Ask David Cohen: Developing an MVP and Reaching Investors

We recently held an AMA with Techstars’ Co-CEO, David Cohen, where he answered commonly asked questions from founders about topics such as forming a team, developing an MVP, and applying to an accelerator program.

This post is the first in a series of five which includes a transcript of David’s answers to these questions in this AMA. To sign up for our next AMA, check out the schedule here!


Any advice to founders who need more resources to develop an MVP or a presentable prototype? What’s the best method of getting investors to hear out the idea/plan when you don’t know anyone in the community?

These are kind of different questions so I am going to go at them separately. I’ll tell you a quick story of a company called Everlater that sold to MapQuest, AOL and came through Techstars. When I first met Nate and Natty, they were Wall Street types and loved to travel. We funded them, but we only funded them after watching them try to learn how to program.

They were so passionate about this idea coming out of their minds into the world that they actually taught themselves how to code – they were terrible at it, not very good at all. But later on, they got better, but it was still a crappy prototype and a crappy MVP. So step one is, having something is better than nothing.

If you can’t find somebody to do it, my question is, why can’t you do it? Do you think that writing a little software code is something that you have no ability to learn? It tells me something about you, that you are not willing to try. You could find a friend who does know how to program to spend a couple hours with you and show you how to get going.

You could say look, this is what I am talking about, it doesn’t work yet, but it’s what I’m talking about.

I believe great entrepreneurs do stuff.

If you can’t do that and you are allergic to keyboards and computers and you’re just never going to code, that’s cool too. Some of these languages, by the way, are very easy to learn now, it’s not like learning a foreign language, you can get a lot of help from the editor, and there are various simple languages out there that you can learn how to prototype things quickly.

There are lots of coding classes available online, so my first question is, why aren’t you doing that? If you can’t get somebody in the world who has those skills excited enough about what you are doing, or you can’t make friends with somebody who can help you with that, that is also a red flag for me as an investor.

The answer to the question is like anything else, just do it. That’s why it is Nike’s slogan, it’s so great and really the easy answer to a lot of things. Plus, I’m an early stage investor, I don’t care if the prototype is presentable, it doesn’t have to blow me away. You just have to start the meeting and say look, I hacked this together myself, we need funding to hire engineers and obviously the user experience is terrible. You know it is terrible, but that’s okay. You’re self-aware, it doesn’t have to be beautiful and great.

I think doing attracts investors. Talking about doing makes me think maybe you’re not an entrepreneur.

For the second part of the question, I would take a quality over quantity approach. I would find someone who does know the investors that you are targeting and I would figure out how to spend time with them. For example, I would go to someone that they funded or someone that they have worked with and mentored before and say, will you help me with this? They are likely more available than the investor and I would use them as a way to create an introduction to the investor.

I would also suggest you read my blog post on DavidGCohen.com called Small Asks First. It’s about the idea of not over-asking, which is really important in entrepreneurship. You are trying to get to a resource, it is very busy, so get an introduction from somebody they know – it’s not that hard, and just ask them for something small.

Let me give you an example of something big – lunch. Lunch is very big – you’re asking them to go spend time with somebody they don’t know for an hour, which is an awkward situation, especially if they’re an introvert like I am. That’s a big ask. I know it feels small to you but it’s a really big ask to me. Coffee – huge ask. I have another blog post called Coffee or Lunch? that I wrote on this topic. They would have to go out of the office, meet you somewhere, and the biggest thing is, I don’t know you… it’s a big ask for a first ask.

Here’s a small ask – send me a paragraph or two of why I can be helpful to you, and the one really simple thing I can do to be helpful to you. I have another blog post that is called The Perfect Email. Somebody wrote me out of the blue, not even introduced, with enough context that I thought it was the best email I ever read and so I reacted to it. I ended up having an exchange of dialogue with that person; I even blogged about it. I don’t know what happened there, probably nothing huge, but hopefully I was helpful in some way.

I think the context of why you’re reaching out to me and asking for something that is easy for me to do is great, because going to have lunch is actually not easy to do – I’m busy, I’m introverted, etc. What is easy is asking me to click on a link and tell you what I think of the messaging on your website, the primary tag line or whatever. If I don’t respond to that, I’m just an ass. That takes ten seconds for me to do. It’s a small ask, it creates engagement, I can just click on the link, see what you’re doing, have to think about it for a second and then respond. Now, you’re actually starting a dialogue by making a small ask of something that is very easy for that investor to do. That is a great way to build a relationship and you go from there. You can do that at scale to figure out who is interested and engage more with those people.

Eventually, you’ll end up having lunch and a meeting.

Interested in meeting other entrepreneurs and getting a head start on your own entrepreneurial journey? Check out a Startup Weekend near you or apply to an accelerator program.

At Techstars, we fully believe in the idea that no one is “too far along” for Techstars. Inversely, nothing is too early. Techstars has a program for every step of the entrepreneurial journey – from startup programs like Startup DigestStartup WeekStartup Weekend and Startup Next to later stage offerings, including the accelerator program and venture capital for add-on funding.








MVP in a Weekend – Sonderpreis für das Startup Weekend Stuttgart 2014

Top News: Accelerate Stuttgart und Railslove kooperieren seit Kurzem im Projekt MVP in a Week und verlosen auf dem Startup Weekend Stuttgart vom 21.-23. November 2014 einen Sonderpreis im Wert von 2.500 €!

Accelerate Stuttgart und Railslove werden gemeinsam mit dem Gewinner des Preises ‚MVP in a Weekend’ innerhalb einer Woche das webbasierte Minimum Viable Product (MVP) zur Geschäftsidee entwickeln.

MVP IN A WEEK

Der Sonderpreis geht an das Team, welches von den Railslove und Accelerate Stuttgart Vertretern in den Kategorien Best Performance und Potenzial des Produktes sowie dessen Umsetzbarkeit am höchsten eingestuft wird. Der Gewinner wird innerhalb der Startup Weekend Preisverleihung am Sonntagabend, 23. November 2014 verkündet.

Wir wünschen den Teams alles Gute und viel Erfolg!
___

Image Credit: T. Arai/University of Tokyo (https://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/15107031984)








Startup Weekend Day by Day Breakdown: Sunday

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Its 9AM and you only 8 hours left and there is still so much to do!

Validation!

Validation never stops. You can never have too much feedback from your potential customers. Keep at it.

Your MVP

By now you should have a refined MVP that is either working on the web or on your local laptop. You will be working on it till the last minute before your presentation so keep building!

Coaches/Mentors

There will be some coaches and mentors coming around on Sunday as well. Use this time to get some feedback on what you have done over the 24 hours.

 

Preparing your presentations

All work stops and presentations start at 5PM sharp. You will have 5 mins to present your idea and demo the app. The presentation is followed up with 5 mins of QA from the judges.

Nick Stevens, an awesome organizer out of the UK has put together a great mini-guide on creating your Sunday presentations: http://www.slideshare.net/NickStevens1/sw-prishtina-presentation-101 and https://medium.com/startup-weekend/presentation-101-c4a356fcb16e

In NYC, we like to hold “presentation dry runs”. We have the teams pitch what they have done so far in front of some coaches/mentors to get some feedback. Each team will get 10 mins (5 mins for presentation, 5 mins for feedback). This is completely optional.

So hopefully this mini-guide helps you throughout the weekend. This guide is a living document and will get better over time with feedback from you folks. So if you have a suggestion on how to make this guide better, send them along!

-Andrew Young
Startup Weekend NYC
https://twitter.com/overworkedasian
https://twitter.com/nycsw








Startup Weekend Day by Day Breakdown: Saturday

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Its Saturday morning. You are sipping on your coffee/tea while eating your bagel and wondering, “OMG WHAT DO I DO NOW?!?!?!”. Don’t worry! Here are some suggestions on where to go from here.

Business Model Canvas

The Business Model Canvas allows the startup to document the 9 key areas of a business model. Rather than writing long paragraphs, each of the boxes is filled in with short notes to document the hypotheses associated with the specific sections of the business model. This approach allows the initial business plan to be documented in a couple of hours rather than months. Here is a great breakdown and explanation of the canvas along with some examples: http://www.slideshare.net/esaife/business-model-canvas-101

You should have your first version completed by lunch time so you can move onto customer validation.

Customer Validation

As Steve Blanks says all the time, “GET OUT OF THE BUILDING”. Steve has a set of videos that really cover this topic well: http://vimeo.com/user2776234. It’s really important to talk to your potential customers. They may be in the same room/building, they may be across the street. They may be on Twitter/Facebook. Go find them and ask them the right questions so you can get the feedback that you need.  Some sample questions are:

  • Do you suffer from this problem? What apps/services do you use now?
  • Would you use this idea/product? No? Why not?
  • Would you pay $X.XX per month/year/one-time to use? No? What is an acceptable price?
  • What features would be most important for you?
  • Can get your email so we can keep you up to date with our product?

If you are collecting information via the Internet, you should create a form to collect your feedback. Google Docs allows you to create surveys on the fly: http://www.google.com/google-d-s/createforms.html

Take as much time as you need to work on your validation. You can’t accomplish everything you need in an afternoon.

Based on the feedback that you get, your assumptions will either be proven to be true or false and you will discover things you didn’t think about. Make sure to update your Business Model Canvas to reflect your new findings. (eg: “We discovered through our customer validation that our target audience is not really women, but men!” OR “Monthly subscription was too much. People preferred a pay-as-you-go model. )

Coaches/Mentors

The coaches and mentors will start to arrive at around 2PM. They will walk around the building and interact with all the teams. Feel free to chat with them see how they can help you. They were here to help you so make sure you take the time and chat with them. The mentors range from developers, designers, product, marketers, PR, founders and much more. There is bound to be someone that can help you with what you are trying to do.

For a full list of mentors/coaches: http://www.up.co/communities/usa/new-york-city/startup-weekend/4419

Startup working on your MVP (Minimal Viable Product)

Based on the feedback that you have gotten from customers, you should have an idea on what to build and what not to build. Here is a great article talking about different types of MVPs: http://scalemybusiness.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-minimum-viable-products/

If you have people on your team that can help start building it, then great! By all means, start laying your code. But if you don’t have the developers or designers that you need, don’t worry, you can still use plenty of tools out there to help you prototype your app/idea without laying out code.

http://proto.io/

http://www.justinmind.com/

https://moqups.com/

https://wireframe.cc/

https://www.fluidui.com/

http://www.hotgloo.com/

WARNING: If you decide to go and only make wireframes/mockups, they had better be the best mockups/wireframes that you can produce in a weekend. Don’t draw a box on a piece of paper and say its your mobile wireframe. Bring your “A” game this weekend.

You only have 54 hours. We don’t expect your app to be scaleable to 1MM users. It doesn’t need to hook into every social network platform out there. Your MVP needs to show us (the judges) that you put some thought and effort into app. They know you only had 54 hours to work on it, do the best that you possibly can.

-Andrew Young

Startup Weekend NYC
https://twitter.com/overworkedasian
https://twitter.com/nycsw