Blank Sheet of Paper: What’s NEXT for entrepreneurs?

As an entrepreneur pursuing a software product idea or a software-enabled service business, how do you get from a blank sheet of paper to a company with customers and momentum? This biweekly column by Derek Koch, Founder and CEO of Independent Software, focuses on ideas that can help you on your path. 

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As an entrepreneur, how do you transform your idea into a mature startup which is either ready for some investment, or one that has a path to organic funding? As a part of the startup support system, how do you encourage a larger, more robust community of committed startup teams and companies to feed our economy?

NEXT Up?

A lot of people want a more robust local economy. Probably everyone does, usually for different reasons. In this age, a key ingredient to a robust local economy is one that attracts and retains exciting and scaleable startups.

On April 15, 2014, a group of ten startup teams, one facilitator/mentor (yours truly), and seven mentors from across Connecticut to bring the first Startup Weekend NEXT to the Northeast. The program, created by Google, is designed to provide teams with tools and support in applying Customer Development methodology to their idea. Although it can help teams with a variety of fundraising plans, the NEXT program is intended to help teams prepare for an expanded accelerator.

In short, NEXT as a global program aims to help teams become more mature and investable. And in conducting NEXT in Connecticut, we found that maturity comes at the expense of a lot of work and growing pains. That may be unsurprising. What might be more surprising is that the process of building mature startups requires a community to even consider.

For this first NEXT program, we were really lucky to have ten great teams join us: ArtCapital, Be More, BestTime, Buckit, Drop Shops, Mobbin’ App, MusicVault, Krickit, Reliv, and Stellar Learning. The teams were from Hartford, New Haven, other towns in Connecticut, and two were from New York City.

I’m especially grateful to our dedicated mentors, who volunteered time to help the teams through the process: Steve Gifford of OEM America, Alena Gribskov of Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, Bill Kenney of Test My Pitch, Mark Lassoff of LearntoProgram.TV, startup consultant Mike Roer, Jack Smith of John Mcg. Consulting, and Luke Weinstein of LW Associates.

Growing Pains

In past Blank Sheet of Paper posts, we’ve talked about the job of the entrepreneur, and the role Customer Development plays in that role. So far, we’ve focused mostly on the mechanics of the process. A dimension we didn’t explore is that while using Customer Development techniques takes time, entrepreneurs also need to learn how to apply them before they can use them.

That isn’t a problem, is it?

It is only if you consider the fact that learning Customer Development well enough to apply it is a full-time job, and even seasoned entrepreneurs don’t always get it right. And actually applying it is another full-time job. Every week, for 5 weeks, NEXT teams spent 3 hours meeting as a group, an unknown number of hours scheduling and conducting the required customer interviews for the week (up to 10 meetings), and prepare to present their results during their next session (pun intended).

In the old days, entrepreneurs went into a garage, and came out millionaires. They dropped out or quit their jobs, and the rest was history.

But our world of innovation today is increasingly competitive as the cost of starting up drops, and knowledge of the process increases. The challenge of “becoming mature” becomes even clearer when you consider that many, but not all, entrepreneurs are managing their runway by working on their startups after school or work. Which is, by the way, an entirely sensible option. It just doesn’t leave a lot of time to read up on methodology, interview customers, and keep yourself on track with everything else a startup requires.

That means that as an entrepreneur, you have to be committed to putting in more than your fair share of work. But your fair share of work also differs from place to place.

One of our NEXT mentors, entrepreneur and investor Luke Weinstein, described it this way, “like anything in business, the biggest obstacle is making the commitment in time and energy to their start-up and the Customer Development process. Entrepreneurship is not a part-time lifestyle.”

If you place yourself in an environment where everyone is familiar with startup lore and process, and can teach you and critique you, that cuts your investment of time down a lot (if you are coachable). If you’re in an environment where resources like grants or early money help you free up your time, your probability of success grows.

Rob Steller, of Hartford-based Stellar Learning participated in the NEXT program as a startup. Rob describes just one challenge entrepreneurs face, “The biggest challenge in the customer development process is making sure you’re getting honest feedback. People are generally trying to be nice and not shoot down your idea, but it’s important to get at their true feelings [if you're going to] determine whether or not your product will be a success.”

The kicker is that for most entrepreneurs, there’s a community that needs to be present for the process to work:

  • A mentor
  • Other entrepreneurs to help you
  • People who know where the choice resources are
  • Potential users and customers to interview
  • Someone to tell you where to find the users and customers you want to interview
  • Another mentor with a different specialty
  • Co-founders

At the end of the day, while home runs can just happen, if you aren’t already in a startup hot spot, that isn’t much of a strategy. And if you’re an entrepreneur, hope is usually not a reliable strategy either, although it certainly helps in being patient when applying one.

In a program like NEXT, or reSET’s accelerator, large numbers of teams can do all of the above.

Who Cares?

When all is said and done, why does it matter to anyone who isn’t involved in this process? Our own Suzi Craig, in a recent Voices post, concluded that if our own backyard isn’t the place we want it to be, we should act to change it.

As the Whiteboard’s Startup Roadshow moves from Stamford, a part of Connecticut with quick access to New York’s customer, labor, and capital markets and a growing AdTech & Digital Media focus, to Hartford, the social entrepreneurship and insurance-focused capital city, we are seeing just how important mentors and committed entrepreneurs learning together is a critical element to building a robust and growing startup community in Connecticut. More programs like the NEXT pre-accelerator and like reSET‘s Social Enterprise Accelerator, and others, combined with targeted early money can help entrepreneurs make the leap from interesting idea to team with prospects.

About derekkoch

Derek is CEO and Founder of Independent Software. Independent Software’s mission is to “help entrepreneurs win”; the company works with early-stage ventures to build new web and mobile software products, place talent through the A100 software apprenticeship program, and access the statewide startup community through the company's online magazine, The Whiteboard. Derek and the company also partner with such organizations as UP Global, Startup America, CTNext, the Grid, and the Connecticut Technology Council, Derek works to create and advance initiatives that help entrepreneurs manage and lead successful startup ventures rooted in Connecticut. Derek holds a master's degree in Management from Northwestern University's Kellogg School. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and their two sons.