My company, Lab Sensor Solutions, just completed the 500 Startups Accelerator program and it was fantastic.
Batch 14 was a great group of companies ranging from drones that inspect roofs, a cannabis loyalty app, name your own price for healthcare, an app to manage stress and anxiety (perfect for any entrepreneur) and an eCommerce meets crowdfunding site that lets you break gifts up. It was an eclectic group but we all shared a passion for what we were doing and wanting to help each other succeed. For those of you that are not familiar with 500 Startups, let me explain what it’s all about.
What Exactly is 500 Startups
500 Startups is a venture fund founded by Dave McClure and Christine Tsai. Mostly, it focuses on seed stage business through it’s accelerator program. What’s interesting about 500 is that it has lots of both Business to Business (B2B) and Business to Consumer (B2C) companies. That’s pretty unique for an accelerator.
Another unique aspect of 500 Startups is its global scope. 500 companies are from all over the world and they have a presence in over 4 countries. It also has a diverse set of founders and staff that makes it a really wonderful place to be. Oh and yes, Dave really is crazy but in a good way.
We Are Not In Redwood City Anymore
Move in day for batch 14 was a whirlwind affair. People few in from places like South Africa, Russia, Brazil and India. My company only had to make the short trek from Redwood City but the worlds could not have been more different.
The 500 office always feels alive with activity. Lots of people rushing around or fixated on their Mac Book Pro’s. It’s this energy that was far different than our humble, former nail salon office, in downtown Redwood City. Don’t get me wrong, our Redwood City office is great but it’s only 7 of us as opposed to well over 100 at the 500 office.
Our Colorful Leader
All elite training programs have a tone setter. That one person who creates the culture and sets the standard for excellence. For 500 San Francisco, that person is Marvin.
Marvin’s style is part drill instructor Hartman from Full Metal Jacket and part Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump. Raw, unapologetic candor on how incredibly fucked up your business is. He’s kinda like that coach in high school that got so frustrated that he would pop a blood vessel when you and your buddies were grab-assing when you should have been practicing. Think Billy Bob Thornton’s Coach Woodcock.
Marvin’s style is not for everyone but it does work. The primary reason Marvin’s style works is that there is a counter balance in Andrea who’s primary responsibility is to make us not suck so bad at pitching (Marvin’s words, not mine). Andrea’s style is much different. Her approach is more coach then drill instructor yet she is still tough and encourages us to help each other out. The rest of the staff is between Marvin and Andrea, which makes for some wonderful conversations and perspectives.
A Colorful and Rich Vocabulary
To some, the use of profanity is crude, even rude but I think that the well placed F-word brings emphasis to an otherwise boring exchange. My friend Danny’s father summed it up nicely. The use of language is to convey specificity and clarity of thought. When you say that someone is a fucking douchebag, as opposed to a mean person, you know exactly the type of person you are dealing with. Words need to resonate and punctuate the described so that clarity is communicated. That’s exactly how Marvin approaches it. You always know where you stand and the f-bombs usually emphasize the point perfectly.
Perks, Perks and more Perks
Perks are plentifully at 500 and the perk parade starts right away when you sign up for the ever important Eat Club. Like any good startup, 500 provides twice weekly food through Eat Club along with countless vendor talks and happy hours. The food and drink perks are great but what’s even better is all the perks from vendors that support 500. Vendors like Softlayer, WeWork, SendGrid, Rackspace and AWS provide super awesome services that allow you to get your idea up and running for little to no out of pocket expenses.
Each week, all the companies get together for a batch meeting to go over the weeks schedule and to celebrate any accomplishments. This was a great way to get to know what other companies are up to and get to the scope and breath of everything going on. Marvin loves to say that 500 is like a Chinese buffet — there is a lot to choose from and you don’t have to eat everything.
Marketing Hell Week
An entire week is dedicated to getting the word out about your business and how to experiment with different channels. It’s clearly nothing like real hell week but the tone and tenor of the entire week is to get you thinking about how to grow your business. After all, the whole reason to be at an accelerate is to accelerate your growth.
Mentor Office Hours
There are a lot of 500 mentors that can help you out on topics ranging from B2B sales, PR or growth hacking. All the ones we spoke with were top notch and gave us great insights into how we can grow our business. That’s a pretty tall order considering what Lab Sensor Solutions does is pretty far out from the “typical” 500 company.
Investor And Special Guest Meetings
Periodically, we got to meet with investors and pitch to special guests (usually groups from other countries). These were wonderful opportunities to test out new ideas and practice pitching (more on pitching in another post). Some of these meetings were more productive than others but all were useful and educational.
Lunch Time Talks
Frequent lunch time talks gave us the opportunity to take a break from building our businesses to learn about some technique or new growth hack. The topics varied from term sheets and cap tables to the myriad of marketing and distribution channels that we could use to accelerate growth.
Vendor Happy Hours
Vendor happy hours happened at least once a week. These were generally pretty good and obviously the free food and booze made them a welcomed break from changing the world.
Overall, I’d say that most of the programming was useful but you really had to pick and choose what to attend. Again, to quote Marvin, 500 is like a Chinese buffet — lots of variety to choose from but you don’t have to eat it all.
Giving Back via The 500 Challenge
Learn, do then teach. It’s a common model for mastery of any subject or skill. During batch 14, we decided to test the teaching hypothesis by putting on The 500 Challenge.
The 500 Challenge was a pitch competition that pairs up startups with students. The startups teach the students how to pitch their company. All the proceeds raised went to The Smith Bros P.L.A.Y. Foundation, which strives to make a positive impact on youth in the realms of education, health and wellness. Eight companies participated in the challenge with each company getting between two and five students to help out.
Teaching someone else how to pitch your company is a strange and challenging task. There are always things that you assume everyone knows because you know it so well. All of the companies experienced this same kind of feeling.
What’s great about teaching others is that you get to experience a fresh set of eyes looking at what you are building. It’s amazing what that can do. For Lab Sensor Solutions, it led us to rethink how we explain what we do to those that might not understand our technology or our market drivers. Our team even picked our perfect intro music: Bad Blood by Taylor Swift!
In an ironic twist of fate or more correctly, just a better idea catered to the judges, Neighborhood HOA (now called FundMyBlock), a company literally created for the event, won the prize. To make it even more crazy, the entrepreneur was Ed, one of the EIR’s at 500. We will never hear the end of that.
The Energy of Like Minded People
My company got a lot out of the 500 startups program. The main reason we enjoyed it so much was because of the camaraderie of all the great companies we worked with. There is something special about working daily with other people who share your passion to build something that matters. It’s an incredible rush to celebrate the victories and setbacks of those who know exactly what it’s like to create something new.
I feel that this co-working aspect of 500 startups is what sets it apart from other programs. Working in an environment with smart, driven people makes all the difference. It’s this aspect of 500 that I and most of my batch mates, cherish the most. The friendships forged while building your vision during a crucible experience like 500, are the ones that last a lifetime. I feel that’s the true benefit of being part of the 500 family.
This post was just a brief overview of what it was like during our time at 500 startups. There are two more in the series that dig deeper into the most important aspects of the 500 program for us: the one metric that matters and pitch prep.
The next post in the series deals with The One Metric that Matters. This was particularly painful for my company because until 500, we were neglecting the most important metric for our growth. 500 kicked us into high gear to fix that.