Making FounderFuel better is an iterative process. When I started thinking about running an accelerator last summer, I came up with top priorities both in the short and mid-term. This was done by talking to a lot of people inside and outside of FounderFuel. Of course Ian and Emma had a lot of great insights to share. John finally got me thinking right about the pitch as the blueprint. It seemed to me that the the program, except for a few improvements, was already in good shape. The real work would be with people. I tweeted at the time:
“Starting Friday I will obsess about Founders, Funders & Mentors. Will apply everything I learned about networks to the accelerator space…”
I started my journey by focusing on founders. My first priority was to better understand their needs at the early stage. All of the time spent understanding and choosing great founders directly affects the quality of your Alumni Network. Because of this, the Alumni Network is one of the greatest assets that an accelerator can have after running for more than a couple of years. As time goes by, this network grows and renews organically. Just like a good gardener, you plant good seeds by working with excellent founders, and you take care of those seeds by putting enough time and energy into working with them. After a while, your garden – your network of founders and alumni – becomes almost self sustainable.
After a first year, I feel I have a better grasp of what we can do better, how to improve the Alumni network for all. Still a lot of work to do, but I am confident about it.
I have been a founder myself for more than a decade and I have worked with founders as an advisor/mentor for at least another 5 years. I understand the dynamics involved in building a product, a team and a market, all at the same time. I also know that the network that you build around yourself is key to your success (and survival).
The next step for me was rethinking the mentor network. This was harder. Hard because I “inherited” FounderFuel; there was a legacy there that I needed to understand better. I did not want to be that guy that changes everything when starting in a new role. But I felt our mentor network needed a refresh. Working with Emma, we reviewed exit interviews from previous years, and I took a full year (2 cohorts) to better understand mentor dynamics with founders. I took note of what works well, what doesn’t work so well, what could be easy to fix and what would definitively wouldn’t be.
Managing a mentor group is not easy, and it’s not just “functional” – it involves a lot of marketing and PR too. I did not feel I would improve our network just by growing it; it needed a major overhaul. I wanted this to be an objective process, as much as possible (we don’t have so much hard data on mentors/founders interactions). Starting right after Demo Day we began meeting with Founders and employees from Alumni companies to get feedback on Mentors in order to narrow the list. We looked at people who work the closest with founders, provide the most value, have been the most responsive, have attended the most events, and have worked with the most companies. Then we had to make some tough decisions.
I started by looking at the full list of the 175+ mentors who had registered since the beginning of FF in 2011. Then I started a fresh new list, with these goals in mind:
* At least half (if not more) of the network should be “peer mentors”, co-founders with a track record of building startups, shipping product, developing markets and fundraising.
* We needed more mavens, inter-connectors. We have a really close-knit and dense local network, but startups also need ways to get into new geographies and markets.
* We needed more diversity. After a while, it did seem like our mentor network was an old boys club. I had in mind the complete opposite.
* Mentor availability is not fixed. Time goes by, the ups and downs of business and family might make your involvement different after a while. That’s perfectly fine. We will now use two years “soft commitment” to being a mentor. I will reach out to everyone with a short questionnaire on mentoring.
* We have too many mentors, I want to bring down the list to about 100. This means not everyone will be renewed. This is not an automatic process, it will be highly manual (and hopefully does not feel subjective).
Rebooting will take time.This means that the mentor network will be a bit unstable and wonky for a couple of months. To alleviate this, we will be hosting “mentor 101” sessions for all newly onboarded Mentors. We will also be hosting two new events: a local “startup mentor meetup” to support the growing community of mentors inside and outside of FounderFuel, and a series of workshops by and for mentors (call this mentor-peer-mentoring if you will).
Another consequence of the reboot is that our site and mailing list will be reworked. While we gather data from mentors, we will not have an external list. We will, however, keep an internal mentor list available to our Fall cohort. This will take us at least a couple of weeks, while we discuss with everyone in our existing mentor network.
We would not be able to do this without you. Our goal is to work more closely with our mentors and to meet most of them in person (or over skype/hangout). With almost 200 mentors, this is a daunting (yet important) task. We expect to complete this process by the end of 2015. We are also putting a few systems in place to complement the organic matchmaking we have been using. Feedback – both from and about mentors – is crucial for us.We have a lot to learn. Feel free to write me (sylvain at founderfuel dot com) or Emma (emma at founderfuel dot com) with comments and questions.
– Sylvain Carle, GM @ FounderFuel