TSF Bootcamp Winston Salem

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There are few entrepreneurship programs at North Carolina A&T University, so when Keenan Smith (top left) and Everette Slocum (right) of Brown Box Works learned about The Startup Factory boot camp in Winston-Salem, the students were quick to apply.

They'd already built a campus information app called AggiesLand as well as Today Was A Good Day, an app for users to share positive thoughts about their days. They also had an early angel investor in Piedmont Angel Network's Troy Knauss.

But they had a new idea called Espi—a sort of scavenger hunt app for college students to discover content around campus—and they desperately needed help with their pitch.

Meanwhile, George Dimopoulos had just graduated from Greensboro College and was getting ready to launch The Train App, a fitness app that lets coaches, personal trainers or fitness enthusiasts share 10-second or shorter instructional videos of simple exercises that people can do during a workout. It works like Twitter's Vine app, letting users scroll through the videos to find the best.

But Dimopoulous needed help narrowing in on a target customer, and figuring out how to market to that audience.

Credit: The Train App

The men were among a class of eight startups that came from Greensboro, Wilmington and Winston-Salem to join The Startup Factory's inaugural boot camp in August. It's part of a strategy by the Durham accelerator to build a pipeline of entrepreneurs around the state. Today, TSF announced that HQ Greensboro would host the second boot camp in early December. An application period starts today.

Those chosen from a field of more than 30 applicants in August ranged in age, industry and stage of company. Some had only an idea. Others had been in business for years but with new products in development. Most had little traction or customer adoption for their products. 

But that was the goal—to find entrepreneurs doing things earlier so The Startup Factory trio could have the most impact. According to TSF Venture Associate Lizzy Hazeltine, there were more than enough good quality candidates. They hope the same will be true in Greensboro.

Breaking down Bootcamp

One of the biggest challenges of the boot camp is condensing the three month accelerator into five days. The Greensboro program will be even shorter—three. 

Here's how it worked in Winston-Salem:

When the companies arrived on Monday morning, the teams agreed on a code freeze. They wouldn't work on their products all week so they could focus on the exercises and education provided by The Startup Factory team.

Day one was all about the lean canvas model, a version of the Business Model Canvas developed by Ash Maurya but with insights from Eric Ries, Steve Blank and other entrepreneurship thought leaders. The gist is to focus on the market and customers first and use those findings to develop the product.

Day two helped the entrepreneurs translate the Lean Canvas into who they are as a business, what they do, who they help and how to help. And that makes up the outline of the eventual pitch. The teams spent some time doing some early prep on the pitch too.

TSF Bootcamp Winston Salem
Dave Neal, right, and Chris Heivly, left, lead The Startup Factory's first bootcamp in Winston-Salem in August 2015. Credit: The Startup Factory

Day three started with intensive one-on-one mentor sessions with Durham-based Adam Schultz, founder of Bold Interactive (now Verified Studios). According to Hazeltine, he is "frighteningly smart and very insightful and doesn't have time for pussyfooting around", which is why he often spends time with accelerator teams vetting their ideas and asking a lot of questions about their business models and strategy. The full canvas was completed in the afternoon based on the first two days of learning and the outside feedback from Schultz. The teams began to put together experiments to test their hypotheses. 

And there was more pitch prep. Specifically, The Startup Factory believes in first creating a 10-word summary of the business. Then focus on getting the crowd or investor's attention in the first 15-30 seconds. That hook should lead to an explanation of the problem displayed on the lean canvas and the solution that the company's offering will provide. Then detail the market opportunity and wrap up with an ask.

The ask shouldn't necessary be money. According to Hazeltine, they can ask for help, advisors, customers, etc. Participant Vikki Spencer, an author and blogger on child development theory and human psychology, for example, asked for connections to moms who could give feedback on her new content and coaching business called The Mom Whisperer.

Thursday, there were deep dives into multichannel digital marketing, team dynamics and the opportunity to "socialize" their ideas in front of the group. Each team pitched four times that day to prep for Friday's big event.

"You can't fake the pitch," Hazeltine says. "You have to do it again and again and again, dozens of times before you do it for real in public."

 That evening, they also attended a local event called Startup Grind, in which Ryan Pratt, the founder of fast-growing GuerillaRF, spoke.

There were two additional practice pitches Friday morning, and more talk about hiring people, building a team and raising money. The companies gave their pitches to a crowd of local entrepreneurs, investors and local city leaders that afternoon. 

In the weeks since, The Startup Factory has helped the teams connect with advisors or others in their network. They've been encouraged to stay connected to each other too. The team is still determining its role post-boot camp. The hope is that some might apply to the accelerator in Durham. But so far, they haven't announced an application period for the next cohort.

Choosing the cities

Winston-Salem was a good fit for the first camp because Flywheel agreed to provide the space, support, logistics, parking and plenty of coffee, all for free. There's also a large creative community thanks to the many agencies, designers and creatives working in the tobacco industry, as well as Wake Forest and several universities nearby. 

HQ Greensboro is a similar startup campus, just opened in downtown Greensboro near The Forge makerspace and the offices of several young startups. Feeding into the campus is a year-old coworking space called Co//ab, where aspiring or new entrepreneurs are invited to pitch at monthly Idea Slam events, as well as a handful of local universities with new emphasis on entrepreneurship.

HQ Greensboro grand opening
HQ Greensboro opened to the public in September. Credit: HQ Greensboro

The Startup Factory has mentioned Wilmington, Asheville and Charlotte as potential host cities for future boot camps. The team expects to hit each city at least once a year.

So far, the feedback seems positive.

For Dimopoulos, a week of advice and assistance from The Startup Factory gave him the confidence to go forward full-time with The Train App. It will soon leave private beta, and he's been successful in lining up high-profile brand ambassadors to be early adopters when the app goes live.

The Brown Box Works team put marketing plans on hold while they spent time validating their idea with college students. They began working with an experienced developer in September to put that feedback into action in the app.

The key to success at TSF Bootcamp, Hazeltine says, is the ability to "take in more information than they can possibly handle, synthesize it and make the decision themselves. They know their companies best."