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An Insider’s Look at the Techstars Program: Remote vs. In-Person

An insider's look at the running a small business through a business incubator in the midst of COVID.

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As the Founder of This App Saves Lives, a proud participant in the Techstars Atlanta 2020 (remote) program and as the former CEO of VerbalizeIt (acquired in 2016), a language translation platform incubated (in-person) in Techstars Boulder 2012, I’m often asked how the two experiences compare. 

For those unfamiliar, Techstars is a highly selective business incubator program that admits roughly 10 companies per program out of a pool of thousands of applicants. Those who take part in the 3-month program are surrounded by talented professionals and exposed to a rigorous curriculum designed to accelerate business successes and failures. The goal during this pressure cooker of an experience is to tease out business and team weaknesses and enhance strengths, enabling companies to emerge far stronger (and oftentimes unrecognizably different) than they were at the outset. 

I made the decision to apply to Techstars Atlanta 2020 given the degree to which the Boulder program in 2012 elevated my own performance as an entrepreneur and that of our company. I did so fully knowing that being remote would pose its own unique challenges and opportunities. With the potential for COVID to linger for quite some time and the prospect of incubators hosting their programs in an entirely remote fashion, here’s one entrepreneur’s comparative take on the remote incubator experience:  

Similarities: 

It’s Still Truly Exhausting: Building a startup is like running a marathon and the blip of time that is Techstars is akin to doing an all-out sprint somewhere along mile-marker two! It’s physically and emotionally draining – and this is coming from someone who has completed an Ironman triathlon, run multiple marathons and who has been in these startup shoes before. Remote or in-person, it doesn’t matter – buckle up because you’re in for a daunting, exhausting but oh-so-rewarding journey ahead!

It Simply Works: The tried and tested structure of the Techstars program flat out works. The program is generally split into thirds: the first month focused on mentor-entrepreneur relationships and customer development, the second month centers on building the product and the final month focuses on honing the business pitch for potential investment capital. Each segment of the program is all-consuming, requiring near around-the-clock effort just to stay afloat. And as a sole founder, I ended every day feeling increasingly overwhelmed and yet mentally stronger and more confident in the prospects for our business.  

You Never Stop Learning: I’m 36. I’ve founded a business that was hatched at Wharton, incubated in Techstars Boulder, featured on Shark Tank and which was later acquired. I’ve also founded a telehealth nutrition coaching platform that failed (or a “good learning experience” as they say!) And now, I’m off to the races building a business with an important social mission that is near and dear to my heart. Even with more than a decade of successes and failures, I’m still learning. I learn every day and with Techstars that learning experience is amplified. I learn from the mentors, the unique perspective of investors, thought leaders and innovators, and I especially learn from my peer entrepreneurs. Remote or in-person, you never stop learning and I emerged from the program a stronger and more knowledgeable entrepreneur than I was when I came in. 

Differences: 

Energy and Buzz from Peer Portfolio Companies: I recall fondly being able to tap a fellow entrepreneur on the shoulder at 2:00am to ask for advice in the Boulder office. And there’s nothing that compares to the energy, buzz and work ethic associated with physically seeing your peers working just as hard (if not harder) than you are. It’s hard to replicate that energy in a remote environment, despite the remarkable job that Techstars has done employing technology to bridge that gap. 

Relationships with Other Entrepreneurs: Oftentimes overlooked, one of the biggest values of Techstars is the relationship you develop with other entrepreneurs in the program. Nothing beats being in the trenches with fellow entrepreneurs, lifting each other up when times are tough and celebrating successes, no matter how small or big the victory may be. And while I emerge from Techstars Atlanta feeling lucky to now be close with a new group of entrepreneurs who I genuinely respect and admire, I can only imagine how much closer we would be had we all been physically working side-beside.

So, is one approach better than the other? 

Not necessarily. Being remote afforded me opportunities to connect with mentors, advisors, prospective investors, customers and talented team-members that I never would have met had the program not been remote. The experience expanded the scope of my own network and enabled me to connect with a wide array of individuals who have helped me elevate my own performance as a founder. And when it came time to present our business at Demo Day, we were able to involve a nationwide audience of prospective investors at the virtual venue which would have been impossible had the event been held in person. 

I count myself as lucky to have been welcomed back into Techstars a second time through and to have been a part of a program that still executes on its mission, despite the current hurdles imposed by the world in which we live. 

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