GrowLab should consider renaming itself RocketShipLab, because that’s what it felt like. Nothing in my last 6 years working for and on startups felt as good as participating and “graduating” from the latest GrowLab cohort. I’ll attempt to recap.
We sort of cheated. My team didn’t apply to the accelerator normally, we exercised our network and kept hammering the founders with phone calls until they finally caved and let us in. It probably didn’t help that our vision and brand at the time was completely terrible, but they knew we’d figure it out.
My other founder, Mark, and I flew to Vancouver for orientation. This was the week that we learned we had to step up our game or we’d be crushed. From day one, Debbie Landa was telling us our pitch was crap… and it was. Mike Edwards, the executive director of GrowLab, and Charlyne Landgraff, the program coordinator were nothing short of AMAZING when it came to herding all the cats that somehow were under their watch. Leonard Brody and Boris Wertz, our main advisors, were also fairly annoyed that we were all over the map with our vision. Again: they knew we’d figure it out.
And figure it out we did. After spending a few days with the rest of the cohort in Vancouver with a group trip to Seattle, and driving like mad to squeeze in a visit to the SkyDrive team in Redmond, I headed down to San Francisco. We knew that I needed to be down there whether we were in GrowLab or not, but it sure helped that they happen to have an office down there that we could work out of.
I pulled an Airbnb, actually staying with friends who happen to actually work at Airbnb; it’s a very cool company! In short, I slept on the floor beside a rabbit cage for three weeks. Whatever, beggars can’t be choosers.
One of my first nights in San Francisco I went and saw Mike Maples, Jr. give a talk. Probably the best thing I could have done at that point. Mike had some incredible wisdom to give, and I took it to heart. My main takeaway was that the best companies and the best teams just somehow will their companies into existence. Things don’t just happen. You have to pretty much reach into the void and rip this business into reality. It’s not going to just magically appear unless you’re a magician. I needed to be a real magician… and we’re only here today via our own willpower.
Now that’s a pretty vague and bullshitty description of building your startup which, truthfully, the internet has way too much of. In literal terms: a startup is successful because the entrepreneurs running it are still sending emails at 3 in the morning, getting meetings and getting facetime with customers and partners, and busting their asses learning anything they don’t know, all while asking everyone they know or don’t know to help them. Is it scary going into a meeting with Microsoft, Google, Dropbox? Sure! But you gotta find the guts to go into 5 of those meetings a day and then arrange more while the rest of the world is sleeping. NOBODY IS GOING TO PICK UP YOUR PHONE FOR YOU, SO YOU HAD BETTER PICK IT UP.
Another huge takeaway from my valley trip is that you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Listen up Canadians! Stop being too nice. Again: things don’t just happen. If you want to do business with someone you need to flat out say the words “I want to be partners, what are the steps to make that happen?” If you want a meeting you need to literally say “How is this time, or this time, or this time, or this time?” Pansying around the fact that your schedule is wide open and theirs isn’t doesn’t provide much incentive to anyone to actually meet with you. Hell, I literally had a “we should meet sometime on Thursday, maybe” from a huge company and they never responded to my emails so I just showed up and waited. Eventually the guy I wanted to see couldn’t leave me in the waiting room any longer. I’m not saying that’s always a good strategy, I did meet these guys before, but sometimes you have to take the risk. Another awesome phrase is “we’re picking our battles right now, bring us a pilot customer or we can’t divert attention to you for at least three months.” While it was actually true, I still had two hot companies phoning me back and we’re doing business right now.
else Mike Maples, Jr. said, which I think is originally attributed to Reid
Hoffman, is that running a startup is like running off a cliff with all the
parts to build an airplane. You’ve got the propeller, the panels that make up the
wings, the seats, electrical, etc. and you somehow have to assemble this thing,
climb inside, start it up, and fly away before you smash into the ground.
Sounds simple, right? If you’re lucky enough to get funding your cliff is a
tiny bit taller so you have a few more seconds to snap all the pieces together.
Your friends think you’re a genius because you have a nice fun startup, but you
really know that you’re broke, exhausted, still reading the owners manual for
this damn airplane, and you’re straddling the line between vibrating excitement
about your product and crippling fear about hitting the ground… and you love
It took me about a week before something in my mind clicked. I think every entrepreneur knows, at least subconsciously, that they have to be better than they are, but executing on that knowledge is an incredible chasm to cross. I spent my first week trying to make some meetings, arguing with my partners on Skype, and getting my ass handed to me by Debbie. We were too narrow minded, too lackadaisical, and just expecting things to happen. It’s kind of like playing high school sports, you made the team because you had some talent but you never really understand just how hard you could, and should, have worked until you’re done school and wishing you had given it your all. Successful startups realize this before they finish school.
Overnight I realized I would never be satisfied unless I was doing something meaningful. Up until this point we were still thinking about money, and how much we wanted it. Now we just want to do something truly amazing. It’s hard to articulate exactly what that transition feels like, or how to recognize it, but it’s an amazing frame of mind to be in. I think Steve Jobs once said something about how nobody cared if you were the richest guy in the graveyard. Nobody cares how rich Jobs was, they care about how he moved the world forward.
The night this epiphany occurred I literally didn’t sleep. I threw out my entire, sorry-ass pitch deck, and started from scratch. I took 41 (quick) slides and ended up with about 10. My message was clear. I didn’t need any scrutiny or advice from my advisors or team at that point, everyone had already accomplished their mission in getting me here. Now it was time to be CEO and come out swinging with the vision and messaging that only a founder can produce. That deck remained largely unchanged all the way through our demo day. Even the wording I came up with was basically written in one draft that night. Everything GrowLab had done up to that point came down to us figuring it out. They’re advisors, and teachers, and our guides. Teachers don’t do your homework, they teach you how to learn so you can do it yourself. That was GrowLab, a rocket ship of self-realization.
My last two weeks in Silicon Valley were a whirlwind. I went to some massive parties like the annual August Capital event which was the best $180 (I know, right? Crazy expensive!) I ever spent. I met with more 800 pound gorillas than I have fingers to count. Deals were made, pilot projects are happening, and we were ready to absolutely crush our demo day. We had traction, real interest, and I literally asked companies “can we call ourselves partners?”, “can you give me an LOI even though this is our first meeting?”, “who actually makes the decisions? Is it you?” The best thing Debbie Landa told me was “if they don’t want to answer a question then they won’t, but you have to ask it first.”
To sum it up, GrowLab was an amazing experience. They dragged us to the launch pad and taught us how to fly.