Fast Thoughts

Week Eleven – Balance

“The long practice of daily work gives us the muscles and sinews to uphold the work that wants to move through us” – Julie Cameron, The Artist’s Way

This summer the StartFast teams have worked incredibly hard. They’ve all learned how to do more faster. They’ve developed skills and abilities through experience and experiment, trial, tribulation and occasional triumph. Their entrepreneurial muscles have grown strong.

Each team is now ready for Demo Day, and has begun to look beyond it. Decisions like the balance of work and life beyond StartFast, the location of their office, where they will live, and how they will keep the momentum going are on their minds. As they continue to grow and develop their businesses as fast as possible, these entrepreneurs are also speaking with prospective investors and must balance the time committed to fund raising with the time required to run the business.

GuardMyAngel exceeded 10,000 Android downloads this past week (a rate of 200 new downloads per day) and launched their iPhone app. Canvita incorporates your story, creativity, and web presence (personal, professional and social), making it what some are calling Resume 2.0. Mozzo‘s email productivity application, MozzoMail, is now available from a button within Gmail and is processing 7,500 emails per user and 400,000 unique links for relevancy based on which contacts you communicate with most. Relevancy is also central to adtech company, StreamSpec, who struck up a partnership with SiteScout.com, one of the largest ad unit providers in the business, to serve it’s ads when users hover over relevant images.

PadProof continues to rack up photographers (approach the 1,000 mark) who pay a commission when their images are sold through the application. BitePal‘s restaurant discount application is generating revenue in Ithaca and Syracuse, as the company continues its expansion into Rochester and Tucson. Tivity‘s CEO reports that they are working with five separate investors to identify who will lead the first round into this active lifestyle / employee health and wellness company. RevoPT, who are revolutionizing physical therapy and training through the use of video and mobile, have 20 physical therapists across 12 clinics nationwide using their beta, including some high-profile sports teams.

It’s amazing how quickly these companies are progressing. There will be a lot more revealed on Demo Day, but you have to be present to win. So balance your priorities accordingly and register now. We look forward to seeing you!

 

Investors – How to increase your chances to get in on the next big thing

He who has the gold rules. This is almost always true. The exception is when a deal is so hot that investors are competing for the company’s attention. As an investor, should you just shy away from such an opportunity? If so, you may miss the next big thing and a chance for truly world class returns. So how do you ensure that you get the best opportunities? How do you stand out from the rest? Here are some tips.
1. Be clear about your level of interest
Most investors give mixed messages to companies, taking a long time to get to a “no” or a “yes”.  The majority of investors will be ambiguous about any deal that comes in front of them. You can differentiate yourself simply by being clear and decisive.
2. Define concrete next steps
Dragging your feet is the surest way to lose out on a deal. If you’re interested in the company, then define specific next steps at the end of the meeting. Examples are: “Let’s get you together with some my partners later this week,” or “I’ll send you a copy of our due diligence list by Wednesday and I’d like to hear back from you with an idea of which items you’ve already prepared.”
3. Use the other golden rule
Treat startup CEOs the way you’d like to be treated. Respect their time. Don’t make data requests of the company unless it’s something you need to move the investment process forward. Schedule in-person follow-up meetings. Don’t pass off the principals to junior associates or professional advisers (lawyers, accountants, etc). CEO’s want to know they are dealing with the decision-maker.
4. Be responsive and engaged
Respond to the CEO’s emails promptly and substantively. “Thanks for the update,” doesn’t cut it. Take the time to give a thoughtful response. Such as, “I read your update with interest and have a few thoughts I’d like to share with you. Call me.” Or, “I thought of a potential partner you might like an introduction to.”
5. Don’t be shy about your value-add
Pitch your firm or yourself to the company. Other than money, how can you help them? How much of your attention can they expect and why should they prefer to work with you versus another investor.

These are the signals that entrepreneurs in the hottest startups are trained to look for. If you’re not prepared to spend the time to do everything on this list, then you probably won’t get the very best opportunities for investment. If on the other hand you are, then you can beat much larger firms or individuals with much larger checkbooks and grab a stake in the most promising startups on the planet.

If you haven’t yet registered for StartFast Demo Day, August 16, 2012, then now is the time. Seats are limited. Register now.

Week Ten – Investor Ready – 11 ways to improve your odds in raising capital

Throughout the StartFast program we drive our teams to build great companies and stress that this is much more important than raising money. Nonetheless, building a high-growth company requires financing. So we guide our companies to be financeable (to avoid the four pitfalls pointed out in StartFast the book and) by validating a large market opportunity, proving that there is an attractive way to make money in it, and building a strong team that can execute on that. StartFast’s Demo Day, unlike many recent demo days we’ve heard about, will be rife with opportunities for investors. All eight StartFast companies are seeking investment partners, and all eight will be investor-ready. Here are 11 ways from the StartFast book to get your company investor-ready and improve your odds of raising capital:

  1. Have a product or service that people are using and that is generating some revenue.
  2. Be able to relate how your product or service helps your customers make more money, save money, change their lives for the better or save their lives.
  3. Identify your target market; fast growing markets are best.
  4. Know who your competitors are and how you’re different.
  5. Have a written sales and marketing plan identifying who your customers are and identifying proven cost-effective go-to-market tactics.
  6. Have a forecast of how your business will grow over the next 2-3 years.
  7. Have intellectual property agreements in place with your team. Have any relevant patents filed.
  8. Make sure your team has both entrepreneurial and domain expertise and has invested a lot of its own time and money into the venture.
  9. Use well-respected professionals (attorney, accountant, IP attorney) to represent you in the financing.
  10. Know the kinds of deals prospective investors do, which companies they’ve invested in and cite parallels between them and your company.
  11. Unless you’re looking at more than one offer, let the investor lead the discussion on valuation.

Our teams are busier than ever this week. Not only are they building great businesses, but also making sure they’re investor-ready, with virtual data rooms to support efficient due diligence. While it’s true that several savvy investors are already having meeting with StartFast teams, we look at Demo Day as the moment we’re managing to the peak of investor readiness. There’s always time to meet with interested investors. After all, either it’s just another chance at pitch practice, or something more.

Week Nine – Community

Week 9 of the StartFast Venture Accelerator has come and gone; four weeks left to go until Demo Day, August 16. This week everything that happened pointed to the word Community. For example:

  • SU and Cornell administration, faculty and staff leaning in to help StartFast and its teams succeed
  • StartFast resources and teams banding together to stand-up two companies’ products to keep those companies from foundering, and then celebrating as those companies began to thrive
  • Meeting other startups in the broader community at the Tech Garden, Student Sandbox, Tech Meetups, hackathons and Startup Weekends (e.g. Grafighters, Rounded, Singlebrook, BrandYourself)
  • StartFast 2012 co-founders talking about coming back next year as mentors
  • Seeing brand new companies co-founded by StartFast interns
  • Having mentors fly in or drive in from far away, just to spend time with our teams (e.g. Matt Gough, Steve Gal, many others)
  • Substantial support and active engagement from national and regional sponsors like TriNet, UVANY, and Manning & Napier
  • Seeing new incubators and accelerators begin in Upstate like Z80 Labs in Buffalo and GrandSlam Alley in the Capital District
  • Support and participation from angel groups across New York (SCFCNY, ENYA, WNYVA, RAN, and the New York Angels)

The Big Picture

Silicon Valley is a special place. It’s entirely futile for Upstate New York to try to be “the next Silicon Valley”. Manhattan is a special place too, and likewise futile to try to replicate. Upstate New York is home to great colleges and universities with over 500,000 students. That is a lot of talent and creativity and that is one of our unique strengths. We also have a passionate, engaged and supportive entrepreneurial community, low cost of living and good quality of life factors, especially for families. This region will never be Silicon Valley or Manhattan, but we can still be a great entrepreneurial community in our own way, with our own strengths and perhaps avoiding some of the weaknesses that SV and Manhattan have.

Brad Feld tells us that it’s a 20-year journey. We agree with him that it takes the long-term committed leadership of entrepreneurs to make a sustainable entrepreneurial community thrive. That’s why StartFast is entrepreneur-led, entrepreneur-funded and requires a minimum four-year commitment from its investors. We’re in this for the long haul.

There is a multiplier effect at work too. I like to call it the Pay It Forward mentality. Tech entrepreneurs, the best ones anyway, are always available to help one another – often with no formality or expectation of immediate or specific return. This is not altruism, but rather a culture that understands that we are all connected and that helping each other is the only rational choice once you know that. That’s what I mean by Community. And we have a vibrant entrepreneurial community like that here now. Programs like StartFast and the Sandbox are examples of what makes this entrepreneurial community grow. Our 2012 founders will come back as mentors in 2013 and beyond. They will send us applicants they recommend. Some will stay in the area growing our economic base  and some will set up shop elsewhere, spreading our reach to other communities. Some will succeed wildly, putting a larger supply of capital back into the system through their own desire to invest and through the returns they provide their investors. Some will fail, releasing the talent in these companies and the wisdom of lessons learned the hard best way to enrich other companies. And thus our entrepreneurial community grows.

Thanks for letting me expound on the Macro. I needed that. Day to day there are challenges. Teams fall down and are lifted up again. Founders and teams have crises of all kinds. If pain builds character then we must be constructing the Great Pyramid of character. But the StartFast community and the larger entrepreneurial community increases the likelihood that each team will find success (by joyce). There are eight dramatic, compelling, personal, heartfelt, passionate stories unfolding at StartFast. There are eight great companies being built. You don’t want to miss a single one. You must join over 200 investors, founders, mentors and friends at Demo Day, August 16, 2012.

Weeks seven and eight: The Rise of the Lean Product Manager

Pitch practice has begun at StartFast along with the requisite preparation for Demo Day. Every team is creating a presentation as well as an online data room with the basics that an investor would need for due diligence after a term sheet is accepted. Starting with 30-second elevator pitches and working our way up to 8-minute demo-day pitches, each team is preparing to tell their story in a compelling, personal and factual manner. We also began weekly CEO conclaves every Monday morning to create another opportunity for sharing challenges, solutions and generally cross-pollinating. All these activities are in addition to teams continuing to write and debug code, launch applications and run marketing campaigns. As these challenges mount, the need for a new role has arisen in most if not all of the companies – the Product Manager.

Lean Product Management

Each of the StartFast 2012 companies has developed quickly using the Lean Startup principle of evolving towards Product/Market fit through the process of Customer Development. The primary tool of this process is iteration – testing each hypothesis and making fact-based decisions. The Product Manager is in charge of this process, determining which experiments to run as well as the criteria for success. Until now, the role of Product Manager role may have been spread across more than one person, but as the intensity and complexity of this activity rises, most of the companies have found that designating an explicit individual to manage the product is helpful. Typically the Product Manager owns product P&L, product marketing and the product roadmap (the timeline of releases, schedule of features and feature specifications).

In a lean startup, Product Managers only spec out the minimum necessary to demonstrate each feature and get early feedback about whether customers actually use it, like it or not. The two-fold benefit is saving time/money and retaining flexibility to adjust quickly if a feature proves not to work in the market. A Product Roadmap is the schedule of new features into releases. It is a living document maintained by the Product Manager and a useful tool in communicating plans with customers, developers and investors as long as the process is made clear – that it is subject to constant revision.

The relationship between the Product Manager and developers is a close one in a lean startup environment. Specifications of features, while written, may not be detailed enough to effectively outsource development. This means that the Product Manager should ideally sit close to the developers and should always be available to promptly respond to questions, even if by Skype or phone. The Lean Product Manager must know the skills and abilities of the developers and incorporate that knowledge when designing and spec’ing new features.

As important as knowing the developers, knowing customers is even more crucial. Product managers need to get out of the building and talk to customers often. Understanding the use case from the customer’s point of view is paramount to any product feature or function decision. Knowing individual customers is necessary but not sufficient. Product Managers also need to know the statistics of customer behavior so that they can prioritize features that the largest number of customers want and need. Surveys can help, but customers are notoriously bad at knowing and reporting accurately what they want. Trust what customers do over what they say. It is also the Product Manager’s job to devise quick experiments which can measure customer behavior without having to develop the entire feature first. Lean startups can test new features before writing code by offering the feature and performing the function manually until it’s clear that building it for real would be worthwhile. Having staff fulfill requests or perform functions (ala “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”) can yield valuable customer feedback needed to build the right product feature. Even paper mockups and fake prototypes can work to find out what customers really value.  The judicious application of these techniques allow prioritizing new features in the most productive manner.

Our teams regularly work 16-hour days during the StartFast program, but it’s also important to have breaks in such a demanding schedule. July 4th was an opportunity to relax, bond, celebrate and blow off a little steam with an evening of canoeing, tractor rides (with or without crop circles), trampoline, football, softball, Frisbee, bonfire (with or without s’mores), sliders, dogs, salads, sangria, beer, drumming, didgeridoo, and oh yes – fireworks.


Week Six – Stress Fractures

Steve Blank likes to say that all startups learn from failure. At StartFast, a big part of the process is to define a business hypothesis, test that hypothesis and learn from the results. A failed hypothesis gives you the data and knowledge to make a better hypothesis and move forward. By it”s nature, StartFast accelerates that process, increasing the probability that a startup will find success before they run out of time and money. By the time Demo Day rolls around, these teams will have formed, tested and iterated on so many hypotheses, so many times that they will truly be ready to scale and be financed.

Another effect of the venture accelerator model is to increase the level of stress on the startup teams. Working long days on tight deadlines with so much riding on the outcomes, the founders naturally get a little frayed around the edges. In some cases, the stress causes a fracture – a team member realizes that they aren”t cut out for the life of a high-growth startup co-founder. There”s no doubt that this is traumatic, but better to test the team”s mettle and find issues now rather than later. Week Six presented a fair share of “team dynamics” as it is euphemistically called (AKA “cofounder issues”). StartFast mentor and TechStars alum Aaron Foss visited and shared war stories with the teams letting them know that their trials and tribulations are not unique. Nietzsche (and a huge number of lazy pop lyricists) said, “What doesn”t kill me makes me stronger” and that”s certainly evident in all the StartFast teams.

While dealing with team dynamics, these eight startups are also accelerating user acquisition, refining business models and testing out marketing approaches. Mozzo”s goal this week was to double to the number of users from the previous week while pursuing a controlled eMail marketing campaign. They exceeded this goal and in the process, gained a better understanding of the variables at play. Mozzo will launch other campaigns this week including LinkedIn, Facebook and reaching out to small-to-medium size businesses that are Google Apps users. Request an invite for MozzoMail here.

Cayotech continued driving strong downloads of GuardMyAngel on the Android platform, published two press releases, and is in the final stage of discussion with University of Rochester to include their flyer as part of the orientation material for incoming students. Cayotech is also experimenting with ad campaigns via Facebook, AdMob, AppBrain and others which are initially showing about $0.25 per customer acquisition. The team is sprinting to get their iPhone version out next week. Get the Android version .

PadProof has added over 500 photographers to date and is in the process of optimizing their event upload function to drive additional revenues.  The big photo labs that partner with PadProof can reach hundreds of thousands of photographers and the PadProof team is hoping to sign up over 5,000 photographers and 60,000 end-users by Demo Day. Download PadProof here.

Tivity applied growth hacking tips from StartFast Mentor Phil Kaplan and had a 55.6% increase in customer requests while StreamSpec continued partnering with new ad networks and web publishers.

RevoPT signed up more clinics and stream-lined their product work flow based on customer feedback. BitePal closed deals with more restaurants as StartFast HackStars Ben Gelb and Elliott Regan worked into the wee hours to release the beta product. Canvita continued to get validation, direction and sign-ups from mentors and others while also actively recruiting additional resources.

Also this week, StartFast sponsor Bousquet Holstein held office hours, assisting the teams with legal questions and issues. StartFast mentor Michael Geer shared with us the inside story on how mobile app Badoo grew quickly to 150 million users and StartFast mentor Martin Perry met with all the teams on site. We also had a Skype redux with StartFast mentor Jonathan Matus who runs hacker development for Facebook Mobile.

Week Five – Growth Hacking

I always meet very interesting people when I visit General Assembly in New York. Upon arriving Monday before teaching my class, Growth Hacking or How to get your first 1000 (or 500,000) users I ran into one of the inventors on a patent in an area in which I have great interest. Later, in the class, I had company founders from NYC, an entrepreneur from San Francisco, a securities analyst with J.P. Morgan, someone from the London Business School and the brand partnerships manager for Klout. For those of you who are interested, here is a copy of my class presentation:

Of course the StartFast 2012 Teams have been doing their own Growth Hacking during week 5, figuring which campaigns yield the best results. Regardless of the results, learning rapidly is the desired outcome. For example, getting 0 clicks from a very specifically targeted Facebook campaign is definitely telling you something. It might mean that ones assumptions about target markets may need revision.  Of course, rapid growth tells you something too.

Speaking of rapid growth, GuardMyAngel has nearly doubled the organic rate of new user acquisition by adding Facebook integration. The indications are that this is a naturally viral app. Since joining the StartFast program, Guard My Angel’s development and go-to-market initiatives have boosted its ratings in the to 4.8 out of 5 – indicating its mobile application is well received in the market. Personally, I can”t wait for the iPhone version to come out (just a couple of weeks!) to see how growth accelerates.

Mozzo Analytics just released MozzoMail, a significant enhancement over MozzoLinks. MozzoMail organizes attachments and links, and in my opinion, is an incredibly cool productivity app already. The Mozzo team is evolving it so rapidly, I”m pretty sure it will be insanely great before the summer”s over.

Many of the teams have two-sided growth models. These companies have to growth-hack each of their respective funnels. For example, PadProof needs both photographers and consumers. They rapidly signed over 500 new photographers and learned that they needed to make uploading the photographer”s profiles and events easier to enable rapid revenue growth. BitePal needs both restaurants and eaters so they are building a simple merchant portal to automate restaurant on-boarding and deal maintenance. StreamSpec, who achieved revenue in Week 5, needs both advertisers and web-publishers. They are scaling up their back-end and adding advertising inventory to support rapid growth.

Some teams have two-sided growth funnels that can be grown by concentrating solely on one side. For example,  RevoPT needs both trainers/therapists and clients/patients, but can rely upon the trainers/therapists to invite their clients to download the app. They are putting up some amazing early sales statistics (e.g. a 25% response rate and a 75% close rate). Likewise, Canvita needs both employers/recruiters and employees/job-seekers, but to a certain extent, if they get one, they can rely upon getting the other. Tivity used to have a two-sided growth model, but because of a recent pivot, has simplified both it”s value proposition and funnel. Now they just need to sign up athletes, and they have a plan to do so rapidly.

All assumptions will be tested by trying, failing (or succeeding sub-optimally) and trying again. By August 16, Demo Day, each of these teams will have done enough customer development through iteration after iteration that they will be both very tired, and ready for angel or venture investment.

Week 5 mentor meetings at StartFast included Amy Johnson, Owner of Capstone, Inc.,  Jonathan Matus, head of hacker development for Facebook Mobile, and Jeffrey Rubin, CEO of SIDEARM Sports. We”re grateful to these and our other mentors for keeping in touch with and guiding the teams.

Week Four – Starting to Scale

 

On Wednesday, June 6, StartFast mentor Brad Feld, Managing Partner of Foundry Group and father of TechStars, presented on how to get the most from mentors. He then answered questions. Mike D”Eredita, CEO of Mozzo Analytics asked, “Where should we be at this point in the program?” Brad answered, “What are you in Week 4? Tired and confused.”

The mass sigh was almost audible as the blood pressure dropped to near-normal for everyone in the room. I could almost see thought bubbles appear above multiple heads saying, “Thank God it”s not just me!”

Over the first four weeks of StartFast 2012  our eight teams have met individually and in groups with over 30 world-class mentors. This point is the peak of “mentor whiplash”, a phenomenon which happens when founders receive a tsunami of often conflicting advice from multiple mentors.

“We do this for a reason.” says StartFast co-managing director Chuck Stormon, “The entire StartFast program, beginning with the application process and continuing right on up through Demo Day and beyond, is designed to challenge companies, ideas, products and founders in such a way as to find weaknesses and accelerate the failure of those elements which will hold a company back.”  Co-managing director Nasir Ali adds, “By failing fast and iterating, StartFast companies evolve at a greatly accelerated pace. Where else can a company safely fail five times in three months?”

Acceleration is what it”s all about. StartFast has three teams who are already in the scaling phase, building momentum as fast as possible. Guard My Angel topped 7,112 total downloads of their this week as they rolled out the new features and experimented with campaigns on Facebook. This team is ready for a big partnership to drive massive user adoption. PadProof added 160 new photography studios this week alone as they leveraged partner-power in both social media and email campaigns. StreamSpec just started the scaling phase as they went live with their first customer this week, web publisher SnagFreebies.com.

On the brink of scaling are Mozzo Analytics, BitePal and RevoPT. MozzoLinks is about to shift from private beta with 138 users and over the next few weeks start scaling users exponentially. RevoPT has 6 physical therapists in 3 clinics using their beta release. One therapist created 15 exercise videos last week alone.  They have mapped out a plan to onboard more clinics over the coming weeks. BitePal is developing a merchant portal to allow restaurants to onboard themselves with a few clicks. They”ll be testing marketing campaigns over the next couple of weeks. Two StartFast teams, Tivity and Canvita, are beta testing new prototypes each week, looking for the right mix of design and features before scaling. Getting this right is crucial and these teams are iterating rapidly to find product/market fit.

It appears that the high-pressure environment of the StartFast Venture Accelerator is beginning to produce diamonds. For this we are entirely grateful to our fabulous mentors who all have some connection with Upstate New York and are helping our founders in countless ways. This week mentors Kate Dohring, owner of Rock It MediaLee Huang, Product Director, Digital Newsstand and Emerging Content at Barnes & NobleKate Brodock, Executive Director of Digital & Social Media, Syracuse University | CMO, Girls in Tech | Founder, Other Side Group, angel investor Jud Gostin, high-growth icon Philip Kaplan, Jeremy Levine, Founder and CEO of StarStreet Sports, Brad Feld, Martin Babinec and Michael Flannery, Managing Director of Redwood Partners met with the StartFast teams.

 

Week Three – Gaining Traction

This past week of the StartFast program was a momentous one as each of the eight teams began to get traction. We started off the week with a Memorial Day barbeque at Nasir’s.  With their complete team reunited, PadProof made breakthroughs, both in vision and in execution.  Realizing their potential to make professional digital images available for sharing and purchase on any iPad, the team began building real momentum, signing up 63 new photography studios on their platform this week.

GuardMyAngel‘s 6,969 downloads to date is only the beginning as the team maps out an execution strategy to multiply that number. RevoPT launched their application in private beta and set up their first client clinic this week. At least two more clinics are expected to sign on early next week.

Mozzo Analytics issued a new release of their MozzoLinks beta. CEO Mike D’Eredita explains, “In the cloud, everything is a link.” Mozzo’s vision is to make sense of data spread multiple cloud repositories as well as email and local files.

Canvita, Tivity and StreamSpec all launched beta’s this week as well.  BitePal is making in-roads into the Syracuse restaurant scene as a microcosm toward building a national brand.

Mentor meetTivityings included Aaron Newman, CEO/Founder at Techrigy, Don Carr, Associate Professor of Design at Syracuse University, Michael Duda, Managing Partner, Consigliere Brand Capital, LLC and also a mentor for TechStars New YorkGreg Gibson, Founder and CEO at Scrappy, Startup Advisor at Gibson Venture Labs and Advisor at Scripped Inc., Zach Schulman, Managing Partner at Cayuga Venture Fund and Senior Lecturer of Management at the Johnson School of Cornell University, and Tim Godzich, co-founder and President at QBHealth.

In the National Spotlight – Week Two of StartFast 2012

The StartFast Venture Accelerator was featured in an in the Wall Street Journal May 23rd. While the article points out many benefits for angel investors and venture capital firms it also seeds doubts on start-up ‘accelerators’ in general. StartFast’s founders invite investors to see for themselves.

On August 16, 2012, over a hundred investors will attend StartFast’s Demo Day in Syracuse, New York. Many will be there to insure that they don’t miss “the next big thing”. “Demo Day is the culmination of a 100-day boot-camp, pushing startups to become investment-grade opportunities,” says Chuck Stormon, who manages StartFast with Nasir Ali. “Mentorship is key, and we’re fortunate to have 85 world-class mentors to work with our companies,” adds Ali. With roughly 500,000 college and university students, Upstate New York has been exporting talent to great companies around the world. As StartFast mentors, some of the brightest lights can share knowledge and experience with younger entrepreneurs.

During week two alone, StartFast teams met face to face with mentors James Turino, investment banker at Redwood Capital Group,  John Max Miller, serial entrepreneur, angel investor and CEO of Grand Slam Alley, Gus Weber, Entrepreneur in Residence at Polaris Ventures and DogPatch Labs, Sean Branagan, Director of the Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Newhouse School, Syracuse University, Tom Schryver, CEO of PIXL, Brian Model, Managing Director at Stonehenge Growth Capital, David Montanaro, serial entrepreneur and investor in the Seed Capital Fund of Central New York, Grant Kirkwood, CEO of Unitas Global and serial entrepreneur,  Ilissa Miller, CEO of iMiller Public Relations and by Skype with Brian Cohen, founder and CEO of Launch.it and Chairman of the New York Angels, the largest and most active angel investor group in the world.

In spite of the tendency for StartFast’s eight teams to experience ‘mentor whiplash’ receiving so many diverse opinions on their businesses, mentors provide much-needed perspective. “Entrepreneurs can tend to get stuck if their ideas are not challenged.” states Ali. At the end of week two, several StartFast companies (including Mozzo Analytics and Canvita) have launched new versions of their products, while PadProof, Cayo-Tech, RevoPT, and BitePal test breakthroughs in their business models. All eight are racing toward Demo Day and planning to be ready to attract major investment.

Week One of StartFast 2012

The first week of Startfast 2012 was a whirlwind of activity as our 9 companies barely had time to move in and get their feet on the ground before the mentor meetings began.

Incredibly valuable meetings took place between our companies and StartFast Mentors Martin Babinec, Peter Rothberg, Kyle Blumin, Elisa Miller-Out, Guha Bala, Brad Treat, John Coccocia, Matylda Czarnecka, Micah Rosenbloom as well as accounting firm Evans & Bennett. We”re grateful to these mentors for their time spent with our founders.

Several notable milestones this week:

  1. HackStar Ben Gelb hit the ground running and began helping each of the teams with technical tasks.

    HackStar Ben Gelb

  2. Mozzo Analytics launched a private beta of their application Mozzo Links, the first application of their platform.
  3. StartFast and our 8 companies were featured in PRNewswire, the Central

    New York Business Journal as well as in a story on regional public radio station and NPR affiliate WRVO.

  4. Guard My Angel founders Amir Cohen and Hagar Romach received press recognition in a story on WRVO.

After an eventful and productive week of 16 hour days, the teams caught their breaths and networked with companies from the Syracuse Tech Garden at the first StartFast happy hour mixer and a Saturday afternoon barbeque hosted by our Program Coordinator Eric Fuchs and his wife Mikaela on Skaneateles Lake.

Meet the StartFast Class of 2012!

After a grueling three and a half month review process encompassing over three hundred startups from all over the world, nine entrepreneurial teams will be making the trip to Syracuse, NY for the 2012 StartFast Venture Accelerator program.  Reserve your seats now for Demo Day in Syracuse on August 16, 2012.

StartFast Class of 2012

Mozzo Analytics (Syracuse, NY and Philadelphia, PA) MozzoLinks extracts all the links from your gmail. In one glance, you will see an organized summary of your links, searchable by people, topics and time. All your links, right at your fingertips. (http://mozzoanalytics.com)

PadProof (Orlando, FL and NYC) The photos you want, in the palm of your hand. A proofing app for the moments that matter, built to go anywhere you do. Preview, share and purchase your photos from your photographer with the swipe of a finger. (http://padproof.com)

BitePal (Ithaca, NY) BitePal makes getting a restaurant discount fast and easy. No payments, printing, or registration necessary. You simply choose one of the deals we offer, provide your cell phone number so we can send you a confirmation message, and then show this message to the waiter at your table once you are done eating. (http://bitepal.com)

Cayo-Tech (Tel Mond, Israel) ‘Guard My Angel’ is a mobile application that watches over you without compromising your privacy. Whether you are walking alone in a dark alley, getting on a cab, or anytime you feel you need someone at your side, in the case of an emergency, we will notify your family and friends with the information they need to help you. (http://guardmyangel.com)

RevoPT (Ithaca, NY) Web and mobile applications to make physical therapy more personalized and more effective (by joyce). RevoPT brings a simple, personalized, and interactive home exercise program that keeps patients accountable and increases the efficiency and effectiveness of rehabilitation. (Website under development)

Tivity (NYC) A social network for people looking to find, schedule, and share active lifestyle activities with people around them. (http://tivity.us)

Streamspec (Syracuse, NY and NYC) a next generation, image based Internet advertising company. (www.streamspec.com)

CanVita (Denver, CO and NYC) The visual and evolving CV for the era of the social web, Canvita showcases your evolution and best work in a fun and intuitive way.  (http://canvita.com)

SF4AD 2012 Meet StartFast Finalists

We are pleased to report that after screening hundreds of startups, we have selected 20 great companies from a lot of outstanding applications. On April 4, 2012, many of these finalists, along with StartFast Mentors and Investors will meet at the Syracuse Tech Garden for SF4AD 2012 – StartFast For A Day. Registration is by invitation only and no one will be admitted without a ticket. For more details or to register click here:

http://sf4ad.eventbrite.com/

You will receive your invitation and password by email.

StartFast in NYC Feb 29/Mar 1

Chuck and I have two busy days planned in NYC this week.  While most of our time will be in meetings with various investors, mentors, and startups, we do have a few public events planned.  If you are interested in learning more about StartFast please join us at any of the following events:

February 29, 2012

2:00-4:00 PM  Open Office Hours with Chuck and Nasir (sign up)

5:00-6:30 PM  Chuck is teaching a class on startup acceleration (sign up)

March 1, 2012

12:30-1:45 PM  We will be speaking to NYU entrepreneurs (NYU Stern Tisch Hall, Room UC-24, 40 West 4th Street)

6:00-7:30 PM  We will be at a StartFast in NYC Happy Hour with some of our friends and mentors (Tom & Jerry’s 288 Bar, 288 Elizabeth Street, NY, NY 10012)

Hope you can join us!

How to get your first 1000 users

Suppose you’re an internet startup, you’ve built a prototype, managed to get people to visit your site and some of them have signed up. How can you create more visibility to scale up your user base by a factor of 10 or 100? You can’t just do the same things harder, you need some different tactics.

But first, revisit what you’ve done and make sure that it’s kept pace with your adaptations of your product. Do your website, demo video, and any other promotional material you’ve got out there still describe what you’re doing now? Do they address what your target market cares about? If not, make any adjustments that are necessary to bring them into alignment. Once that’s done, here are some ways you can turn up the volume.

Of course applying to a mentor-based accelerator (like StartFast!) is a great way to get noticed. The folks running the accelerator have an extensive network of contacts and will help you get noticed whether you get in or not. If you do get in, you will get all the visibility you could hope for, as these programs and their mentors are nationally and internationally renowned. Here are some other useful techniques for building awareness and your user base.

Natural Friends

Natural friends are groups of people that should like you and your product. If you haven’t already done so, create a Facebook page, a LinkedIn page, a blog and a Twitter feed for your company/product/service. Then search for individuals and groups that attract an audience you’re interested in. Join the group, follow the individuals and become an active participant tweeting and commenting regularly. Try to add value; don’t just pitch your product. Create a YouTube and/or Vimeo channel and post your demo video there. There are large communities of people you can plug into this way.

Don’t forget old-fashioned list-serves/bulletin boards and trade associations. These are great ways to reach people in your market if you’re not too salesy in your approach. Offer promo keys / discount codes to the first 100 members that sign up. Be generous with beta[1] access. These are the people who are going to help promote your business. Running a contest and inviting users to a launch party are two of my other favorite ways of creating additional buzz. Be creative, but stay within your budget!

Advertising

Getting results with paid Adwords and Facebook accounts can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive. By all means experiment and if you are getting results  continue and expand your budget somewhat. However, if you haven’t cracked the code with paid advertising, then put this technique on the shelf for now. TV and radio spots are too expensive but sponsoring a podcast, vlog, or internet bulletin board may be within your budget. If there are specific groups that you can reach this way, ask the publisher about sponsorship opportunities. Craigslist is free and popular so put an ad for your solution there. DMOZ.com, the open directory project, is another free resource. Also check out BOTW.com (Best of the Web) which is not free, but still relatively cheap. There may be other sites specific to your target market that could be helpful to you and many offer basic listings for free. For example, in the content space, creativecow.com and behance.net offer a free listing.

Trade Shows

Trade shows can also be an inexpensive way to get the word out if you use a little guerrilla marketing. Check the upcoming tradeshows in your area and see if you can get an “Exhibits Only” pass for free. More and more tradeshows are offering these to increase the perceived booth traffic. Bring your application with you on your phone, tablet or laptop, along with some postcards with a screen shot and your value proposition along with a QR code (two-dimensional bar codes that can be interpreted by a mobile phone camera equipped with a code-reading app) pointing to your web address. As you walk around the tradeshow, ask people if they’d like a free demo or beta access to your solution. People love free stuff. You might pick up a hundred new users in an afternoon if the tradeshow caters to people in your target market. Get a QR code for your website or app store entry. Websites qrcode.kaywa.com, Qurify.com/en, Delivr.com/qr-code-generator, and Goo.gl will convert a standard URL into a Quick Response (QR) code. Once converted, you can download the QR image file and then attach it to your e-mail signature, upload it as a Facebook profile photo, print it on the back of your business card or post it anywhere you want.

Another way to gain free access to trade shows is by joining a partner in the booth that they’re paying for. Have the partner add you to their exhibit staff and you’ll get in for free. This has the advantage that you can set up meetings ahead of time and have your prospects meet you at your partner’s booth. Friendly tradeshow staff will guide your prospect to your location. And while you’re waiting, you can try out your elevator pitch on everyone that comes to the booth. Why would your partner do this for you? Maybe your app utilizes their cloud computing platform, plug-in or framework. So promoting your app promotes their solution too.

You will get invited to trade show parties by other vendors. These are business/social events so it is expected that you’re going to tell people about what you do. Go, have a good time and be prepared to hand out your postcards and talk about your app. Be respectful of the fact that the party host is paying for the event and don’t disrupt their marketing mission.

Trade association professional meetings and other industry events will often put out requests for volunteers to help out with the meeting. By volunteering some of your time, you’ll get to attend the entire conference. Don’t pitch during the sessions, as these are purely educational. However, during the breaks and meals, everyone you meet will ask, “What do you do?” That’s your cue to tell them how you and your startup are going to change the world and their lives.  If they’re interested, offer them access and ask them to invite their friends or blog about their experience.

Press

Now that you have a prototype to put in the hands of editors and bloggers, you have a chance to get noticed. Make sure your demo video is up to snuff before you start and that your site is ready for a couple thousand new users. Put up a Press page on your website where anyone can download for free a high-res version of your logo or icon, screen shots, founders’ bios, and 50, 100, and 300 word descriptions of your company, value proposition and product or service. You’ll be surprised how much traction you get just by making it easy on the media.

So how do you get covered by the bright lights in the blogosphere like TechCrunch, Digg, GigaOm, VentureBeat, Wired, TUAW, New and Noteworthy, LifeHacker or other opinion leaders? Perhaps there are publications that are even more specific to your market that you’d like to get coverage in. Here is how you get your product or service noticed and hopefully written about in someone else’s blog:

  1. Read the blogs you want to appear in to get an idea what the authors like to write about, their style and how they like to tell a story. Try to understand their worldview.
  2. Comment on the blogger’s posts. Give some thought to the comments you make and don’t pitch your product. The idea is to become someone the blogger knows and respects. Believe me, they read your comments. Next start tweeting the blogger’s posts out to your network, or use LinkedIn or Facebook if that is more your style. Link to their blog from yours. If you meet socially, spare them your elevator pitch. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but there is a point. You are making deposits in the relationship bank with that blogger. You will earn interest on those deposits later.
  3. Draft your own story, to the best of your ability, in your chosen author’s voice and style. The better (interesting, engaging, concise) the story, the more likely someone will want to tell it. Make sure there’s some drama in the headline, and make sure you are truthful. You could refer to a large company missing the boat ala, “The opportunity Facebook missed,” or how fast your company is growing, or the big customer you just won (get their permission first). Tie into trends that your targeted blogger has written about.
  4. So what? As you read your story, ask yourself, “So what?” over and over until you’ve rewritten the story into something that matters or means something. Example: “We’re launching a new social gaming site.” So what? Get specific. Change that to “Our users are tired of social gaming with bad graphics. We’re upgrading the user experience to the level of a game console so users can really get immersed.”
  5. Get rid of all the buzzwords like “killer”, “next big thing”, “new new thing” and clichés like “insanely good,” “radically better,” and certainly “the best thing since X.” Pop culture references are OK if they’re not too obscure[2].
  6. Make comparisons. Most people understand things more quickly when you can compare them to something they already know, and tell them what the differences are. For example, “MediaCloud is like DropBox for content professionals. It makes use of distributed cloud processors to accelerate uploads and downloads of big media files and takes advantage of HTML5 to provide a rich set of tools to view and manipulate all kinds of graphic and video content.”
  7. Include a list of your competitors and what makes you different.
  8. Get covered. Once you’ve done 1-7 above, there are two ways to get your company mentioned.
    1. Use the site or publication’s formal submission process, which is usually easy to find on the website. For example, for Techcrunch fill out the form at http://techcrunch.com/contact/, or
    2. Email the blogger, author, or editor directly.

You can increase your chances of your story getting picked up by giving the blogger of your choice an exclusive on your story, along with credentials to use your prototype. Always give free access in exchange for coverage. When you do get press, tweet it out, post it to Facebook and update your LinkedIn status with it.

Early spring for Upstate NY entrepreneurs

2012 is shaping up to be a great year for our entrepreneurs with lots of events to attend and successes to celebrate.

EXITS:  Hot on the heels of recent exits for Sensis (Syracuse), Kionix (Ithaca), and (Rochester), Buffalo-based Synacor debuted on the NASDAQ this past week, creating liquidity for two of the region’s early stage investors: Rand Capital and Advantage Capital.

FINANCINGS:  The Seed Capital Fund of CNY (a StartFast investor) reports that four portfolio companies are expected to close about $7MM in new funding this quarter.  In addition to SCF, participating investors include Cayuga Venture Fund, Rand Capital, Eastern NY Angels and several out of state angels/VCs.

STARTUP WEEKENDS:  Last November’s sold out events in Ithaca and Syracuse showed just how much talent is locked up in our region and the many serial entrepreneurs who are ready to mentor a new generation of startups.  This year promises at least four to six more such events, beginning with Albany in March and Rochester in April.

MEETUPS: Just a year after its launch, the Syracuse Tech Meetup group continues to grow in size and popularity, drawing hundreds of attendees.  The next meetup is February 28 and offers startups a chance to meet organizers and mentors from the StartFast and Student Sandbox accelerators.

Subscribe to the Upstate Venture Connect calendar via RSS to stay in the loop on future events.

Startup Opportunities for 2012

by Chuck Stormon

What a month January 2012 was! I started Jan. 2 by publishing Start Fast!, then flew off to Vegas to speak on Content in the Cloud at CES (4 minute video review of some of the coolest stuff from CES 2012), then launched the StartFast Venture Accelerator (we opened Applications on January 17), and then launched a new SaaS called MediaCloud with simultaneous demos at the NY Video Meetup and the Sundance Film Festival on January 26. This is the first time I”ve had a few moments to put my thoughts down on what I think will be hot startup opportunities in 2012 for software, mobile and internet ventures.

  1.  Advertising gets personal and startups that capitalize on this will do well in 2012 – “Consumers are generating everything from their own entertainment to their own advertising (and often they are one in the same). All these messages are highly personal, driven by the passion of individuals. More than ever, the personal side of ad:tech is about marketing for the people, by the people – and what role professional marketers have to play in this”. –  Rohit Bhargava, Senior Vice President, Digital Strategy & Marketing, Ogilvy Public Relations
  2. HD is the new SD –  With my super-thin wall mounted Samsung 55″ LED TV, I can”t stand to watch the “fuzzy channels” as my wife and I call anything that is not 1080p. Well that was so last year! My freaking iPhone shoots 1080p.  4K is the new 1080p. Cameras for shooting 4K are available for $5,000, which is within the reach of just about anyone who wants one. Software and SaaS applications for processing, transcoding, rendering, colorizing, storing, sharing, streaming, monetizing and just about anything else you can do with 4K video are going to be hot in the years to come. If you”re wondering where you can play that content, there”s already an 8K TV.
  3. Siri is just the beginning. We”ve entered the era of using our voice, hands, eyes – heck our whole bodies as input devices. Keyboard, mouse, touch-screens are already “quaint” (Hello Computer). Every application under the sun is a candidate for retooling with voice, gestural, and other new input methods ala Oblong (Brad Feld”s post on this one)
  4. Flash is dead. Long live HTML5! I”m a fan of HTML5. Works like an App but it”s in a browser. I hate Flash and I”m not the only one who does. It can”t die soon enough for me (sorry YouTube). There are too many startup opportunities here to enumerate (some mobile app opps). .
  5. 3D Gaming. We”ve all been subjected to an effluvium of bad 3D movies. Those glasses give me a headache. Well say goodbye to the glasses with new 4K 3D TVs. Immersive 3D gaming experiences are coming to smartphones and other handheld devices as well.Opportunities and challenges for startups abound.
  6. Please make my TV work again! Back in the day, before advanced tech, my TV worked great. I turned it on and flipped the channels until I found what I wanted. Why do Smart TVs suck so bad? Will startups fix the current horrific SmartTV user experience?
  7. Yes, yes. Social mobile. Facebook”s IPO will open even more opportunities for the Instagram”s, FourSquare”s and Yelp”s of the future. Startup opportunities abound.
  8. Apps in the real world. Sensors (like accelerometers; GPS receivers; cameras; RFIDs; temperature sensors, bar-code readers and more) are everywhere and give applications a way to know automatically what”s going on in the real world and with users. Crunching, mining and monetizing this data is a huge opportunity for startups.
  9. Social games. We”re still at the beginning of this powerful trend. Who knew we like to play with others? And ? Yikes. games please (
  10. The one nobody thought of. Except if you think of it, and make a startup success, then next year everyone can copy you! But be sure that you”re not the copy-cat. Here”s some practical advice. Here are a bunch someone already thought of. Here”s some market research.

Well I guess my New Year”s resolution about not writing trite top-ten-list blogs just went out the window. Cheers!

What we look for (the Basics)

By Nasir

In the 10 or so days that our website has been open for applications, the most frequently asked question is: What do you look for in your first screen of applications?

Answer. The first things we look for are: idea quality; team capability; and founder commitment

Idea quality:  StartFast has assembled an amazing group of mentors and our funding comes from private investors who are seeking high growth opportunities.  Both groups are making the commitment believing that their money and time will be well spent.  Ideas that are unlikely to inspire the interest of our mentors are also unlikely to be successful in getting follow-on investor interest and/or customer adoption.  We are looking for ideas that have the potential to create disruptive change and unlock significant economic opportunities. Period.

Team capability:  StartFast is a three month program and expectations of founding teams are high.  We expect teams to build a product, validate with users, and repeat until they get it right.  At the same time, they will have to create a business model, test with customers, tweak or pivot until they get it right.  For starters, it is more than a one-person job.  Our mentors will provide lots of suggestions and feedback, and we will have specialists available to help with specific design or coding tasks.  However, the core team should have the technical ability and business confidence to execute successfully on both the product and business tracks.  The best way for us to gauge whether teams can perform is if they apply early, then provide ongoing updates during the application period to reinforce their superiority with concrete achievements.

Founder commitment:  Last, but not least, our expectation is that founders applying to StartFast work on the startup full-time.  This may be the only non-negotiable requirement and stems from our experience as seed investors.  Our expectation is that teams will be in Syracuse for the duration of the program, but we do not have any constraints on where you take the business after graduation.

StartFast! Software, Internet and Mobile Venture Accelerator

One hundred days to get focused, get feedback, and get funded. We’ll give you enough money to pursue your software/internet startup full-time, co-working space, resources to work with, and continuous feedback on your progress from mentors who’ve done it before.  Post-program, our mission is to help you get the funding and resources needed to scale and achieve a successful exit.  Apply Now for this summer’s program or contact us to be a StartFast mentor, sponsor, investor or volunteer.

We’re not just another accelerator.  Besides world class mentors and program leaders, StartFast offers:

  • Access to high quality, affordable talent for your startup;
  • Ability to achieve your goals not just faster, but with an ultra low burn rate;
  • Our successful track record of getting companies funded;
  • Support from an emerging, globally connected entrepreneurial community;
  • There is no catch!  Our funding is entirely from private sources and there is no post-program residency requirement to limit your options.

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