Last Friday, members of the Grad Tech Club joined forces with our undergrad counterparts to visit TechStars Boston in their headquarters downtown. The visit was a great experience where we learned a lot about one of the most prestigious accelerators out there. Like most accelerators, TechStars provides space, resources, and mentorship for the 1% of applicants it accepts as well as some upfront capital and the promise of more in a convertible note should the company get funded later on. More than just great companies, however, Techstars is committed to producing great ecosystems. One way they do this, which I found to be particularly interesting, is by bringing on not only startups but also coders and young business professionals as Hackstars and Associates. These people serve as floaters so to speak, and resources available to the different Techstars companies. This gives an on demand labor force for the companies and the opportunity to plug in to the Techstars ecosystem for the Hackstars and Associates.
We also got a good glimpse into what sort of startups Techstars is looking for:
- Team first–Since most companies have some kind of pivot it is important to invest in good teams. If you invest in an idea and then the idea changes…what did you really choose?
- Very rarely take single founders, instead look for 2-4 person groups with at least one business and one technical co-founder–A Hustler and a Hacker
- Look for founders who are passionate about what they do, where at least one has significant domain expertise
- Ideally, the founders will have acute experience suffering from the pain point their product is trying to solve
- Companies that already have traction in the form of a working prototype, some revenue, an established user base, and a functional business model
- Companies that get shit done
- Since Techstars is an accelerator they are looking for companies that are primed for that growth curve. They often take companies from incubators or more early stage accelerators like Mass Challenge, and sometimes even take companies on their third or fourth time applying
The real highlight of the visit, however, came by happy accident. One of our group asked a question about hardware startups. As we were sitting in the open, various people had been shuffling by all afternoon and at that moment, our host stopped the gentleman walking by and asked if he had a moment to answer a question about hardware startup. The guy turned out to be Harish Kamath, cofounder of Headtalk the makers of Magnet. In the next 5-10 minutes Harish managed to give us a succinct and anecdotal summation of the real value of doing Techstars. His product, Magnet, is a bracelet with a pair, designed for long distance significant others. When you tap your bracelet, it lights up and vibrates its counterpart to let your significant other know you are thinking of them, regardless of the distance that separates you, helping people stay connected. Although they had a crude prototype, Harish and his co-founder are engineers not designers but one of the mentors Techstars paired them with was the design firm IDEO. With the help of this mentor, they learned to understand their users better and develop form factors that really met their users needs and preferences. The next task however, was to produce multiple prototypes for testing and time was in high demand. Founders juggle a million and one tasks at a time, as Harish put it, “they don’t call it an accelerator for nothing!” and therefore assembling the prototypes was a task that was hard to find time for. Once again, Techstars could help! Techstars has a 3d printer and one of the Hackstars had an interest in hardware and was happy to help, assembling dozens of prototypes so that Harish could focus on other aspects of the business. Finally, there is the value innate in being part of a cohort. The Magnet team decided to do a Kickstarter campaign and needed to create internet buzz about their product. Once again, however, these guys are engineers and not web marketing experts. It turns out, however, that fellow Techstars cohort members Fortified Bicycle had already successfully executed two Kickstarter campaigns and social marketing was literally Mavrck‘s product! This gave Harish and his team the resources and advise they needed to tackle the digital world, even with a hardware product.
We could not have had a better case study in the value Techstars brings and the reason for doing an accelerator. BC already has some strong ties to Techstars through previous hackstars and associates and we look forward to an MBA startup slingshotting out of the program sometime soon!
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