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Beyond the Pitch: Nurturing Inner Development and Collaborative Communities for Startup Excellence

Beyond the Pitch: Nurturing Inner Development and Collaborative Communities for Startup Excellence

Lessons learned by a first-time program manager on how to run a world-class accelerator program.

Author: Lisa Séguin

Version française de ce blogue par ici↗

August 4th, 2023 marked the last official day of programming for the 2023 FounderFuel cohort. After four months of grueling work, there was no better way to commemorate the end of the program than with brunch.

Sitting at the table, I looked at the faces of the founders I had come to know so well. Thinking back on when this all started, I felt an immense amount of pride and admiration for what this group of outstanding individuals had accomplished in such a short period. Each founder had grown key parts of their businesses, delivered compelling and professional-grade pitches at Demo Day, and made substantial strides within their markets. Equally remarkable was the personal growth I had observed in each founder since first meeting them in April.

None of this would have happened without a series of serendipitous conversations between John StokesMike CegelskiChris Arsenault, and Katy Yam. FounderFuel was created by Real Ventures back in 2011, but it had been absent from the market for two years, leaving a noticeable void in the startup ecosystem. Beyond its role in fostering early-stage investments, FounderFuel was renowned for hosting vibrant social gatherings, including our iconic Demo Day, where creative collisions between founders, investors, and community members flourished.

After many conversations, it was determined in January that FounderFuel would make its triumphant return this year. The revival marked a historic moment as Panache Ventures and Inovia Capital joined forces with Real Ventures to power the iconic accelerator.

Reflecting on my journey as a first-time program manager for Canada’s premier VC-backed startup accelerator, I am excited to share some of my most impactful insights and learnings.

Collaborative Communities Build Vibrant Ecosystems

Community has always been a driving force behind FounderFuel’s story. Without a village, creating a world-class program would be an insurmountable task.

While I have worked at Real Ventures for some time now, stepping into the role of an accelerator program manager was a first for me. I anticipated a steep and rapid learning curve. Alongside the unwavering support received from the rest of my Real Ventures colleagues, Katy Yam — FounderFuel’s General Manager — played a pivotal role in guiding me throughout the program with her compassionate leadership and deep industry knowledge.

Additionally, I benefited from the wisdom and guidance of seasoned program managers Sarah Bezeau Gervais (former FounderFuel Program Manager and current Director of Operations at Startup en Résidence) and Justine Marchand (former Techstars Montreal AI Senior Program Manager and current head of Operations at the 1K Project), both of whom have left an indelible mark on this ecosystem. To say that their advice was helpful would be a gross understatement. Every week, they dedicated time to meet with me, working through challenges and offering guidance on critical next steps. I am so grateful for their generosity and wisdom.

Another indispensable pillar of FounderFuel’s programming is its devoted mentors. They did not skip a beat when we reached out. Their responses were overwhelmingly positive, expressing eagerness at the program’s return and asking when they could start working with the cohort. Throughout the program, advice given and introductions made by mentors resulted in pivotal shifts for several of the startups — some of which are now core to their company’s strategy. Without a doubt, this group of generous volunteers has an outweighed impact on the success of the founding teams participating in the program.

Fellow Canadian accelerators and incubators also answered our calls for support when it was time to recruit applicants to the program. Many extended their support by actively promoting our offering and graciously opening their doors to us, enabling us to host information sessions within their offices. We traveled from coast to coast to meet and speak with as many founders as possible. Our recruitment campaign was a success — we received some of the strongest applications ever — thanks in large part to the collaborative spirit of the accelerator and incubator community. We also strengthened our bonds with tech hubs nationwide and gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of their local ecosystems and how they operate.

Building Strong and Lasting Relationships with Sponsors

FounderFuel is fortunate to work with a group of outstanding sponsors, many of whom have been steadfast supporters of our mission for years. One of the first things Katy explained to me when I agreed to support the cohort, was our approach to working with sponsors.

In my previous role as a Marketing Manager at an AI tech startup, I frequently negotiated event sponsorships to boost our brand presence and build our sales pipeline. These negotiations were, for the most part, very dry and transactional. Organizers would present me with various basic packages, each comprised of non-negotiable benefits.

Our approach at FounderFuel is refreshingly different. We aim to engage with program partners to build relationships, not conclude transactions. Our primary focus is on values alignment. Our mission at FounderFuel is to develop the skills and mindset of entrepreneurs shaping the future so they can build impactful and sustainable companies. We value community, collaboration, and curiosity. We actively seek partners who share these fundamental values and are eager to collaborate with us in promoting them. Beyond their contributions to FounderFuel’s programming, we look for partners committed to working with us to foster the growth and development of the broader tech startup ecosystem.

Secondly, we don’t do standard sponsorship packages (would you like bronze, silver, or gold?). Instead, we work closely with each partner to understand their objectives and areas of expertise. Together, we craft a customized sponsorship agreement that reflects our shared values while also aligning with the unique objectives of each organization. While this approach often requires a bit more flexibility and creativity, the results far outweigh the initial effort. It empowers us to cultivate profound and enduring relationships with our partners, resulting in programming that founders genuinely look forward to attending.

Inner Development of Startup Founders is Vital to Building Healthy and Sustainable Businesses

Real Ventures is the first organization I have worked at that asks you to bring your whole self to work every day and as part of that embraces and practices the process of inner development. Before joining Real, my concept of professional growth revolved around skills enhancement, like improving my writing or public speaking abilities, or mastering tools and platforms. Today, growth means something entirely different to me. Thanks to development sessions (offered by the firm) and deep conversations with team members both in group and one-on-one settings, my growth journey has taken a new direction. I now prioritize asking myself questions like: How do I feel right now and how are these feelings influencing my decisions? Is that person questioning my intelligence, or is it possible I’m reflecting my own feelings of insecurity onto them? Am I actively listening to what my colleague is saying or am I thinking about what I want to say next?

With FounderFuel this year, we partnered once again with renowned facilitators Pete Strom and Aithan Shapira from Made to Tilt to curate founder development programming that helps founders deepen their self-awareness and better understand how they relate to the people around them. This year’s curriculum drew inspiration from the Inner Development Goals framework, conscious leadership practices, and insights from thought leaders like Robert Keegan and Lisa Laskow LaheyJames ClearDaniel CoyleDouglas Stone, and Sheila Heen.

The numbers speak volumes. During our last Annual Meeting, the team shared some eye-opening statistics:

  • 48% of founders experience burnout
  • 55% of co-founders break up within four years
  • 48% of founders get divorced vs the average 40% of first marriages
  • 30% of founders suffer from depression
  • 72% of founders mental health is negatively affected

It’s hard to believe that these harsh realities aren’t contributing to the 65% to 75% failure rate of VC-backed startups (those that never yield returns). These statistics, coupled with the remarkable personal growth I witnessed in each founder throughout the program, have firmly convinced me that inner development work is not merely valuable but mission-critical for building robust and sustainable businesses.

Remembering We Are For Each Other

Managing an accelerator program involves juggling numerous moving parts within a tight timeframe. From the moment we received the green light for the 2023 cohort, we had just over six months to design a program, secure speakers, gather applications, and conduct four months of intensive programming on top of hosting Canada’s largest Demo Day — which also needed to be planned and coordinated. Easy-peasy, right?

I am not afraid to admit that, despite our best efforts, some balls were dropped and mistakes occurred. Not everything unfolded flawlessly. In those challenging moments, what truly anchored us was the deep understanding that we were here for each other.

Now, let me clarify: this did not mean everyone on the team always saw eye to eye. When conflicts emerged or errors were made, instead of focusing on being right or placing blame, we endeavored to hold onto the core truth that each of us was striving to deliver an exceptional program. We cared about one another, and it was essential that we collaborate to resolve problems that arose. Additionally, we committed to speaking authentically. Though not always the easiest path, this practice was instrumental in fostering an open and trusting environment.

Here’s an illustrative example of how this commitment played out in practice:

A few weeks before the program commenced, I felt insecure after making a series of errors that my colleagues had pointed out. I feared my team now viewed me as incompetent (yes, we all have our moments of projection!) and decided to share my feelings with Katy. Her response was invaluable. She expressed gratitude for my openness and, while acknowledging my mistakes, she also supported me by highlighting my contributions and praising my handling of a heavy workload. She even proposed a clever new system for our feedback exchanges. Whenever she needed to provide critical feedback, she would preface it by reassuring me, saying, “You’re not an idiot.” This seemingly small gesture worked wonders in alleviating my anxiety.

Weeks later, it was Katy’s turn to confide in me. She admitted feeling troubled, thinking that lately she might come across as overly controlling and worrying that this might affect our working relationship. I reciprocated her vulnerability with gratitude, expressing how much I valued her insights, which I believed strengthened our program. Expanding on her innovative system, I playfully suggested that moving forward, I would begin all feedback sessions with a light-hearted, “You’re not an asshole.” We both shared a laugh and further solidified our bond as friends and colleagues.

There is no doubt in my mind that our unwavering commitment to candid communication, coupled with the balance of offering support and constructive feedback, fortified our team’s cohesion and bolstered our collective performance.

Compassion Delivers Extraordinary Results

There are two key learnings that have stuck with me following my first FounderFuel experience. First, building impactful and sustainable companies is a collective effort. In a groundbreaking move, three major VC investment firms in Canada — Real Ventures, Inovia Capital, and Panache Ventures — came together to deliver an exceptional accelerator program, especially during a period of reduced early-stage investments. Some might jest and call this level of collaboration “very Canadian” — and we wholeheartedly embrace it. Given the remarkable outcomes, I think it is a model worth considering for more organizations. None of our achievements would have been possible without the unwavering support of the Real Ventures team, our VC partners, dedicated mentors, trusted sponsors, generous volunteers, and our fellow accelerators and incubators.

The second crucial lesson that was reinforced during this program is that exceptional results can be achieved when we lead with compassion. Throughout the program, our guiding principles were to support one another, communicate authentically, and nurture compassion within our team and our community. Was everything executed flawlessly? No, perfection eluded us. But did we fulfill our mission of empowering entrepreneurs to cultivate the skills and mindset needed to create groundbreaking companies? Judging by the overwhelmingly positive responses in our founder satisfaction survey, the remarkable growth witnessed in each company during the program, and the feedback we received from the community after Demo Day, I would emphatically say, “Absolutely!” Fear may drive companies temporarily, but organizations that lead with love are more likely to endure the test of time.

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