of group dynamic at play. Multiple smart people are in a room debating which of the 1,000 or so companies we’re considering should be funded. And those rooms are full of very smart people.

A while back, some Harvard and MIT researchers looked at all of the Techstars selection data and reviewed how all of those companies did over time. We have always scored companies on a scale of 1 through 4 with 4 being the highest. This ensures that there is no “middle score” and forces some polarization. It’s a bit of a simplification, but what the research found was that the average group score contained much less “signal” than what the higher scorers indicated. In other words, if the group of smart people ranked a company as follows:

Person #1 – 4
Person #2 – 3
Person #3 – 2
Person #4 – 1

Then the average here would be 2.5, which is a relatively low score. You might naturally want to exclude that company from further consideration.

However, the best way to score this for Techstars selection purposes turns out to be by counting the number of fours only. The only scores that would beat this one would have had multiple people scoring it a 4, like this:

Person #1 – 4
Person #2 – 1
Person #3 – 1
Person #4 – 4

Here the average is the same as the previous example, at 2.5. But the signal is “two fours” here, which is a much stronger signal than in the previous example. The research showed that had we been doing that all along, our outcomes would have been even better. So today we pick our companies from amongst those with the highest number of 4s, and not based on the average scores.

As humans, we have a tendency to score things and then respect the opinions of everyone in a weighted fashion. When selecting startups or looking for truly innovative ideas, you have to fight this impulse. This matches well with my own experience over a dozen years of picking startups – my Uber and Twilio picks were instinctual gut reactions from when I was a lone angel investor just learning how to run the first Techstars venture fund. Many other smart people told me Uber was a dumb idea. They would have scored it a 1, bringing the average way down. I also remember telling other investors how silly Twitter was when I first saw it. I would have scored it a 1 also. Averages kill instincts when it comes to startups. Others have learned the same.

A smart group of people with high trust for each other learns to look for signal from those who are most enthusiastic, and learns to ignore the idea of averages. It’s likely that the people voting the top score have some intuition or insight, regardless of the number of naysayers. Learn to respect the outlying data points in any group evaluation, and you’ll make your own team “group smart”.

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