Kansas City Startup Accelerator: A Must Read For Founders
Recent BetaBlox Essays On Kansas City Startup Accelerators
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History Of Business Accelerators
This all started out in the 80’s after the passing of legislation called the Bayh-Dole Act (a bundle of new laws that allowed for the commercialization of intellectual property developed at universities across The United States). Before that, anything that had been created on a college campus, by let’s say a professor or scientist, remained the un-commercialize-able property of the school. Once the Bayh-Dole act was passed, University leaders from across the country sat in board rooms and devised plans to leverage this new freedom, and make money for their colleges. Their answer: business incubators. The phrase is a metaphor for a human incubator that nurtures newborns until they’re strong enough to survive without it; much like a new company should be nurtured before it is self-sustaining. So colleges across the world built these “incubators” to commercialize their IP, as well as to brand their schools as being more entrepreneurial.
Then governments started building them to help entrepreneurs become more successful so they would in-turn create more jobs, tax dollars and urban revitalization. So a little over twenty years passed of schools and governments creating business incubators with the best of intentions.
Who do you think a school hires to run an incubator? Some sort of professor, probably from the engineering or business school.
Who do you think the cities and states hire to run their incubators? Employees.
What are the problems with professors and employees? ….They’re not entrepreneurs.
How in the world can someone, or something, empower entrepreneurship if they’re not entrepreneurs? The short answer is – they can’t. To any government officials, professors, or employees reading this that are taking offense, please don’t. This isn’t an insult. We couldn’t do your job either.
So the country petered around for almost three decades with this facade of economic stimulation. No one could prove these things didn’t work – because in theory the solution fits like a glove over the problem; yet no would could prove they did work – because they weren’t, in fact, working.
Introducing, Paul Graham.
Paul is a software programmer that founded a company called Viaweb. It was ultimately acquired by Yahoo! for some obscene amount of money. Like Peyton Manning rich, but not Dr.Dre after his company, Beats by Dre, was acquired by Apple, rich.
One day, Paul was giving a speech to some sort of entrepreneurially-minded class at his alma mater, Harvard. Someone in the audience asked if he would invest in their idea. Without thinking, Paul responded with something along these lines of… “It’d be smarter for me to give everyone in this whole class $10K each for all your ideas, than it would be for me to give the best idea in the class $300K.” The class finished, and then he drove home. We’d like to think it was on the drive home that the epiphany struck: giving a small check to a bunch of startups, instead of a big check to a few, is actually a REALLY good idea. Then, if he invested in all of them at the same time, he could use economies of scale to add value to all of simultaneously, on-top of the money – ultimately increasing the worth of the stock he just bought.
So, like most good entrepreneurs – he built a test, fast. His model was simple. He’d give $6,000, per founder (up to three founders), in exchange for about 8% of their company. He’d choose ten startups for the inaugural “batch”. Each team would then be mentored through a fast-paced, three-month boot-camp of sorts. This marked the beginning of the business accelerator industry. He called his new fangled “incubator”, Y-Combinator.
Like all resourceful entrepreneurs, anyone being offered money “per founder”, just goes out and gets two more founders – so for the most part everyone got $18K. Graham’s business accelerator was birthed in Boston, and right from the first batch he picked a winner – Reddit – one of the most popular sites on the internet today. The story from Alexis (the founder of Reddit), of how he pitched Paul Graham to get in is actually kind of funny in hindsight. He pitched, was denied. He tweaked, was denied. Then he stalked Graham until Graham himself virtually came up with the model for the whole company, and then let Alexis in. The rest is history.
Graham realized he was on to something quickly; so he moved Y-Combinator (which he was calling an accelerator, and not an incubator – which was the first time someone referred to an incubator like that) to Silicon Valley for the second batch. Batch-after-batch the quality and quantity of the applicants increased, the amount of companies they funded increased, and the amount of follow-on funding that startups received post-technology accelerator graduation skyrocketed. Eventually they stumbled across two companies you might have heard of…AirBnB and DropBox. Although most of Y-Combinator’s value is tied up in the worth of those two multi-billion dollar companies – their market cap is well over 30 billion dollars, making the value of Y-Combinator itself over one billion dollars. It’s officially a unicorn that empowers unicorns. How great is that!
Introducing Techstars, The Mentor-Driven Technology Accelerator
So about three or four years after all this started, before the true hype of business accelerators hit the stratosphere, another man had an idea. His name was David Cohen. His idea was to take the basic premise and model that Y-Combinator had at the time, emphasize the mentorship angle, and do it in Boulder, Colorado. He is an accomplished technology entrepreneur himself, with several major liquidations under his belt. He knew there would be no better partner for something like this in Boulder than Brad Feld – a prolific venture capitalist that happened to live in the area. Feld takes pitches in a handful of quirky ways, but one of them was in fifteen minute intervals while he watches his daughter’s basketball practices. Cohen got one of these windows, and metaphorically slammed dunked the pitch whilst watching young girls do nothing of the sort. Feld and Cohen teamed up and created the first seed accelerator clone – of many to come.
But before they did, they traveled to San Francisco to pitch to Paul Graham the idea of licensing/franchising Y-Combinator. Paul Graham said something along the lines of “this will never work anywhere other than Silicon Valley”, and denied the request to license program. But in the spirit of open-source, as all good technologists can attest to being standard ethical behavior, Paul Graham just spilled the beans on everything that was working and not working. He essentially gave them the playbook. Feld and Cohen traveled back to Boulder, implemented the best practices they had just learned, and soon enough, just like Y-Combinator – watched their application quantity/quality soar. Their initial success led them to replicate their program in other burgeoning startup communities like Seattle and NYC. So at this point in history of business accelerators, two major things have been proven:
- Generally speaking, the best way to empower entrepreneurs is to do it with the leadership of fellow entrepreneurs – and to mutually align the success of the venture with that of the program’s leader using the tool of equity.
- Said system not only works, but it can be replicated successfully.
Attack Of The Clone Startup Accelerators
When a woman loves hair, she opens a hair salon. When a man loves soccer, he starts a soccer team. When a person loves candy, they open a candy store. Well, Graham, Cohen, Feld, and their partners, had created their versions of candy stores. Running a business accelerator to an entrepreneur, is figuratively like being a kid in a candy store.
Let the entrepreneurial jealousy ensue. What happens when an entrepreneur gets jealous?…
Founders from across the United States and world alike started building startup accelerators. Fast forward five years from this inflection point and there are now over a thousand business accelerators across the world. Most of them, without any creative thought whatsoever, still give out $18K to each startup. We doubt that most could even explain where the number ‘18’ even came from (remember, Graham arbitrarily gave out $6K per founder). These blatant ripoffs that follow the exact 3 month boot camp, shuffle in a bunch of mentors, have a big party, and kick em’ to the curb, are rampant.
Amongst All These Technology Accelerators, How Did BetaBlox Come To Be?
Despite the drastic spike in popularity of the technology accelerator model in the last five years – business incubators have spent hundreds of millions of dollars more than accelerators have over the last thirty years. Ironically, what led to their demise was what helped BetaBlox prosper: they were fabulous researchers! Think about it, they were professors (who write papers and books), scientists (who write reports), and city officials (who write proposals on what has worked to get more dollars for the perpetuation of their incubators). Great researchers are great at documenting what happens – despite the results of their experiments. And they did. In spades. Sure, researchers make crappy entrepreneurs – but they definitely paved the way for modern incubators to take a different approach. There won’t be as much documentation, case studies, or quantitative data on post-accelerator startups as there are post-incubated startups for decades. Through that mountain of data, we mined the best-of-the-best practices; studied the amount of time startups truly need support in the early years; the best structures of leadership compensation; and many other data points that proved incubators did indeed get some stuff right.
Then, we took the data from Y-Combinator and Techstars, combined it with the data of the clones, and the data from all those fabulous incubator studies, and performed some nerdy regression analyses to find out what were the reasons these things worked, or didn’t. We took the best of both worlds and smashed them together in a way that hasn’t been done since peanut butter first went on a date with Jelly.
What The Startup Accelerators Got Right
We believe that what the startup accelerators got the most right is getting the founders in their portfolios to move faster. That ‘speed accountability’ essentially helps set the cruise control on turbo, which is a great habit that lasts well beyond the startup’s formative years. Other key pillars of business accelerators are how they hone-in on rapid experimentation; shipping imperfect products for the sake feedback; validating that they’re setting down a path that’s building something people actually want; an attitude accepting of small failures in the pursuit of a larger mission; a better construct of the importance of a scalable venture rather than simply a venture; a more competitive attitude; the inherent value of cohort style on-boarding; and their swagger.
What The Business Incubators Got Right
On the flip side, the incubators got the ingratiation into the business community as a whole more correct; an emphasis of funding your startup with revenue over investment; the time spent within the structured and protective greenhouse; the access to preferred vendors and service providers that are willing to provide radically discounted services; better investment diversification amongst wider industries; and the facility setup that is more conducive to a marathon work environment, rather than a party.
The Biggest Benefit Of A Startup Accelerator Is The Equity Compensation
Equity is just simply a better form of compensation at early-stage entrepreneurship than cash. Period.
1. It mutually aligns the business accelerator team with the LONG-TERM success of the startup. Can you imagine the things traditional business consultants say to their clients in-order to keep them as clients? Cash LITERALLY becomes an incentive to keep an entrepreneur bad at their job. We recognize that at the later stages, cash is the only option – but at a company’s early years it’s a joke. Accelerators have no incentive to do anything other than make a startup company better; if they don’t – they’re working for free
2. It keeps much needed cash in the entrepreneur’s bank account so it can be used…oh we don’t know…building an actual product and promoting it! Lawyers, accountants, designers….they all have their hand out. Your success is second to them paying their mortgage. Once again, not an insult – it’s just the truth. Cash makes the world go around. But without a true alignment of incentives, human nature will always take precedent. And human nature dictates that we as humans must earn cash to feed ourselves and put a roof over our family’s heads. But the STARTUP’S number one priority should not be others’ mortgages, it should be their own success. Without their success, there won’t be sustainable revenues to create the jobs that actually do pay for mortgages. Philosophically speaking, a startup ONLY caring about the success of their own venture is ironically the least selfish thing they can do for our economy.
3. Equity keeps a business accelerator on the hook forever. When something goes wrong in three years (and it will)…or even better….when something goes right – you’re not going to have to drag an accelerator investor into a coffee shop to have them act as a board of advisors should. Any other service provider that charges cash (and they all do, including us in our previous gigs – so no insults are being thrown) is only on the hook until the scope of work is complete and the budget is depleted. An accelerator’s scope of work is theoretically indefinite.
4. Equity makes a startup accelerators’ team and consultants more proud of you. The more pride someone has in something, the more they naturally want to promote it. And guess what….their job is to know the movers-and-shakers of their city; so having them as promoters of your team is a big win right off the bat.
Seed Accelerator, Technology Accelerator, Business Accelerator, Startup Accelerator…Oh MY! Why All The Jargon?
The World has changed a lot in the last ten years; but what’s interesting is not just that things have changed (because they always have, and always will), but how fast it all happened. The internet, and more specifically social media, have speed up the evolution of business trends by orders of magnitude. Shifts in business jargon used to take decades, now they take months. As these trends evolved over time, the founders of accelerators rode each individual wave in an effort to differentiate from their predecessors. The best depiction of these shifts can be shown with this Google Trends graph. It shows off the search volume for the various accelerator synonyms over the years. Below said graph is the reasoning behind the relatively radical transitions.
Green – Business Accelerators
Purple – Technology Accelerators
Yellow – Startup Accelerators
Red – Seed Accelerators
When Paul Graham first started, startups weren’t trendy per-se. The dot-com bubble was long gone, and the company he just sold resembled more of a business than a seed company. This was more of way to generally accelerate business; hence a business accelerator. Period. Not much more thought needed to be put into it. In it’s most simple form, that’s all he was doing. The elegance of that simplicity is profound, but simple it remains.
So as you can see by the Google Trend graph, “business accelerator” took off like a rocket ship right at Y-Combinator’s launch. Then as Techstars entered the scene, their desire to emphasize the tech side of things motivated them to adapt the industry’s name in a more descriptive manner. One that also played to their name, a la ‘Techstars’.
Then, around 2009, the peak of the recession was in full-swing; housing markets crashed; college graduates couldn’t get jobs anywhere; funding was dried up; people were turning to entrepreneurship more than they ever had before. So the world went back to calling them startups again – as in a fresh START, and an attempt to rise UP like the Phoenix from the ashes of the conventional economic path that had failed them. If you remember, this was the very beginning of the murmurs that “startups are the new black.” With this uprising of the word ‘startup’, the industry shifted again by calling them startup accelerators. Another cool feature of Google trends is that it has the ability to forecast into the future – and ‘startup accelerators’ is the one out of all of these that in the eyes of Google will be the clear winner over the next half decade.
The term ‘seed financing’ was at it’s peak level of trend right before the dot-com crash in the late 90’s. ‘Seed financing’ was searched on AOL search (hahahahha) more times than ‘bank financing’ at the time. Pathetic in retrospect. But as things came crashing down, the term went with it. The entitlement that entrepreneurs had in the late 90’s to what their “seed” was really worth was killed; and with it most all financing companies that concentrated on that stage of business. And as startups became more accepted again around 2011, due more in-part through millions of Americans having no other choice, the word “seed” came back in-style. And where there are searches, there will be names of companies and industries – thus, many of the clones started calling themselves seed accelerators to coincide with the resurgence of the once drunkenly popular term ‘seed financing’.
Startup Accelerators In Kansas City, Other Than BetaBlox Of Course…
There are four note-worthy business accelerators in Kansas City, other than BetaBlox. Most of them resemble incubators more than accelerators, but they accelerate entrepreneurs in Kansas nonetheless. They each tackle different stages of business and industry; and they each have different motivations for founding their different programs in the first place. This is one of the reasons Kansas City entrepreneurship is so strong – no matter where you look, there is a relevant entity/person that can, and wants, to help you.
The Enterprise Center Of Johnson County (ECJC) – Fairway, KS
Stage Of Business: Growth
Industry: Mostly Technology
Leaders: Rick Vaughn & George Hansen
CEO & President, The Enterprise Center of Johnson County
Managing Director At Mid-America Angels
No, they’re not a business accelerator in the traditional sense of the phrase – but they sure do accelerate things. They’d prefer to be considered more of an incubator/co-working facility for growth-stage businesses. They run a great lecture series on a bevy of entrepreneurial topics; provide one-on-one consultation and other business services on an a la carte basis; and rent out turn-key offices and desks. They’re also the longest running incubator in-town, which provides them a level of sage knowledge that is hard for others to match. All that said, they’ve definitely niched themselves to servicing growth stage companies – those most poised for serious financing and liquidation events.
Pipeline – Overland Park, Kansas
Stage Of Business: Growth
Leader: Joni Cobb
Chairman of the Board
President & CEO
Pipeline is considered one of the most elite alliances of growth stage ventures in the country. They probably even have the attention of Y-Combinator. Thanks to a generous donation from The Kauffman Foundation in 2010, they have expanded their reach beyond just that of Kansas City and into the majority Midwestern entrepreneurship community, sometimes referred to as the ‘Silicon Prairie’. The entrepreneurs accepted into this fellowship have demonstrated more than serious traction and probably need more help managing the radical growth than they do getting the growth in the first place – good problems to have. Their curriculum is an innovative one, to say the least. It hovers on the premise of three modules that further validate a company’s business model, forms tight bonds amongst themselves so as to have others to lean on along the journey, and to begin building bridges to corporate companies that may one day act as major partners/customers/acquirers. To help sum up where the aforementioned startup accelerators fit amongst ourselves relative to the stage of business we support -let BetaBlox take you from launch-to-market validation (product/market fit); ECJC to scale; and Pipeline to the finish line. Yes, Kansas City is lucky – but we’ve worked for it and deserve the resources that we have.
The Sprint Mobile Health Accelerator – Kansas City, MO
Stage Of Business: Growth
Industry: Mobile Healthcare Technology
Leaders: Doug Dresslaer & Kevin McGinnis
Founder & Managing Executive
About a half-a-decade ago the X-Box and their Kinect product needed developers to build apps on-top of the platform that they had created. Much like iPhone’s App Store would suck without apps that millions of developers create for apple, Kinect wanted the same thing. To spark this fire, they licensed the Techstar’s best practices and name and created the first corporate accelerator. Disney, Nike, Barclays, Kaplan, and more followed in X-Box’s footsteps and sponsored/invested in bringing the Techstars name, attitude, and system inside of their corporate walls.
A couple of years ago, Kansas City was lucky enough to have an intrapreneur named Erik Wullschleger. At the time he worked for Sprint; although secretly his blood ran a deep shade of entrepreneur. He championed the concept of a Techstars license agreement with Sprint and garnered the support necessary for the corporate behemoth to bring Techstars to Kansas City. This brought a national spotlight to the City of Founders that was just as powerful as Google Fiber. Thank you Mr. Wullschleger – pronounced: Wullschlaygggguuuurrrr. Between his leadership and proven senior management/friend at Pinsight Media (a Sprint Company) – named Kevin McGinnis, The Sprint Mobile Health Accelerator powered by Techstars was born. Although Eric was eventually head hunted away to another exciting venture for both himself, and Kansas City, anyone who doesn’t give him his due amount of credit for the founding of the program isn’t telling the full story.
The Sprint Accelerator just finished the second batch, with a plan for the third batch to zoom-out their industry focus a little. As if the demand for their program wasn’t strong enough, wait until you see who comes to Kansas City for batch 3! Their chosen entrepreneurs come from all over the United States, and even a big chunk of them from all over the world.
Think Big wears a lot of hats, and they look good in all of them. They host regular small startup events, and several large annual events. More importantly, they’re the only co-working facility in Kansas City that actually has enough traction to fulfill the dream of what a co-working facility is supposed to be.
A co-working facility is a turn-key office setup geared towards entrepreneurs. Traditionally, when an entrepreneur rents office space somewhere – all they get is a square footage. Technically, this is what Think Big rents too. But it’s more than that. They’ve built an entrepreneurial environment that surrounds that office space with resources that not just any office space could provide. Major partnerships with startup-friendly corporations and banks, a “technology bar” to test products and website compatibility, and leaders that are more “entrepreneur” than “landlord”, all make it a place for entrepreneurs to work out of. This is their cornerstone product, and they’re good at it.
So why are they mentioned in this essay regarding Kansas City business accelerators if they’re a co-working facility? Three reasons:
- They used to have a traditionally modeled KC startup accelerator that went through two batches around 2013 and 2014. There was a couple of cool scores that happened from those batches, including Phone2Action and Moblico. Since then, they have ceased operations of the standard accelerator formula.
- Now, instead of a start-and-stop, cohort-style, application process, and multi-month system – they will find one-off companies and utilize proven growth accelerator methodologies, but on an individual basis. The key differentiators that helps them stand out, even amongst the national landscape, is that (a) they’re looking for companies that are growth stage (meaning they’ve proven serious traction and are looking to scale), and (b) they’re seriously looking for IoT (Internet of Things) companies. In other words, making the devices around you intelligent through technology enabled features, e.g., a street light that knows when to turn off on its own, or a home that knows it should start heating up thirty minutes before its owner comes home from work. They are keenly prepared to help companies in this industry thanks to expertise they’ve been accumulating for years, as well a huge partnership with Cisco to make Kansas City a “Smart City”.
- Lastly, let’s be real – whether you’re an incubator, a Kansas City accelerator, an angel, or just a nice guy – if you are increasing the speed at which companies grow, you’re an accelerator. No one owns the definition of a startup accelerator, and the minute people start to pigeonhole what these things should look and act like, is the minute they miss the point entirely. Think Big Partners is a proven team of leaders and services that accelerate companies in a way that truly helps them become exceptional.
What Is A Startup Accelerator Demo Day?
Demo Day is the term used to describe a graduation ceremony of sorts that culminates at the end of a business accelerator’s 3 month period. The entrepreneurial and investment community show up in droves to see what the best-of-the-best startups have been working on. It’s exciting, great networking, easy deal flow for angel investors, and typically done in cool event spaces that are a hell of a lot more fun than when they’re being used for weddings. BetaBlox’s Demo Day was at Union Station this year and had almost 1,500 people come through the doors; and Sprint’s had a reported 700 attendees at the Kauffman Center For The Performing Arts. These are buildings that we grew up going to as kids, or watched being built in front of our own eyes. Now they’re the stages that our city has set to showcase the future of Kansas City’s innovation. It’s an exciting time to be a Missouri business accelerator.
Great Blogs Written By Leaders Of Startup Accelerators Across The Country
It is very hard to find anyone in the world that has more of a mutually aligned motivation, hands-on, ground-floor view, of more companies being founded than that of startup accelerator (BetaBlox being in that club). Being able to recognize patterns is the key pillar to high quality mentorship and consultation; the pattern recognition earned by business accelerator managers puts them in a position of credible expertise more-so than just about any type of early-stage consultant there is. Here’s the best new…most of the business accelerator industry leaders happen to be prolific writers on the subject. You don’t need to be a Y-Combinator company to at least glean a bit of their methods through their leaders’ blogs and videos. Here is a list of the highest quality educational pieces created by national technology accelerator leaders. Study up on these people and you’ll be curating your own little Kansas startup accelerator.
Paul Graham’s Essays – the founder of Y-Combinator. Don’t let the simple design of this site fool you – it’s pure gold.
Feld Thoughts – Brad Feld’s Blog, the co-founder of Techstars
Sam Altman’s “How To Start A Startup” Series At Stanford – the current President of Y-Combinator
500 Startup’s Blog – The brainchild of Dave McClure, the Darth Vader of technology accelerators.
The BetaBlox Business Accelerator In A Nutshell
One of the most important things that you have to keep in-mind when starting a company is your runway. It’s the amount of time that you have to get off the ground before your plane, i.e. startup, crashes and burns. The most crucial aspect of a plane getting off the ground is its speed. Regardless of the endless laws of physics that have to be situated perfectly for a piece of metal to fly – none of it matters without speed. The same thing is true with your startup. You have to move fast, or be prepared to not even start in the first place. That’s what being a business accelerator in Kansas is all about – empowering you to go faster; and there’s no one better at helping you go faster than the team at BetaBlox.
Over the last twenty years, business incubators, seed accelerators, think tanks, and co-working facilities have popped up all across the world in an effort to help startups get off the ground. Our team has studied the best practices from each of these disciplines and created a hybrid of all of them. We’re strong believers in lean startup methodologies, building for benefits over features, validating an actual want in a marketplace, simplifying offers, cultivating a rockstar team, intelligent differentiation, taking a long-term approach, and radical niching at the onset (amongst many other pillars). We also believe that the time spent with each entrepreneur needs to be much more than that of a program like Y-Combinator; we mean that relative to time spent with them one-on-one, as well as the amount of months and years we spend formally working together.
Our portfolio touts some of the fastest growing startups in Kansas City. Its combined revenues are experiencing an approximate 10X annual growth. Let us say that again so it sinks in: our company’s revenues are growing ten-fold….year-after-year. So when everyone else is complaining about how difficult it is to RAISE money for their venture, we’re over here EARNING it. I guess we’re just old school like that.
We award approximately ten founders every quarter with entrance into our alliance – which means we accept a lot of startups – which adds to the power of the alliance that we’ve created. BUT, we also deny applicants at a rate similar to Harvard’s MBA. So yes, we take on a lot of companies – but it’s also exclusive and for the best-of-the-best. Finding that fine line between the size of our alliance, and its quality, has been a fun and complicated dance that we biasedly believe has been done eloquently.
Once in the program, each team is provided with access to angel investors, one-on-one consultation, mentors, classes, and strategic events designed to ingratiate your startup into both the Kansas City entrepreneurial community, as well as the Blox army. Said army is going to act as your support system, therapists, business network, and friends for the life of your company. Getting into the BetaBlox business accelerator will move your team farther in one month than the average startup moves in a year – unlike most of our data, we don’t have an actual statistic to substantiate that last comment ;)
At the end of the program you will pitch your company on stage to a large audience of Kansas City entrepreneurship supporters. There, you will hopefully pick-up more resources and support to continue your journey full-steam ahead. Post Demo Day, you’re encouraged to keep utlizing our facility, showing up to classes, mentors, regular events, and asking for time one-on-one with your favorite Blox consultants.
Here’s the catch, we take 5% equity in your company and act as your co-founders. In other words, we take a small ownership in your success, and nothing if you fail. We also don’t expect board seats, traditional voting power, or aggressive reporting that other angel groups demand.
Enough is enough already, you get the point. Apply to Kansas City’s premier startup accelerator now.