Friday, March 22, 2013

Should You Apply to the Founder Institute? My Pros / Cons and Tips Shared After Graduation

. So you are thinking about joining the Founder Institute (FI)? Playing with the idea to create your own startup? Or your first startup in the States? I graduated from the 2012/2013 Silicon Valley chapter of the Founder Institute so let me share my experiences and also lessons learned with you.

Short version - for the busy reader

The Founder’s Institute is a 4 month startup acceleration / incubation program that uses top-down style classes (remember high school?), assignment and a pitch-driven approach to help you to formulate and drive startup ideas from first thought to incorporated business.

What was awesome about it:

  • Structured, well organized acceleration program that you apply to yourself and your own idea and later startup
  • Assessment to see whether you are the right fit for a startup entrepreneur lifestyle and to help you develop personally and qualify your idea
  • Great resources for each class (previous recorded talks, reading, templates, etc)
  • Incredible network of mentors that is accessible to you from day one.
  • Fellows during the program and graduates after the program form a strong peer-support community. This is especially important after graduation as you will continue to motivate each other to maintain a sense of urgency and professionalism for each other! Also helps that after graduation, we own small parts of each others' companies ;-)
  • A great partner network - graduates will have access to special deals with vendors such as Rackspace, First Republic Bank, etc. 
If the course fee and the 3.5% equity contribution are of concern to you, I suggest to read the Quora article on whether the Founder Institute a good deal for entrepreneurs.

What you should know:

  • Not very lean yet. 4 months are a long time for a lean startup to go through one serial curriculum of topics. I’d like an incubator to adopt lean practices, enforce iterative Build-Measure-Learn cycles with review milestones with standardized metrics at which point the founder either decides to stay on course or pivot.
  • Come with thick skin and expect some tough love. Feedback will be brutally honest which is great! However with one out of 25 Mentors or so... the feedback can even get a bit personal/mildly abusive. I’d like FI to keep up the brutal honesty but let's keep it professional at all times. At those times, just thank the judge and don’t talk back.
  • Assignments are a lot of work but at the end, you don’t receive feedback on it from FI. So make sure you do them for yourself and your startup.
  • It's just part time. So if you already quit your job, this might not be enough of a structure for you to accompany your startup every day. So don’t rely on FI to manage your daily life but see it as an accompanying program.

Early Conclusion (see more below):

  1. Definitely apply if you are still in a job and would like help in figuring out if your idea or you are Startup ready
  2. Apply when you are new to the West Coast and want to build your advisory / mentor network.
  3. Apply when you want to further your personal development and further strengthen your entrepreneurial toolbox.

For me, number 2 and 3 applied and for me, the Founder Institute was an awesome experience!

Convinced it is the right fit for you? Then go ahead and apply!

Misha Chellam (Director of the FI SV Chapter), Stefan Broda and Adeo Ressi (Founder of FI) at the 
Graduation ceremony

. Stefan often expresses enthusiasm by picking you off the ground ;-)

The longer version - to support your decision to apply or not

Curriculum and Assignments

Throughout the 4 months of the program, entrepreneurs receive lectures in a wide spectrum of startup-relevant topics. It starts with vision and values, to put your idea and the problems you want to address into perspective. “Pick an idea that is worth failing for” (Thanks, Marcos Polanco!) is the most important take-away I had from that session which made me pick BeforeWeDo amongst other ‘fun-app’ ideas I had. Then, the sessions take you from research, to naming/branding, legal, hiring, product development, finance, MVP, outsourcing, marketing/sales, publicity and... Surprise... fundraising.

Each session is accompanied with assignments with homework in each of these topics. These assignments are all applied directly to your startup so you benefit from them but they also test how serious you are about it. Examples here are to create a newsletter which you then regularly send to all of your friends and family, a logo competition you are expected to launch, financial planning, engaging legal counsel, doing first product development etc. Don’t expect though that all your assignments are rated/reviewed. Although it felt like school, the assignments are primarily for yourself so you at the end are the ultimate judge about the quality and effort your want to put in. In hindsight, I think it would be good to integrate the sessions better with the assignments and have peer review implemented amongst the founders.

Other blog posts like Founder Institute: the good, the bad... the gold out there criticize the assignments to be too general and too software-specific. There must have been an overhaul of the assignments text because I did not feel that to be the case. As long as you remember that you do the assignments for yourself and not for a teacher, you will be fine!


And let us not forget the pitches. At the Founder Institute, the major measure of your progress is your ability to clearly and convincingly pitch your startup in one minute at first, then three minutes without slides and at the end in three minutes with slides. Before and after each session, some founders need to pitch their startup in this format and receives a rating (1-5 without 3) and very honest and direct feedback. Key milestones of the program are three major mentor reviews in which every founder needs to present, is challenged by the mentors in a Q&A period and given more extensive feedback.

Very important: learn how to manage feedback. When mentors give you feedback... SHUT UP! Let me be clear... DON’T respond, explain, defend, etc... But DO take notes (or have someone in the audience take notes for you). Analyze later, then you can approach them in the bar afterwards and discuss further.

You probably will end up spending ⅔ effort on assignments and ⅓ on preparing and practicing pitching.

Commitment and Dropping out

The program requires both a reasonable financial and time commitment (if you disregard the special assignments that you might receive at any time).  It will however, require hard commitments from you such as the selection and engagement of a legal counsel and an incorporation of a C-Corporation for your business idea. So it is both, a resource to you for your personal development and a qualification mechanism to go from “playing startup” to “doing startup”.

Whenever you ask a group of people to show commitment and to cope with challenging assignments, you can expect dropouts. At Founder Institute, the churn was significant as we started with over 44 individuals and graduated with 16. You are invited to join a later chapter and we actually had 2 graduates my term that were former dropouts but I had the impression that the majority of dropouts would not re-apply. But that is OK - maybe the FI helped a bunch of people to figure out that doing a startup is not as wonderful of a world as they imagined it to be.

Prepare to drink after class

After each session, the founders go into the nearby Nuthouse where beers and peanuts accompany more discussions with the mentors and amongst the founders. It was stressed very early on that founders are expected to show up here and indeed, this is where a lot of the important learnings took place! If you know already that you will go home straight after class and not join socializing afterwards, FI is probably not the right program for you.

Just as social proof, this is also a major take from Jennifer Seigal’s blog post about her experience going through the Founder Institute.  

Some more take-aways and lessons learned from the program:

  • Research: Let somebody in your working group conduct a couple of customer interviews about YOUR startup idea. This is huge as they are not biased the same way you are.
  • Naming/Branding: This is a matter of taste but don’t pick a startup name that is totally misspelled because there was no domain available for the real thing. Also, do a phonetic test (pronounce the name of your company without top level domain to 10 people and ask them to open the website, check what happens).
  • Pitching: record yourself with your smart phone or tablet as you stand and pitch. So easy to review your performance and double check your time management that way. Then share that with your group. I also use to sync video and slides.
  • Legal: Start with this at least ONE MONTH before the legal counsel selection deadline. Go to Orrick’s, WSGR’s, Cooley’s and other law firms events (e.g. free startup lunch sessions), build relationships with lawyers way ahead of your FI/legal counsel deadline. You really want to pick a person as your legal counsel you get along well. Also, ask Wayne W. for his awesome corporate document structure.
  • Co-Founders/Hiring: I see video being a cool new thing to do in job posts. Just take a video in which you explain the position, the culture and what you are looking for. Really distinguishes yourself from all the other startups out there. I certainly will do this for my open founding team positions!
  • Product Development: Do some reading on agile development (backlog, sprints, scrum meetings, etc.) and the lean startup (BML cycles, actionable metrics, etc.). That was not really covered in my chapter.

Overall Conclusion

As we have seen, the Founder Institute covers a wide array of topics that are important to go through as you create your startup company. It is probably ideal to start the program while still engaged in another job/gig and use the curriculum to make a decision whether you want to pursue it full time or not. If you already are full time into your startup, then you can see it as a part-time personal development program in which you can further build the network of mentorship. If you are worried about the costs of the program - I don’t think that should be an issue at all - I perceive the value I got out of the program to be many times exceeding the program fee. Also, consider that once you graduate your access to the network and the resources of the institute will be infinite!

And if you read until here and feel up for it to “do startup”, go ahead and apply!

The Graduating Class and more FI experience blog posts

Graduates from the 2012/2013 Silicon Valley Chapter of the Founder Institute. From left to right:

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Fresh Look at the Spread of STDs: How About.Com's STD Writer, Elizabeth Boskey,Ph.D Views the Current State of Online Sexual Health's Guide to Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Elizabeth Boskey, Ph.D  first started working in sexual health as peer health educator with the AIDS Education Group at her college, where she loved not just writing about HIV and performing sketches but talking to her fellow students about safe sex. She is now a researcher, and a Health Educator with over 20 years of experience, who recently had a lengthy, and honestly entertaining, conversation with  about the current state of online sexual health.

Let me just say, she kept it real.

What trends have you noticed in STI/STDs and getting tested from working in the field of Sexual Health?

People have been uncomfortable talking about STI/STDs for a long time, and it isn't getting better. Since I left high school, it seems like there's been a trend towards  less education in sexuality, rather than more. People seem less invested in playing “safe”. Maybe it's just that I'm working with different populations now, but they also seem to be less informed about even the most basic aspects of reproduction and disease transmission. It makes me wish we had solid, national sex education standards in our schools.

However, the world has also changed in the years since I left high school. When I was coming of age, a driving factor in getting tested and staying protected was the fear of HIV, but today HIV is much less frightening. HIV is now understood to be treatable, if you have the money and resources to pay for treatment. It's no longer seen as a death sentence. HIV as a chronic illness just isn't something people worry about the way they did before the age of combination antiretroviral therapy. ” While losing that fear has helped to deal with the stigma of HIV positivity, it has also cost a lot of people their motivation to protect themselves.

There are also social structures in place that make testing difficult for some of the groups who need it most. For example, a student at Boston University, where I am currently teaching, recently told me that there is no access to STI/STD testing on campus. Student health will happily provide a list of off-campus testing sites, but it isn't part of the student health plan.

Well, which STI/STD would you say most are concerned about now?

From a practical perspective, my biggest concern is antibiotic resistant gonorrhea. I think there's a real change that this formerly treatable disease will become untreatable in my lifetime. If it does, it's suddenly going to become a very big deal. From a social perspective, however, I'm most worried about genital herpes. It's so stigmatized that people become devastated by it to an extent that is completely disproportionate to the, usually pretty mild, symptoms. People talk about suicide, or their life being over, and that's so not necessary.

Unfortunately, herpes is widely misunderstood by not just everyday people but doctors. People don't realize how common it is, and how large a fraction of the population has no idea that they're infected – because it often doesn't cause any noticeable symptoms. There's a widespread  myth that you can only give someone gential herpes when you have symptoms. It's not true, even though many doctors believe it. This leads to lots of blame where someone who has just been diagnosed assumes their partner lied to them about risk... when the truth is that their partner might have had no idea they were infected. Additionally, and this is a big one, most people have no idea that cold sores can spread to the genitals, causing genital herpes. People think oral sex is safe sex, and because we rarely talk about “cold sores” as “oral herpes”,it's rare that someone bothers to disclose that risk..

The level of shame and fear around herpes is really disturbing, but I think that part of the reason that it's so stigmatized and so scary is that it feels unavoidable.  It doesn't seem like there's anything to do to protect yourself and your partners. People have more of feeling of control and protection when their partner has HIV. You can easily, and completely, protect yourself from HIV. With herpes, it is far more difficult – although both condoms and suppressive therapy can be used to reduce transmission.

What are some of the trends you see answering users STI/STD questions on

II think the biggest trend that I see is that men tend to email me their questions, but women post more stories.

Most of the questions I receive reflect the fact that there is still  a lot of shame in contracting an STI/STD. Many people would rather reach out to someone online if they think it can help them avoid going to the doctor. Going to an STI/STD clinic is scary, particularly in a small town where you're worried about getting seen, and going to a doctor can be even worse if it's someone you've known for a while. There are all these worries about judgment.  Contacting me online seems easier for them, even if a lot of the time all I can do is give them general information about diseases and tell them that they really need to visit a doctor – or find another way to get testing and treatment.  
What are you thoughts about In-Home STI/STD testing? 

I have somewhat mixed feelings about in-home testing. I think that, while the FDA approved in-home HIV test is a better option than not getting tested, it's far from perfect. One of my biggest worries is about potential problems with follow-up. If you get tested for HIV in a doctor's office or clinic, there is on-site counseling and a direct path to treatment. If you get tested at home, however, finding further help is on your shoulders. There's a hotline available through the company that makes the OraQuick test, but you have to be willing and ready to call it.

My other big concern is that the only thing you can test for at home is HIV. It's not the only STI/STD out there, and it may not be most people's biggest concern. However, that said, if in home testing means that people get tested more frequently, I'm all for it. It's just not a magical solution for improving sexual health. It's also not necessarily the most affordable solution, but that's another issue entirely

What about STI/STD testing in a doctor’s office?

Ideally, everyone would get tested by their doctor, and it wouldn't be that big a deal. Unfortunately, because doctors are just as uncomfortable talking about sex as their patients, it's not as easy as it could be. Doctors often fail to ask their patients if they want to be tested, and patients don't know that they should ask -- or 

what to ask for. Furthermore, many doctors don't even know what tests are available, and if they do they sometimes only test the patients they perceive as "high-risk" when the truth is that everyone sexually active is at risk of STI/STDs. That's true even for people who are in a monogamous marriage, unless they were both tested before they got together.

I will say that, for people in a big city, often the best place to get tested is your local LGBT health center. Clinics focusing on the queer community are generally non-judgmental and often have low-cost, easily-accessed testing services that aren't restricted to LGBT individuals. However, for someone who isn't part of the community, it's often a bit scary to consider walking through that door.

In your idea world, how would the culture of 
STI/STD testing be changed?

In an ideal world, we'd normalize testing. If the default was that everyone got tested on a regular basis, it would be less stigmatized. It wouldn't be such a big deal. However, that's a pretty big change. I'd settle for just convincing more MDs to discuss 
STI/STD testing with ALL of their patients, to shift the burden of asking to someone who shouldn't find it quite as stressful. The fact that doctors often try to profile their patients' risk and target testing, without even talking to patients about their sexual health, just drives me crazy!

Any other final thoughts about sexual health?

One thing that I think we really need to work on as getting past the idea of condoms as something that you eventually "get past" in a relationship. Using a barrier for sexual activity says nothing about your level of intimacy, you don't suddenly become a closer couple because you've thrown away the latex. However, right now, condoms and other barriers are often seen as an intimacy test instead of things that are just a normal part of sex. That makes using them, or stopping using them, a lot more meaningful than it has to be. People can have insanely hot sex with condoms. They can even make sex better.

On that note, one thing that I wish we told couples is that different brands of condoms can feel quite different during sex. Finding condoms and lube you that work for you can make an enormous difference in how enjoyable your sex life is. So, experiment! Get a variety pack from a condom store online, and see which one is most enjoyable. Make latex part of your foreplay instead of an interruption. Don't see safe sex as a burden. See it as an opportunity to add spice and variety to your sex life and make things more interesting.

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