Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Founder Institute Graduation

I’ve been lucky in my career so far that I’ve been in the right place at the right time.  When I made my decision to leave my old company Kate Boggiano and start a new one in the technology space, I happened to do so in time to be able to enroll in a tech incubator from silcon valley opening it’s first Chicago chapter.

According to their website (

The Founder Institute is a global network of startups and mentors that helps entrepreneurs launch meaningful and enduring technology companies. Through our four month idea-stage incubator program, you can launch your dream company with expert training, feedback, and support from experienced startup CEOs, while not being required to quit your day job. Our unique Bonus Pool also shares equity upside with all participants, creating local, teamwork-based ecosystems where great startups can flourish.
The Founder Institute's goal is to globalize Silicon Valley by launching 1,000 meaningful and enduring technology companies per year in 30 cities worldwide. It was founded in 2009 by serial entrepreneur, Adeo Ressi, and is operated out of a small warehouse in the heart of Silicon Valley.
I particularly like their infographic!

I found FI to be a very good experience.  Full disclosure, I’ve already been incubated once in my career so going into FI, I had a pretty good idea of expectations and how to manage them.   Coming from a fashion industry background, what I was searching for first and foremost was an introduction into the technology scene and I’d say I definitely managed to achieve that.  To really understand what FI was, I had to sit down and make my list (because that’s what I do!) and I’d like to share it with you.

FI Pros:
  1. Structure, homework, and task management.  When you start a business, your to do list can be extremely overwhelming.  For me, I was winding down one business and it was tricky to shut the door on the one (especially as it continued to generate cash flow) and focus on a second that was in idea phase (i.e. expenses without revenue).  FI forced me to sit down and plan out my second business even if only for 15 hours a week – it was a start that I was having a hard time finding on my own.
  2. Peer mentoring.  Thru FI, I met some really great people.  A few of these were the other Founders in the program and we developed a relationship that one can only develop in a setting like FI.  We are close, there is no b.s., and we genuinely care for each other and what happens to the respective businesses.  That is something very difficult to find in most realms of the universe!
  3. Access to mentors from the technology field in my city.  This was HUGE for me.  Having been entrenched in the fashion industry for the last 5 years, the tech scene seemed a little daunting.  It was great hearing from 3 different mentors in the tech industry every week and being able to talk to them one on one or in the big group – no questions were really off the table.
  4. Leave some founders behind mentality.  Another big draw for me was the idea that if you don’t pull your weight you are out.  After doing this before and seeing the different types of people that entrepreneurship attracts, it has always been clear to me that it isn’t for everybody.  FI understands that too and doesn’t want to waste the time of the serious entrepreneur with that of less serious or conflicted individuals.  Tough love for sure but well worth it when you are gearing up for one of the most difficult battles of your life.
  5. Inaugural year.  So not only is this the 2nd incubator I have participated in, but it is also the 2nd one that I have participated in that I have been a part of the very 1st class.  I love this!  Being part of the inaugural year means a few things: 1. great press cause it’s new, 2. flexibility of the organizers and willingness to listen for suggestions, 3. desire of the program to attach themselves to a successful enterprise and therefore sending press your way as well as help even after the program concludes.
  6. Talking points with competition.   Chicago is small and when there is a new guy in town, everybody wants to know what’s up.  I was able to have conversations with some of the most influential people in town (many that ran the “competitor” accelerators) because they wanted to know what was up with FI. It’s amazing how quickly you can turn their questions into a 1 minute pitch of your company and FI will teach you how!
  7. Learning Powerpoint. Ok, so this one might be a little personal, but prior to joining FI, I had never created anything in PPT.  Slightly embarrassing, maybe? But I did it and because I didn’t know it so well, my presentations were less about my graphic abilities and more about content which is important when presenting your entire plan in just 3 mintues!

FI Cons (and how I overcame them):
  1. 3.5% of my company gone. Right, so in my 1st company, I had a line of credit at the bank.  For this new company, I decided I wasn’t going to go that route again if possible for a few reasons: 1. I didn’t know tech and felt I needed some advisors and a bank doesn’t advertise the biggest wealth of mentors I’d ever found, 2. I wanted more of a partnership this time even if it didn’t involve a cofounder.  The bigger problem was I didn’t know what my options were or how to go about finding these options.  FI really helped me noodle this out from the cofounder question to how to structure a deal.  Had I paid a consultant or gone about it on my own, I don’t think I could have afforded the time or mistakes that would have most likely ensued.
  2. Homework and working groups.  Homework stinks – no matter what stage of your life you are in and working groups oftentimes are just a place for one person to vent or do all the work of the group while other people are goofing off.  At FI, both the homework and working groups were structured to help you and you alone.  The nice thing about that 3.5% is that not only do you give up 3.5% of your company, but the other founders also give up 3.5% of theirs.  If one or multiple companies succeed, then guess what, the founders in your class split 30% of the 3.5% of each other’s companies.  This shared knowledge helps to incentivize the good founders to help you when you need it and it reinforces my pro points #1, 2, and 4.
  3. Public speaking.  No matter how much practice, training, or instruction I get, this will never be a strong point of mine.  At FI, we spent a ton of time on our pitches and presentations.  I was never the best in the class, but I would definitely say I improved and throughout the semester, I’d estimate my heart rate was cut by at least 25% when presenting so that is an improvement. After my first experience at “hotseat” on the very first day, I can honestly say that any negative feedback I receive from investors or anyone for that matter, will be easy to shrug off.  Definitely a tough love perspective.

If you are considering signing up for FI go for it as long as you are:  1. ready to start a business, 2. ready to defend your idea while remaining open to changing your perspective, and 3. have enough time to invest in something you believe in.

Good luck!

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