It's a big deal. TSF's Chris Heivly and Dave Neal pull in investors from all over the country, there's a huge turnout, and it's a one-of-a-kind event here in the Triangle. Also yeah, sorry, the thing is sold out.
So tomorrow, starting at TSF's Pitch Day, you'll hear a whole lot more about these five companies and their plans for the future. But today, I thought we'd walk through the post-acceleration process and get a sense of what happens next. There's a lot of talk about accelerators - how many there are, how viable they are, how many startups come out of them and how many of those succeed.
But no one is asking the right question: Once incubated, exactly what does an entrepreneur do? Instead of looking at the model, we need to be looking at the product.
If acceptance into an accelerator is a windfall, let's also double down on good fortune, to give us a "product" with a lot of promise. One of the graduates from the last TSF class, which was the initial class, won the NC IDEA $50K grant the very day he graduated. How's that for a head start?
That graduate was Anil Chawla and his startup is Archive Social.
I've known Anil since before Archive Social, when he was still at IBM and working on TweetyMail in his spare time. I remember the day he left IBM to go full-time entrepreneur and I was thrilled for him. He's what a founder should be. He's technical, he's a great presenter, and he isn't married to the what he develops. He sees needs and fills them, as opposed to building something cool and then going out to find customers for it.
It's been about a year since Archive became a real thing and six months since Anil graduated TSF and won the grant.
So success is right in his grasp, right?
"Yeah, " he laughs. "Going through a program like that is great, especially for morale. When we graduated, we had already sold our first three customers. Now the question was, could we sell to anybody else."
And that's the dilemma. Being part of a big name startup program definitely gets you in the door. But what happens after graduation, or more importantly, after after graduation.
"The first couple weeks. everybody wanted to talk to me, everyone in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, they've seen your pitch, they think they can help you and they want to help. They're inspired to help."
It comes from both sides, people who are genuinely invested in your success and people who just want to sell to you.
"Some of them can actually help you, and some are investors, so this is awesome. Local investors start putting you on a calendar if they like you. But the first two weeks are just you getting buried in email and communications of people who want to talk to you."
How effective was it, that whole communication deluge?
"It... wasn't really that effective in terms of us moving forward. Certainly, some of the investors are still engaged, which is great."
And then what? The communication dies down as people move to the next thing. What's next?
"So the very next thing I had to do was create a marketing plan for our NC IDEA grant. This was two weeks of building a more detailed strategy of how we would spend their money. We set a number of internal milestones. Then we worked on getting the product to 1.0 and I brought on my first hire in August in sales and business development, Adam Tury."
What was your big money spend?
"The National Association of Government Webmasters conference where we got our name out there and planted ourselves in a high visibility situation with customer prospects for the first time. We sold five customers from that event."
When was this?
"This is September. And that's about the time we realized we had to start thinking like an independent company. We're in the real world on our own, we need office space."
At this point you're building the product and the company at the same time.
"Yes. And it's no longer about getting to pitch day and nailing the pitch, it's about building the company. You have to have milestones. So at this point we got really focused on near-term achievement. We wanted to prove we had a market we could sell into. We got a few dozen customers, but we lost sight of the big picture a little bit. We didn't get to focus much on strategy."
But that makes sense -- figuring out what you want to be before putting your foot on the gas.
"That's where are now. We have customers, we met our first internal milestone and revenue target at the end of October. We still have funding, so we're trying to grow the team and scale the company. At the same time, we'll be looking to raise money next year."
What's the biggest lesson you've learned over last six months?
"Being in an accelerator in some ways sets artificial deadlines. People expect you to leave and raise money, but sometimes that doesn't make sense in the timeline of the company. For us, we needed to prove out some bigger picture concepts and then go raise money based on the scope of that company mission."
Yeah, we did that too. We realized we wanted to be something we weren't yet, and there was a much bigger payoff.
"And that's where we are now. Sales are good, the company is growing."
You've totally left the nest.
"Yeah. There are no more deadlines, just milestones. You have to replace those artificial deadlines with internal milestones, and figure out how you can hit those milestones as part of an overall fundraising strategy. You're planning for the long term, not for a pitch in 12 weeks, there's a huge difference there."