Purpose of this piece is to outline the missteps and consequential lessons I personally took in my first year of running a startup program.
This is a people’s business
I cannot stress this enough. We started not as a startup program but a series of programming sprints and ideathons. What came out of it was a catch-all startup program that was overpromising. A lot of people came to us asking questions at first, that seemed like a promising subject for us to pivot upon. We can potentially turn into a startup factory for early stages and for everyone. What we promised to provide was unmatched at those levels of pay and the fact that we did not require any skill at all quickly turned back on us. After that, I can only say that this is a business of ensuring other’s success even at the expense of coming out as ordinary and meager at start.
When we promised to provide any ordinary joe with a self-proclaimed big idea with mentorship, connections, tech and access a lot has happened. Not necessarily for the better though, mostly people made demands about them and we tried to make stupid leeways without telling them to find someone or somewhere else. Even though, we cannot realistically fullfil that requests later on. Being the popular choice for a demographic and getting attention was a good thing at the start. Not anymore.
It is important to recognize the core value presented at a startup program. Making people successful and ensuring growth. This generally has nothing to do with popularity and other connectors per se. You should not admit or flatter anyone to gain a follower or two, nor you should compromise this human aspect by ignoring or automating crucial processes of a program.
Founders need help in 3 things
If your program neglects any of that or focuses on topics unrelated to these. You may be wasting valuable time.
Hard to iterate
With every broken interaction, a mismanagement or communicative error you lose a boundary or trust. You can’t just start from scratch and figure out the way to run your program along the way. Having a skeleton of a program does not cover even the basics. You should be mapping and figuring out key processes, application and lead management, stakeholder, beneficiary and investor relationships at the start before regretting about it later.
One you gave it a go it is extremely hard for people to start anew and trusting you to not to break things again at the same time.
Avoid hunting with trolls
Because this is a people’s business. You cannot afford to be open to anyone. This is a simple rule, really you can’t effectively automate a startup program in its core. Define a type of people and pair them with your cause. Get a type of people and make them your people.
Partners are only meaningful if they are… well… “partners”
Though not everyone is a good fit and same thing occurs both ways. If you do not engage with them constructively in other words: if the relationship is somewhat of a zero-sum, that is you are being partners only because of a single give-something-get-something deal then, reconsider it. Do not use partners to gain credibility or upsell yourself to others.
Do not overpromise
Really, do not do that. It is tempting to get people on board and start cheering. Unless you can critically develop their base do not touch it.
It’s about them
This is, entirely about them and their success. That is a good thing by the way.
You are not a non-profit
Do your own thing
Follow the best practices, value experience, get good mentors and do your own thing.
Be hands-on and don’t be afraid to experiment
If you are a generalist like me, you will probably excel at this job. A startup organization is the epitome of experiments. You are housing a house of little experiments, literally. Every startup at their core is a big experiment of market conditions, In smaller numbers every KPI they track is linked to smaller experiments of smaller market conditions. So your program should be a series of controlled experiments as well. None of your proposed answers to their problems should be set-in-stone. You would experiment like crazy and take reporting seriously. Develop theories of how hiring engineers, fundraising etc. should be performed in your cohort and start experimenting.