Announcing the 10 Companies Joining the Techstars Chicago Accelerator 2017 Class

After an exhaustive search, primarily focused on the Midwest, where we were fortunate to meet with many companies, we’re now ready to announce the 10 companies in the Techstars Chicago Accelerator class of 2017!

As the 8th program in Chicago, with rich history from days as Excelerate Labs and an incredible alumni and mentor community, I couldn’t be more excited to take over as managing director with our new class.  

We had a clear goal with our incoming class, to be intensely founder focused, to invest in “BAD” ideas, big spaces, and founders that made us fans.

We have four companies from Chicago, three from New York, one from Atlanta (which we met in Cincinnati) and Washington D.C., and our one international team is from Israel.

The missions are hugely ambitious, attacking massive markets, with founders that are awe-inspiring. Read more about them below, check out the sites, founder profiles, try out the products, and share your favorites on Twitter.

And be sure to save the date — October 12th — for Demo Day, and let us know if you want to keep in touch!

I’m truly honored to announce the 10 companies in Techstars Chicago Accelerator Class of 2017:

4Degrees: Helps you build better professional relationships by identifying the right connections and empowering you to strengthen them over time.

Founders: Ablorde Ashigbi, David Vandegrift

Twitter: @4DegreesAI

4Degrees enables you to build better professional relationships. Our platform identifies the right connections to focus on, empowers you to strengthen those relationships over time, and helps you activate your network when you need it. In doing so, 4Degrees accelerates your professional trajectory.

Abode: Redefining home buying by connecting consumers to everything they need to buy a home in one place.

Founders: Kyle Stoner, Carson Junginger

Twitter: @TeamAbode

Abode redefines real estate with an all-inclusive home buying experience. Leaving one-dimensional search engines behind, we ease the stress of home buying by guiding users through the process step-by-step and packaging all services in one user-friendly location.

Abode uses machine learning to match buyers with top professionals, such as realtors, bankers, and attorneys, and offers data-driven insights on housing markets. Professionals use our cloud-based management tools for efficient collaboration with clients. Abode has integrations with multiple mortgage banks and has signed partnerships with brokerages covering 4000+ agents in 10 states.

Allie: A Slack bot for diversity and inclusion at work.

Founders: Emilie Hsieh, Simon Tam

Twitter: @alliebotHQ

Allie is your Chief Diversity Officer – in Slack – that uncovers hidden biases so you can proactively improve culture. Allie allows employees to self-report microaggressions and get tips on how to manage. Companies receive customized insights and recommendations that drive diversity and inclusion strategy. Employees are armed with training and tools so that they can own their culture. Add Allie to your Slack team to make diversity and inclusion accessible for all.

AraJoy: Our AI & Computer Vision algorithms help sports teams by autonomously operating off-the-shelf drones to automatically film and interpret player-action for performance analysis.

Founders: Renji Bijoy, Brady Evans

Twitter: @AraJoyInc

AraJoy gives sports teams insight into their performance by filming with autonomous drones, utilizing AI and Computer Vision. Over 300,000 US teams waste hours every week re-watching film repeatedly in slo-mo to try to analyze and critique performance to win more games. Our technology does this for them. Auto-filming the team’s actions and tracking what’s happening at all times enables technology to perceive the game like never before.

Elemetric: Intelligent insights and automation platform to drive marketing and product decisions based on customer behavior.

Founder: Daniel Mason

Twitter: @Elemetric_Data

Elemetric is a data-driven consumer insights platform, intelligently merging existing customer data sources with customer feedback data (NPS, surveys, etc.) to build smarter user profiles over time. Elemetric, backed by IDEO and Datascope Analytics, enables companies to build intelligent workflows that engage customers at key moments – enabling automated segmentation, reducing customer churn, and saving time on manual follow-up.

Harbor: Guaranteed income to make the most of your retirement.

Founders: Nicholas Moy, Colin Sidoti, William Rueter

Harbor Inc. is bringing back the pension (or something like it). We offer technology and retirement plans that deliver an outcome instead of an uncertainty. We make it easy for anybody to build a retirement portfolio that incorporates guaranteed lifetime income, because we think it’s the best way for every American to build a secure retirement.

Jobeek: We help engineers discover opportunities and skills that will maximize their market value.

Founders: Maor Idan, Stav Sitnikov, Amit Hacohen, David Ben Shushan

Twitter: @jobeekcom

The technology landscape has changed dramatically in the recent years. New technologies are coming out frequently, and engineers are required to be versatile and treat their career as it was a business – they have to be in constant learning mode, and create their competitive advantage among others. Jobeek brings the power of real-time market analytics to help engineers boost their career. We help them unlock their skills potential and discover future opportunities that will maximize their market value. Our solution aims to put every engineer just clicks away from getting valuable and personalized insights about the ever-growing industry.

Omelas: Aiding in asset protection for companies operating in volatile regions.

Founders: Evanna Hu, Ben Dubow

Omelas is a SaaS firm that aids in asset protection for companies operating in volatile regions.

Paladin: Our platform takes the busy work out of pro bono so your team can focus on making an impact in your community.

Founders: Kristen Sonday, Felicity Conrad

Twitter: @JoinPaladin

Paladin is SaaS for legal pro bono. There are 1.3M attorneys in the U.S. with an ABA responsibility to do 50 hours of pro bono per year. However, because the pro bono ecosystem is disaggregated and inefficient, 80 percent of those who need free legal help never receive it–i.e. the justice gap. Legal employers waste millions annually on pro bono programs that are time-consuming and cumbersome, and pro bono spend is on rise. We’re the first software to help law firms, Fortune 500 legal teams, and law schools streamline, manage and track their pro bono engagement and impact. Custom promo products that people actually want to keep.

Founders: Joshua Orbach, Jeremy Parker

Twitter: @PromoteWithSwag is the best place for companies to buy promotional swag that people will actually want to keep.  95 percent of the products that we tested didn’t make the cut. Our streamlined e-commerce experience significantly cuts the time it takes for customers to find, design and buy quality swag. We work with hundreds of companies including Facebook, Google, WeWork, Bravo, Virgin and Jolly Ranchers.

The new mural in the Techstars Chicago office!

Investing in Bad Ideas in Chicago

I’m excited to announce that I am joining Techstars Chicago as Managing Director.

I’d like to offer deep gratitude and thanks to Troy Henikoff and Brian Luerssen, from whom I’ll be taking the reins. So many great people have been involved in making Techstars Chicago an institution and pillar of the community, dating back to the founding of Excelerate Labs in 2010 (shout out to Sam Yagan, Adam Koopersmith, Steve Farsht, and Nick Rosa!). I’m humbled to have an opportunity to try to fill their giant shoes – and excited to have their support moving forward.

Why join Techstars? Well, because I aspire to be the Erlich Bachman of Chicago. We all have dreams. 

In truth, an important part of being successful is self-reflection. Knowing what you’re good at, what you aren’t, and putting yourself in a position to do what you do best — as much as possible. I’m a better starter than a manager. More Founder than Executive.

I’m passionate about starting technology companies, and I get energy from working with founders and teams. I love getting my hands dirty solving problems. I still believe that I have at least one more “founder” business card to print in my future – but, not right now.

I’ve been an early startup employee at big successful companies (Redbox) and companies that failed (PayByTouch). I’ve been the founder/CEO of Belly, and a mentor to many startups going back to the first Excelerate Labs class of 2010. But, my bio does not tell you what I’ll bring to Techstars.

Here’s what I intend to do:

  • Invest in bad ideas. Non-consensus ideas. “The trouble with innovation is that truly innovative ideas seem like bad ideas at the time.” – Ben Horowitz
  • Be insanely founder focused. The Jim Harbaugh of founder focused. (At Techstars we call it Founder First and it’s a credo we use to make all decisions.) We’re looking for the opportunity to add value to the best founders and teams, and will be honest, frank, and fully invested in your success – above all else.
  • Never lose sight of the simple fact that writing checks is easy, but building great companies is hard. Founders will have our utmost respect, admiration, and focus.
  • Seek tech/product focused teams/companies solving a big problem in a market that is bigger than outsiders perceive it.
  • Be inclusive, actively seeking diversity of teams and ideas.
  • Offer a place for the future of Chicago tech to gather, engage, mentor, and support founders currently in the grind.
  • Accept and embrace that failure is a part of the journey. No fear of failure. You’ll hear us tell stories about founders, companies, missions. Or, when necessary, speaking openly and plainly about why we failed, and what we learned from it.

Chicago is obviously a huge market. It’s a community that has invested heavily over the past 10 years in becoming a better hub for technology companies to start and scale. Chicago offers limitless possibilities. The foundation, the capital, the desire, and the people are all here.

Our goal with each class will be to swing for grand slams. We’ll never bunt. No swinging singles. We will be focused on finding companies that have an opportunity to dramatically advance their market or create an entirely new one. The best contribution we can make to the community is to support the growth and investment in building big companies – those that create jobs, value, exits, and give back to the Chicago ecosystem.

Tech is a people business. And Techstars Chicago is open for business  – accepting applications now through April 9. We hope to have an opportunity to be part of your journey.

Apply today.

Demo Day Round Up: Fall 2016

Fall is in full-swing here at Techstars with the addition of 64 new companies! Techstars recently had seven Demo Days across the globe, including Berlin, Mobility in Detroit, Barclays New York, London, Techstars Retail in partnership with Target in Minneapolis, New York City and Chicago. Phew!

Here’s a quick round up of the highlights:

Berlin Class of 2016


Techstars Berlin’s second Demo Day, held at the iconic Kino International, showcased 10 companies from six different countries with products ranging from machine learning and AI, to SaaS and mobility.

Techstars Managing Director, Rob Johnson, opened the event and Executive Director, Greg Rogers, provided welcoming remarks. It was an exciting day to celebrate the 2016 class with investors, mentors and other founders from the Berlin startup community!

Congratulations to the Berlin Class of 2016!


Techstars Mobility, driven by Detroit Class of 2016


Techstars Mobility hosted its second annual demo day in downtown Detroit on September 8. It was a showcase of the growing collaboration between startups and the automotive industry.

Over 2500 attendees from 12 different countries watched as 12 startups pitched their businesses impacting the future of automotive and transportation. These startups were building businesses around autonomous, connected vehicle, shared services, mapping, and big data and analytic technologies. Three of the 12 companies announced partnerships with the program’s title sponsor, Ford Motor Company.

The entire demo day was live streamed and that video can be watched on YouTube here.

Managing Director, Ted Serbinski, announced that Techstars Mobility has brought two additional high-growth startups to Detroit: Mapbox and Polysync, the latter of which is a Techstars Ventures investment. These companies will be opening their Detroit offices out of the Techstars Mobility space, joining Oblong who opened their Detroit office last year.

Bob Caza, Director of Communications at the North American International Auto Show, expanded on Techstars Mobility mission to expose more startups to Detroit by announcing that  we’re opening applications to bring 50+ mobility, automotive, and transportation startups to the 2017 Detroit Auto Show.

To capture this growth of the startup community, coupled with the entrepreneurial resurgence in Detroit, we debuted a trailer for Long Haul Films who is developing the documentary Restarting the Motor City. This is a feature-length documentary about the creators, innovators and entrepreneurs who are reimagining Detroit. They are breaking free from the shackles of 20th-century thinking to create a new model for cities across the globe.

Congratulations to the Mobility Class of 2016!


Barclays Accelerator, Powered by Techstars in New York Class of 2016


Techstars Barclays NYC’s second Demo Day Event was held at the Edison Ballroom in the heart of the Theater District. Ten cutting-edge FinTech companies showcased products solving problems in real estate, capital markets, security, banking and the freelance economy.

Joe McGrath, the CEO of Barclays Americas, opened the evening with a warm welcome and recognition of the impact of Barclays’ programs around the world, which have seen collective valuations rise 190% from their pre-accelerator valuations.

Greg Rogers, Executive Director at Techstars, introduced the companies to the 600+ attendees including investors, mentors, Techstars alumni and community members. Jenny Fielding, the Managing Director, closed the event with a special thank you to mentors and Jon Zanoff, Entrepreneur in Residence, for their tireless devotion to this class and role in these companies’ success.

Congratulations to the Barclays New York Class of 2016!


London Class of 2016


Led by Max Kelly, the Managing Director of Techstars London, the 2016 program kicked off with new offices, a new fund and a great new class. Within the class, one-third have PhDs and there are 19 separate nationalities! The variety of industries is astonishing – from grease to graph databases, from aid to artificial intelligence.

Each company presented their pitches to a packed venue during Demo Day, which took place on September 20 at the Royal Institution in London.

It is always exciting to be in the front seat of this kind of innovation.

Congratulations to the London Class of 2016!


Techstars Retail, in partnership with Target Class of 2016


Techstars Retail’s first Demo Day, held at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, showcased eleven companies with products ranging from voice search, machine forecasting, visual registries and retail experience bots. More importantly, all these teams were able to demonstrate their accomplishments they achieved over the summer.

Techstars Managing Director, Ryan Broshar, welcomed almost 1,000 attendees then opened the evening with an inspiring message and fun facts about this year’s class. Target’s Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer, Casey Carl, shared welcoming remarks and reflected on his experience as a mentor. It was an exciting day to celebrate the 2016 class and the broader Twin Cities startup community!

Congratulations to the inaugural Techstars Retail Class of 2016!


New York City Class of 2016


For the 2016 class, Techstars NYC experimented with a new take on Demo Day. Rather than live pitches Managing Director, Alex Iskold, introduced Exclusive Investor Preview and Investor Only Demo Day.

As with our previous classes, this was a diverse group of founders solving a wide range of problems. In addition to six teams from NYC, we had teams from Rochester, Atlanta, San Francisco, two teams from Philadelphia, a team from the UK, a team from France and two teams from Canada. Of these 15 companies, five have women CEOs.

The new Demo Day format was a hit among founders and mentors, and aligns with the spirit of innovation at Techstars.

Congratulations to the New York City Class of 2016!


Chicago Class of 2016


Techstars Chicago’s seventh Demo Day, held at House of Blues in Chicago, showcased the latest ten startups selected from a pool of thousands of applicants. Companies ranged from a wearable hardware device enabling parents to keep track of their kids to enterprise and B2B software solutions, and showed both the diversity and high potential of the midwest startup ecosystem.

Techstars’ Managing Directors, Troy Henikoff and Brian Luerssen, along with Excelerate Labs co-founder, Sam Yagan, welcomed a packed house filled with notable investors and entrepreneurs. Chris Gladwin opened the afternoon with a keynote on the need for grit in operating his business to the recent 1.3 billion dollar sale of Cleversafe to IBM. It was an exciting day to celebrate the 2016 class and the broader Chicago startup community!

Congratulations to the Chicago Class of 2016!


Get a head start on your own entrepreneurial journey. Apply to an accelerator program. Applications close on October 15th.

Techstars Chicago Demo Day

Info Session: Techstars Healthcare (Chicago)

Who: Startups interested in applying for the Techstars Healthcare Accelerator

What: Info session

When: September 19

Where: Matter – 222 Merchandise Mart Plaza Suite 1230, Chicago, IL 60654

Details: Click here to register for the event.

Office Hours: Techstars Healthcare (Chicago)

Who: Startups interested in applying for the Techstars Healthcare Accelerator

What: Office Hours

When: September 19-20

Where: Chicago, IL

Details: Click here to register for the event.

Startups: Necesitan hacer sus ventas una prioridad

Este artículo fue traducido por Lucía Tróchez – @lulutro

He pasado los últimos 25 años empezando, corriendo, dando mentorías, e invirtiendo en compañías de tecnología digital. El otro día, un emprendedor me hizo una pregunta sencilla:

“Cuál es el error más grande que ves que cometen los fundadores primerizos?

Me tomó un minuto pensarlo, pero luego sentí como se separaban las nubes y la respuesta fue visible: los clientes.

Se trata de conseguir clientes. Puede que tengas un producto excelente pero sin clientes, es un producto más; con clientes se vuelve un negocio. Como emprendedores, nos gusta estar en control – podemos controlar la tecnología, podemos controlar la experiencia de usuario, podemos controlar como se ve el producto – pero nada de eso importa si no tenemos clientes.

Lo clientes son difíciles ( y cada uno tiene necesidades diferentes), están muy ocupados para mirar tu producto, no son lo suficientemente inteligentes para ver el valor, etc. – hay muchas excusas. Pero, estos son problemas del emprendedor , no del cliente.

Entonces, ¿cómo – como emprendedor – mejoras para resolverlos?

Empieza por el problema

Todo negocio debería empezar con un problema bien definido que busca resolver. Con optimismo uno que tenga muchos dolores para el cliente, pues entre más puedas aliviarlos de cada uno de esos dolores, más van a querer tu solución.

Valida el problema

Aquí es donde necesitas hacer más descubrimiento de tus clientes – hablar con ellos, entender en dónde fallan las soluciones existentes y asegurarte que entiendes el problema.

Trabaja en construir soluciones

Debes tener una serie de prototipos de baja fidelidad que son usados para ayudar a validar el tipo de soluciones que los clientes sienten que son más efectivas. Aquí es de donde viene la frase que dice “Haz cosas que no escalen”. No importa que tan eficiente eres, sólo que identifiques una gran solución al dolor del cliente.

Comunica el valor que estás creando

Lo siento, pero no hay forma de evitarlo. Necesitas ser capaz de comunicar el valor que estás creando, y eso se llama ventas.  Claro, si tienes un producto B2C, puedes obtener más beneficios de mercadoeo, pero eso son demasiadas ventas; necesitas ser capaz de vender.

Los emprendedores hoy saben la importancia del encaje entre producto y mercado. Tenemos meetups en metodologías de lean startup, y hablamos de productos mínimos viables y pivotes; todo es parte de nuestro lenguaje ahora, sin embargo tenemos que reconocer la importancia del proceso de ventas.

Los buenos emprendedores siempre están vendiendo – estás vendiendo a inversionistas, a clientes, e inclusive a empleados potenciales. Es una de las tantas habilidades de valor que puede tener un emprendedor… y la que pocos poseen. Vender es habilidad y disciplina. Ambos requieren práctica y esfuerzo. Desafortunadamente, un artículo no te va a convertir en un experto en ventas, pero podría darte una perspectiva a una cantidad de habilidades que puedes adquirir y después volverte experimentado.

Me gustan los equipos fundadores que tienen las ventas en su ADN. Suena tan obvio mientras lo escribo, pero pocos inversionistas lo filtran: las compañías que logran adquirir y retener clientes tienen una posibilidad más alta de éxito. Es así de simple. Imagina dos startups: Una con ninguna experiencia de ventas en el equipo fundador, entonces contratan una persona de ventas; la otra compañía ya tiene a un experto en ventas en el equipo fundador. La primera contrata la persona de ventas, pero las ventas no suceden, ¿Qué hacen?, despiden a la persona; necesitan encontrar una mejor, obviamente. La segunda envía a su fundadora y ella no puede vender el producto, ¿Qué hacen ello? ¿Despedir a la fundadora? No, ella regresa y hace que los desarrolladores arreglen el producto. Es una dinámica completamente diferente. Este es el ciclo de retroalimentación de las compañías exitosas.

Entonces, si no quieres cometer el error más común que veo que los fundadores primerizos cometen, necesitas hacer ventas una prioridad. Tú, como fundador, necesitas adoptar las ventas como tu camino al éxito. Esto puede significar encontrar un gran vendedor para que se una a tu equipo fundador, o que tu creas que es tan importante que lo hagas tu responsabilidad – convertirte en esa fuerza que te separa de tu competencia. Es asombroso como puede cambiar tu negocio cuando tienes clientes y ganancias reales.

Para aprender más de Troy y otros Directores de Programa de Techstars, aplica a uno de nuestros programas de aceleración hoy.

Este artículo fue publicado originalmente en

Si no has hecho esto, tu marca no importará

Traducido por Lucía Tróchez – @lulutro

¡Bienvenido a los días mentoría! Hoy le damos la bienvenida a nuestra mentora de Chicago, Suzanne Muchin.

Ya tienes un nombre, aseguraste una dirección web, diseñaste un logo e inclusive tienes una línea de marca. El proceso fue divertido y creativo—un montón de dibujos en pizarrón blanco y Post-its en la pared. Fue más arte que ciencia, lo que fue un descanso lindo del trabajo intenso en números, programación, pruebas de experiencia de usuario y levantamiento de fondos. Ahora puedes respirar un poco y moverte hacia adelante a toda máquina con tu mercadeo y todas las estrategias importantes para conseguir usuarios.

Pero aquí está esto: si la descripción anterior suena familiar, entonces en realidad no has construido una marca, y eso eventualmente te va a perseguir. Como una pieza de barro que fue puesta en el horno sin que la arcilla estuviera lo suficientemente hidratada, tu compañía se puede ver bien por fuera, pero cuando se prenda el fuego, lamentarás no haber aplicado las técnicas correctas para asegurar la fuerza de largo plazo de tu marca y su ventaja competitiva. Aunque hay muchas técnicas de construcción de marca y guías que pueden ser de ayuda en las etapas temprana de los emprendimientos, hay un proceso que siempre debe ir primero: asegurar tu Punto de Vista (PDV). Vamos a verlo más a fondo y enviarte hacia una posición de marca más sólida y estable.

¿Qué es un PDV? Es una perspectiva contundente y puntiaguda de lo que haces que captura la esencia de tu propuesta de valor completa. Asegura tu historia de una manera que se siente importante y distintiva. Un PDV te lleva desde el cuál (cuál es el problema que venimos a resolver), hasta el entonces (cuando nuestros usuarios utilizan nuestro producto o servicio, y experimentan este resultado), y luego al y después (y eso importa ¿por qué…?). Pone un título a algo fundamental en lo que crees y también sugiere claramente eso que tu rechazas (este puede ser una posición que están tomando tus competidores, o tal vez algo que ves como dañino en la realidad del mercado o la cultura).

Cuando haces esto correctamente, se sentirá como cuando estrenas lentes nuevos y no te los quieres quitar. Todo tiene enfoque. Verás aspectos de tu negocio a través de esta perspectiva. Y te encontrarás a ti mismo hablando acerca de tu PDV de diferentes maneras todo el día. ¿Y la parte puntiaguda?  Necesita ser tan distintiva que cuando la gente lo escuche, van a detenerse y pensar al respecto. Debería enojar a algunas personas.

Aquí hay algunos PDV de compañías de Techstars que puedes considerar*:

Los jugadores excelentes de video juegos usan nuestra plataforma para monetizar a sus seguidores, por que todos merecen la oportunidad de ganar dinero haciendo lo que aman. – GameWisp

Rutas optimizadas para negocios con recepción y entrega inteligente que son excelentes para tu negocio y para el aire que todos respiramos. – Routific

Aunque estas parecen frases simples, son todo pero eso. Considera la promesa de marca que están haciendo, la manera distintiva en la que identifican sus usuarios, y la clara explicación por la que ellos piensan que lo que están haciendo importa.  

Las grandes marcas no se construyen haciendo lluvia de ideas. Se desarrollan con una estrategia que insiste en que el liderazgo y los fundadores de la empresa estén tan enfocados en lo que está en riesgo si fallan, así como si son exitosos.

*Estos no son los PDV oficiales de las compañías, pero reflejan el trabajo de PDV que he realizado con estos equipos de Techstars en Chicago.

Presenting the Techstars Chicago 2016 Class

Brian Luerssen and I are excited to announce the ten companies that will be joining Techstars for our 2016 program in Chicago. We kicked things off this week on June 27th and are looking forward to three months of awesomeness, capped off by Demo Day on September 29th. Save the date!

This is the seventh program in Chicago, and we’re fortunate to have many of our 2015 and 2014 alumni on the ground as well as our incredible mentors. Thank you, mentors! We’re grateful for your support over the last couple of years and your continued time and guidance. We couldn’t do it without you.

We love this city and know 2016 is going to be an amazing year for both Techstars and Chicago.

Here are the Chicago 2016 Techstars companies:

bright-logo-horizontal is a tool that helps SaaS companies increase their profitability by instantly reporting the metrics that matter, enabling them to drive better results.


Brightwork is a developer tool that makes APIs easier to use by enabling them to be hot swappable, requiring no coding or re-deployment of code when switching external services.


CompleteSet helps collectors track, buy and sell collectibles. The interactive site matches items from sellers to collectors who want to acquire them, be it antique toys, vintage clothing or modern memorabilia.


ConvertFlow is a suite of tools, easy for marketers to implement, that helps growing companies convert more website visitors through personalized calls-to- action, retargeting ads and triggered emails from third-party apps.


Fitbot helps personal trainers and fitness coaches save time, increase their reach and earn more revenue through remote coaching.


Jio is giving parents peace of mind by creating a wearable device so discreet it can easily be embedded into small children’s clothing to provide comprehensive monitoring and notification capabilities.


LogicGate empowers enterprises to use a drag-and- drop interface to deploy custom business applications linking people, processes and data across organizations without having to write a single line of code.


Pak’d makes lunch easy for busy families by delivering fresh, custom, pre-packaged lunches direct to your door.


PartySlate is the destination for anyone planning a party; its photo-rich site provides inspiration, event ideas and access to local event professionals.


Stationfy is the easiest way for fans to find and watch the great sports moments they most care about and follow their favorite events, teams and athletes.

Your Startup Isn’t About You

Today’s Mentor Monday post comes from Mark Achler. Mark is a serial entrepreneur, a mentor with Techstars in Chicago, and a managing director of MATH Venture Partners. 

Your startup isn’t about you, and it’s not about your product, either.

Your startup is all about your customers. It’s hard to overstate how critically important this seemingly simple insight is.

I recently wrote an op-ed piece called “Entrepreneurs are Lazy,” about how entrepreneurs rarely seem to take the time to prepare before pitching to venture capitalists. In the piece, I raised the question of how these entrepreneurs can expect to deliver effective pitches without understanding how we think and make decisions.

Showing up poorly prepared at an investor’s office makes for a bad first impression, sure. But more importantly, it raises a serious red flag about the viability of your business.

Most Startups Fail

To explain why that is, let’s start with a simple fact: most startups fail. There are studies that range from 50 percent to over 80 percent, but whatever the exact number, I think we can agree that most fail. Because let’s face it: it’s really tough to build a business from scratch.

I also think it’s fair to say that no company ever went out of business because they had too many customers. So the fact that most startups fail seems to suggest that most entrepreneurs don’t know how to sell.

This is actually the core investment thesis of our venture capital fund, MATH Venture Partners. We love to invest in entrepreneurial teams that know how to sell. Who deep in their DNA have a profound appreciation for what it takes to acquire customers. And, who have an “unfair advantage” in customer acquisition.

Founders who have this unfair advantage possess a trait I like to call “radical empathy.” They have an ability to deeply and truly understand their customers’ needs. They see where customers are coming from, speak their languages and understand how best to reach them.

Poor Preparation is a Tell

In poker there is a term called a “tell.” It’s when a player tips their hand about the cards they are holding. For us VCs, the lack of preparation when they meet us is a tell. We treat it as a proxy for lacking the ability or desire to truly understand their customers. Someone who possesses radical empathy would never show up at our offices unprepared.

One of the key ways entrepreneurs reveal that they haven’t prepared is by showing up at our office to talk about product features. I invariably stop them and say, “I don’t care.” (OK, maybe I care a little.) But what I really care about is for the entrepreneur to tell me what problems their potential customers are facing, and why those customers will trust their startup to solve them. What are their selling points? What’s the sales strategy?

To paraphrase Field of Dreams, most entrepreneurs believe that if we build it they will come. But a great product without customers is a great product — not a business. Building a business is all about sales.

Understanding is More than Just Listening

Beware, though, that understanding your customers is not always the same thing as listening to what they say.

I used to head up innovation for Redbox. This was still in the age of Blockbuster, so we were doing extensive market research to find out what customers would look for in a reimagined movie rental service. When asked, most customers told us that the number one thing they looked for in a movie rental service was choice: of course price mattered, and convenience was helpful, but they wanted every movie ever made. They wanted international films and documentaries.

But when we started digging through 20 years of Blockbuster rental data, what we found was that the vast majority of rentals were new releases from the 30-day wall.

Radical empathy is all about diving deep and truly understanding your customers. Sometimes better than they understand themselves.

If you reach that level of understanding and build your business entirely around your customers’ needs, your business is sure to stand out from the thousands of other startups out there.

Originally posted on BuiltInChicago.