Uncertainties and Unexpected Wins: The 2017 VFA Accelerator Experience
For many Venture for America Fellows, the three months between August 1st and October 31st has been a time of unavoidable adaptation and rapid learning in completely unfamiliar environments. While 181 incoming 2017 Fellows moved to new cities for their first startup jobs, eight VFA alumni embarked on a risky entrepreneurial journey of their own.
After spending two years working at a startup and observing first hand how companies are built the VFA Accelerator Fellows decided that their side projects deserved a chance at becoming real companies. After applying to the Accelerator’s 3rd annual cohort, our Launch Team agreed that these potential founders were ready to go full-time.
In the last few days of July, the founders packed their bags and left their respective VFA cities (including Columbus, Providence, Cleveland, and St. Louis) and made the trip to the New Center neighborhood just outside of downtown Detroit. The group moved into the furnished eight bedroom house that VFA rented from four Fellowship alumni entrepreneurs who renovated the house just a few years prior.
Here they would dedicate the next four months of their lives working. With their rent and meals covered, a dedicated office pod, and breakout rooms where they could meet with mentors, trainers, and potential investors, the Fellows hit the ground running on day one.
While focusing on customer development during the first month of the program, the teams also had a chance to work with long time VFA supporter Scott Smedresman. An expert in startup corporate law, Scott helped make sure their entity formations and founder agreements were in order to make their companies ready to acquire customers and if appropriate, prepare for a future fundraiser. We also invited Vance VanDrake to teach the teams how to think about intellectual property protection.
In September, as many of the teams were ready to start acquiring their first customers, they met with recognizable Detroit area leaders: Monica Wheat talked about how to navigate Detroit’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, Dave Tear coached the teams on fundamental sales principles, local entrepreneurs like Ann Arbor’s Dug Song of Duo Security and many others opened up their networks and their expertise on what it takes to have a customer-first mentality to get a business off the ground.
During the last month of the program, and leading up to the Accelerator Demo Day on November 19th, the companies refined their pitches as they worked with public speaking expert Eleni Kelakos, and buttoned up their financials with Justin McLoughlin and his team at AirCFO.
Reading this timeline of events may make it seem like the days spent at the accelerator were fairly regimented and predictable, but this is far from the reality. In between the mentor meetings and scheduled trainings, the founders were constantly shifting priorities, racing to meet their weekly goals, and adapting to new realities as they learned the ins and outs of the businesses and industries they had entered just weeks and months before. One founder made the difficult decision to pursue a completely different business idea several weeks into the program as she discovered her true passion was hiding in a side project. The result? Faster progress towards sales than she thought was possible with her previous concept. Another team was surprised to receive a $1,000 award from a visiting mentor who loved what they were working on so much that he decided to provide them with an immediate grant to help grow their concept. A third team went from one pilot customer to three enterprise level deals in their pipeline in just a few weeks.
The seven companies in this year’s cohort of the VFA Accelerator have grown comfortable with uncertainty and have learned what levers need to be pulled to create sustainable progress in their businesses. Despite challenges, in just a few short months they’ve been able to find the focus to get their first customers, make their first hires, begin manufacturing, and so much more.
Here are a few words from the Fellows themselves about who they are and what they’ve been able to accomplish. We wish them the best of luck on their journeys, and can’t wait to see what the next class of Fellows behind them will build.
Balto understands phone conversations and, in real time, cues sales reps with the best things to say at high-impact points in the call. “During the accelerator, we increased our revenue month over month, acquired several new enterprise level pilots, hired one sales rep and brought on a new developer.”
Harriette makes all-natural body hair care essentials for women. Our products are engineered to give women healthy, soft body hair that smells fresh, feels luscious, and looks beautiful. “Throughout the accelerator, we basically went from idea to launch! I launched an ecommerce site and a crowdfunding campaign, sold $3k of product, and grew my social media following from 0 to nearly 400 followers.”
Eagleye empowers golfers to improve their scores through effective practice, strategic thinking, and a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. “During our time in the accelerator, we developed and launched our MVP to our first 100+ Customers. We were also accepted into the Detroit Cohort of the TechStars Startup Boost Global Pre-Accelerator program.”
Sweat Seal makes custom undershirts that prevent pit stains! Made in Ohio, tested in Miami, Sweat Seal makes pit stains a thing of the past! “At the start of the accelerator, I launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $53,000 in 29 days. Now, after vetting over eight production suppliers, I’m wrapping up the production of 4,500 shirts.”
Clyde makes it easy for SMBs to offer extended warranties and insurance for their products at the point of sale, drive passive revenue and enables them to offer a great service to their customers. “Post accelerator, Clyde is partnering with a Fortune 500 national insurance company, has secured 10+ companies to use the product, and has developed relationships with over five insurance companies. We also fully designed the application during the accelerator and began building it, with plans to finish the first iteration in Q1 of 2018.”
PathSpot is a portable device that protects against food borne illness. First launching in restaurants, PathSpot indicates the presence of harmful bacteria on a work surface, a cooking utensil, or an employee’s hands. “The VFA Accelerator was critical to PathSpot’s development over the past few months. Through the accelerator resources, we launched our company, moved from prototype to fully functioning product, installed our first pilots, and closed our first paying customer.”
Place is an ecommerce website featuring products made across Metro Detroit. “During the accelerator, we honed our business model as a bridge for small fashion brands and large corporations. We also began user discovery by piloting with a startup here in Detroit.”
For more information about Venture for America’s Launch programs for founders in the VFA Fellowship, please reach out to our Entrepreneur-in-Residence Sergei Revzin at firstname.lastname@example.org