I'm Wes Huffstutter and I like all things startup, technology and venture capital.
With Ann Arbor’s Fetchnotes starting the TechStars Boston program I started to reflect on the development of our entrepreneurial ecosystem. I’m a college football fan and, if you are like me, watch recruiting in college. There is always a town with a great program that pumps out several college stars. Ann Arbor is getting closer to being that for startups. Sure the Bay area is like the California, Texas, or Florida of football recruiting. Lots of people playing football almost year-round so you can play the odds that there will be a 6-6 receiver that runs a 4.4 forty with hands of Gorilla Glue. Imagine if you saw a small town, lets say 110,000 people, pump out D-1 prospect after D-1 prospect. 5-star recruits …not to mention a bunch of 3 and 4 star recruits (which many times turn out to be all-pro after college.) As a scout, you’d keep your eye on that place. Startup scouts, keep your eye on Ann Arbor.
Measuring stars in football is hard enough and it’s just as difficult in startups. In football you look at skills and measurables but credibility often goes to the ones who have received “big-time” offers (the pinnacle, of course, is the University of Michigan.) The startup world is similar. You look at the company’s skills and measurables and their offers; accelerator programs and (more importantly) venture investors.
We have had some good activity here in A2. Fetchnotes started TechStars Boston this week. But like college football, they don’t always play for the home team. Occipital went to TS Boulder but stayed there. Olark went to YC and partially stayed, they have a presence here at the Tech Brewery. Other A2 YC companies are Chirply and Farmlogs and then there is Ambassador (OK, actually Birmingham, MI) and TempoDB to round out TechStars for team A2. I’m hoping that Fetchnotes will come back after their stay.
The home team:
But it is Ann Arbor community that is so Awesome. Dug and JonO are killing it at Duo. There are many entrepreneurial programs and quality mentors. Check out the great companies in “the brewery”. The entrepreneurial culture seems to gets better every day. It reminds me of something that Jason Mendelson of Foundry Group said, he pointed out that in great entrepreneurial communities like Ann Arbor, the members want all the local startups to succeed. (The valley is moving towards an “It isn’t enough that I succeed, you have to fail” mentality.) In communities like Ann Arbor and Boulder, the mentality is that a rising tide lifts all ships. I have always referred to it as “entrepreneurial karma.” I help 15 entrepreneurs and a different 5 entrepreneurs will help me.
Ann Arbor has entrepreneurial karma.
Smart people live here and it is a good place to be and start a company. We have great companies forming and they are attracting investment from outside funds such as Google Ventures, True Ventures, DFJ Mercury, Khosla Ventures, and more. Lean startup guru Steve Blank is investing in the area (eLab.) Funded companies that have a significant A2 presence have investors such as Lightspeed, Rho, Sequioa, etc. (The names are just as impressive on the life science side: Frazier, 5am, Arch, InterWest, Clarus, Venrock, etc.) The local VC environment is picking up. Newer funds Detroit Venture Partners and Resonant Ventures are very active in engaging the community and working with entrepreneurs. Established funds like RPM Ventures and even North Coast are actively investing in software startups.
The eyes are starting to look here and much of this has to do with the University of Michigan. For starters, Tech Transfer does a good job commercializing the $1.24 Billion of research in its labs. The students are highly sought after. Places like the TechArb, Center for Entrepreneurship, and the Zell-Lurie Institute have a large population of students talking about starting companies on campus. The Law School’s new Entrepreneurship Clinic is taking off like a rocket. Dana and Bryce and their student teams offer great advice. In the short time (less than a year) the clinic has been around they have worked on (real) financing documents, IP, contracts, corporate structures, and more. I have worked with Byrce Pilz for many years and he is an exceptional attorney. What a tremendous asset for students.
With a well attended New Tech Meetup, a great resource/co-working space in the Tech Brewery and even our local economic development agency, Ann Arbor SPARK, geting it…Ann Arbor is a great place to be a “Startup Guy.”
And if the next big thing comes from Ann Arbor, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.
First, Fetchnotes is a good idea. We all have thoughts or notes we want to jot down…Todo items, blog ideas, grocery lists, urls, books we want to read, etc. I used to use notes in my iPhone, email myself, or make paper lists. Fetchnotes has stepped in and made this simple, really simple. If I need shampoo it is simple, I create a new item and type “Shampoo”. I can organize by adding tags. Maybe I get my shampoo at Target so I tag shampoo with #Target and #todo and any other tags that organize my life. Simple right? Now here is the cherry on top. It just so happens that my wife, Amanda, is the one who usually visits Target. Since we are linked (which in typical Fetchnotes fashion is simple to do) I can add it to her Fetchnotes too by adding @Amanda.
“Shampoo #Target #todo @Amanda” …Simple and powerful. Shampoo is now on both of our lists. A few weeks ago I was at Lowe’s getting some items and instead of calling me she just added it to my #Lowes list. Bam, it shows up on Fetchnotes and I bought it. It is just as a powerful tool for teams or organizing your list of great craft brew you want to try.
If you don’t use it, you should.
I like the company but I’m a big fan of co-founders Alex and Chase, they are the right combination of hustler and hacker. They are coachable and thirsty to learn. I enjoy working with them and watching them grow. When they asked me to join their board I was flattered and promptly accepted. I think I caught Chase off guard when I said “yes” so quickly, but I had been watching them for a year.
Needless to say I am proud of the whole Fetchnotes team.
Young entrepreneurs often think that mentors want to work with them because their idea is so awesome, so compelling that they just want to be associated with the next Mark Zuckerberg. Guess what? The best technology or idea doesn’t win and the odds of your idea being the next Facebook are infinitely small. I will not speak for all mentors but I advise startups because I just love working with entrepreneurs. I like their energy and passion. I enjoy helping them develop a sustainable business model. In the best cases it is like that puzzle you can’t put down until you solve it.
I meet with a lot of entrepreneurs, and because of my background in software and affiliation with the University of Michigan, many of these entrepreneurs are students or quite young. (For all you entrepreneurs out there - it is a great idea for you to have an experienced mentor or advisor to talk to about your startup. See graphic on the right from the Startup Genome Report.)
I fully appreciate that I am not Brad Feld or Fred Wilson, but many, certainly in Southeast Michigan, still seek out my advise on startups. Getting that first meeting …and getting a second one is, to me, about being respectful in your interactions. Mentors tolerate weak strategy, poor business models, etc. but if you remain coach-able and respectful you can develop a relationship. So here are some tips to help you show respect to a potential mentor/advisor.
…your mentor’s time.
My time is valuable. (Especially to me.) If you schedule to meet with a mentor, show up. Sounds obvious but I had 3 cases in 4 weeks. This includes phone calls too. I just blocked out time on my calendar that someone else could have actually used. If I show up to a coffee shop and you don’t, it’s going to be a long time before we meet again.
Be on time. I know everyone runs late. I certainly have, but I pick places to meet that I know have wifi so you can let me know you are running late. (P.S. 5 minutes is late. 15 minutes is disrespectful.)
Do some homework. If I can name five companies doing exactly what you are pitching and you can’t, not cool. Google it. It’s not that hard. I would also do your homework on your mentor. You can find out a lot about me from my bio on this blog, my LinkedIn profile, my Tech Transfer bio, and a Google search. A quick review would tell you that I am not the one to offer advise on the best regulatory path for your biologic. You can also use you research to make a personal connection to you mentor. A quick search for me will tell you I like beer, homebrewing, BBQ, and the Kansas City Chiefs. If we have any of those in common, that is a great connection.
Know what you want to talk about. Have a plan/agenda. Good agendas include (but are not limited to): help figuring out how you can make money off your idea, help figuring out how to develop the technology, developing a team, etc. Your plan should NOT be to pitch me a bunch of poorly thought through ideas until you get to one I think is interesting or “just getting to know me.”
If something changes don’t just keep the appointment. I have been working with a startup (that is tackling a big problem) that had scheduled to meet me. They sent me this message more than 24 hours before saying:
… We don’t want to waste your time and we realized that we need to have a group talk first. Can we reschedule with you once we have a better grasp on our goals and timeline?
Hell yes. Thanks for not wasting my time. If all you did was postpone, this would be different. In this case the team is very coach-able and respectful of my time.
Your mentor has a busy schedule. My student mentees seem to work on a different time scale. In most cases you cannot book my time later this week. If you wanted tomorrow at 1:00, you should have asked (at least) 3 weeks ago.
..your mentor’s communication channels
If someone gave you my cell number (I’ll shoot the bastard) don’t text me as your first correspondence. How the f*ck am I supposed to know who you are? Especially when you didn’t even give me your name. (This was not a U-M student for all you wolverines out there.)
Totally not cool.
…you mentor’s contacts
Yes. I know a lot of venture capitalists, angel investors and entrepreneurs. I value my contacts. I’ve worked hard to develop those relationships. I’m not going to give them to you because you ask. I will not just introduce you. By default, my introduction is an endorsement of your product/idea my. The bar is high there so don’t get you hopes up. I see hundreds of ideas in a year. Investors know that and since I don’t pass them all along any connection/introduction becomes a qualifier.
If I offer a connection and you accept, follow up quickly. It looks bad if I make an email introduction or I introduce you in person and you say you will get them some documentation and drop the ball. You make me look bad. If you are not ready to talk to that person, tell you mentor “I would love an introduction to Ms. Big, but at this point I need to do X before talking to her. Can I contact you next week when I will be ready for the introduction?”
I know this might be an obvious blog post, especially for experienced entrepreneurs. But given my personal experience as a mentor, I found that not all first-time or student entrepreneurs know how to engage with a mentor.