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How to Win at Excelerate Labs


Posted on 6/1/2011 by Ethan Austin

How To Win At Excelerate Labs 2011

Dear Excelerate Class of 2011,

Last summer, we participated in the first ever class of Excelerate Labs. At the end of the program all these smart people wanted to give us money. It was pretty awesome. Here is my guide on how to win at Excelerate.  I hope this summer is awesome for you too.

Love,

Ethan

PS – Excelerate is broken down into three distinct months:  Mentor Month; Mini-MBA Month; and Pitch Month. I’ve broken this love letter down into a three-part series (in part to correspond with the different months of the program but mostly because I’m too long winded to get my points across succinctly in one normal-sized blog post).

First off, we’ll start with How to Win at Mentor Month and in future posts I’ll cover How to Win at Mini-MBA Month and Pitch Month.

How to Win at Mentor Month

STEP 1: DO YOUR HOMEWORK

At the beginning of the summer you’re going to get a list of mentors.  Do your homework. Google them, read their blogs, their Twitter feeds, their LinkedIn profiles.  Find out what their interests are and what you have in common with them. You create your own luck.  The more prepared you are for your mentor meetings, the more likely you are to connect with a mentor and create a long lasting relationship.

Super-Awesome Pro Tip:  There will be days when you meet with 6 or 7 mentors in a row. You’re probably not going to have time to do 20-30 minutes of research on each person.   On days like this, split up the cyber stalking between you and your co-founder and then brief each other before the meeting.  It’s not as good as doing the research yourself, but sometimes there’s just not enough time.

Super-Awesome Pro Tip:  After each meeting, make sure to send a thank you email within 24 hours.  (This is probably an obvious point to most people but worth noting).

STEP 2:  LISTEN MORE THAN YOU TALK

Your mentor meetings are short, typically about 20 or 30 minutes long.  So naturally, you’re going to want to cram in as much about your business as possible.  But trust me on this one, it’s more important to listen than to talk.

During your first 20-minute meeting, chances are you’re not going to  solve any of the world’s problems.  Your goal with the first meeting is to simply to get another meeting.

How do you do this?  You let them do all the talking.

Seriously, mentors love to tell stories and talk about themselves.  How do I know?  Because I’m mentoring some young entrepreneurs at a company called JoinStart right now and I absolutely love, love, love to hear myself talk and say awesome stuff!

Last week, when I met with the JoinStart founders for the first time, I already knew I liked them.  Why? Because they didn’t try to spend the whole hour talking about JoinStart.  Instead, they  asked a few questions and then let me ramble on for an hour telling stories while they took notes.  By the end of the meeting, I knew a decent amount about their backgrounds, about where they grew up, and what motivated them to start this business and they knew an absolute TON about me.  I still didn’t know a whole lot about their business, but that’s okay.

The reality is I liked them because they listened to me and most importantly they thought I was cool (obviously true). If they ever want to schedule a second meeting, we can get down to real business then.

Super-Awesome Pro Tip: If you have a 20-minute meeting here’s a basic breakdown of how to spend your time.  Spend the first 3 minutes chit-chatting about common interests. Spend the next 2 minutes telling them about your business. Then spend the last 15 minutes listening to their stories and advice.  And take notes! It will give you stuff to talk about in your thank you emails.

STEP 3: SEND OUT UPDATES ON YOUR PROGRESS

In the startup world, you hear the word “traction” thrown around all the time. Traction is really just a schmancy word for progress.  i.e. does your startup have revenue and paying customers?  If so, you’re in business. Investors love to see these things because they’re looking to mitigate risk.  The more traction your company has, the less likely it is that their investment in you will go belly up.

Now, if you want any of the angels, mentors or VCs that come through Excelerate to invest in your company at the end of the summer, you’re going to want to show them some traction. But don’t wait until Demo Day to pitch them. Build rapport with them throughout the summer by communicating your company’s progress.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to periodically send out a simple email newsletter to the mentors, angels, and VCs you have met.  But remember, these mentor types are busy, so keep it brief. 4-6 bullet points should do the trick.

Super-Awesome Pro Tip: Of course you want to highlight the important stuff in your newsletter, but that doesn’t mean it has to be super dry and chock full of  business sounding words like “margins” and “Lifetime customer value”.  Investors like to laugh just as much as the next guy.  Show them that you are  a real human by throwing in a quick joke every so often and you’ll be amazed at what a better response rate you will get.

STEP 4:  DON’T BE AFRAID TO SHOW YOUR CARDS

When we went through Excelerate, we often wondered how much info we should disclose to our mentors.  Mentors are like doctors.  They can only diagnose your business if you are 100% honest with them and they fully understand your problems.  If you have a purely mentor-protegee relationship with them, then you obviously want to disclose everything to them.

On the other hand, if you envision that some of your mentors are potential investors do you really want to show them all your cards?  Now, I’m sure others probably disagree with me on this, but I say show them what you’re holding.  Think about it this way: if a mentor is going to take the leap and invest in your pre-revenue company, what she is really doing is investing in your team. At such an early stage, she doesn’t have enough hard data points to make an informed decision based on the economics of your company, so she has to base her decision to invest on whether she has a solid understanding of what is going on inside your head and in your heart.  If you don’t open up and share these things with her, you’re all but closing the door for her to invest in your company.

STEP 5: UTILIZE TROY, SAM AND BRIAN

After just one year, Excelerate Labs was already ranked the third best Startup Accelerator in the country behind TechStars Boulder and Y Combinator. And the reason is simple. It’s all about the team running the show.

Sam, Troy and Brian are incredibly passionate about helping the Excelerate companies succeed.  In terms of strategy, they’ll give you honest, no BS and often times blunt feedback.  In terms of connections, between Sam and Troy they know just about everyone on the planet.  Seriously, these guys are the best mentors you could ever ask for. If you’re not talking or emailing with Troy, Sam and Brian on a daily basis, you’re not getting your money’s worth.

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