NB: This is a guest post by Alex Kremer, co-founder at Flextrip.
Earlier this year, my co-founders and I decided to apply for Techstars Boulder, ranked the top startup incubator in the US.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a startup incubator helps new businesses accelerate their development through support, services and, most importantly, mentorship.
The premise is that they help startups to stay alive and grow, rather than become another musty headstone in the increasingly congested digital graveyard where so many tech startups (especially in travel) are laid to rest.
There are many startup incubator concepts and variations, but I’m going to focus on Techstars, a three-month program that selects between ten and 12 teams each class in cities across the US.
Having co-founded a few startups in the past (some did well, some not so well), I went into the initiative with mixed feelings.
I knew how to start a company. I knew what I needed to do to become successful. I knew about paying attention to my metrics, about driving myself and my team hard, and doing whatever else it took.
But what else could I learn coming into this?
As it turns out, I learned and re-learned everything. I’ll outline the major lessons:
Lesson 1: Talk to your customers.
Drawing on Steve Blank’s excellent book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, the first Techstars session focused on something that each and every startup should be doing: customer development, a process which I will (perhaps rather simply) summarize as finding out whether your startup’s hypothesis of the customer problem is valid.
In other words, are you working on a problem that your customers (you know, the people who will pay you) actually have?
Far too many travel startups skip this critical step, instead focusing on a problem they think exists (see, for example, this TLabs piece) rather than a problem that actually exists.
Startups that skip this step sooner or later face a critical problem in that they’ve spent months (or even years) building a product, but never actually asked if someone would pay to use. The startup landscape is littered with companies that make this mistake. Don’t let yours be one of them.
Lesson 2: Be able to convey your idea and its value... concisely
The first month of Techstars, far too affectionately called "Mentor Dating Month", is pure mayhem. Imagine having 60+ meetings (an average of three per workday), each with the sole purpose of conveying your idea to mentors who have, to put it mildly, been around the block and are very successful.
You’re not only trying to convey your idea, but trying to excite someone who you’ll be intimately involving in your business for the next months -- and hopefully longer.
This process is much more difficult than it looks: it’s extremely common to put two co-founders in separate rooms and get completely different views of what the business looks like.
It’s also extremely common for founders to leave a mentor meeting wondering how to change their business entirely as a result of mentors unintentionally poking holes in their business models with some very simple questions.
The purpose of this process is simple: if you can’t convey your business and the value it provides to someone who is friendly and willing to help, how will you ever convey it to a customer or investor?
Lesson 3: Believe in yourself. It’s your company.
Assuming you’re following the advice in Lesson 2, sooner or later you’ll experience directly contradictory feedback. Maybe it’s two mentors who you greatly respect contradicting each other. Maybe it’s an advisor telling you something that just doesn’t fit with your view of the market.
It happens quite a bit, and the answer to the problem isn’t clearly definable. There is no right answer, other than to believe in yourself and your company. Don’t let this problem paralyze you. Trust your gut, make a decision swiftly, and move on.
Lesson 4: Do more. Faster.
I’ll be honest: The first time I heard this phrase I rolled my eyes. Of course I want to do more, faster. I’m always doing as much as I can. But I soon learned that there is more than meets the eye: Doing more useful things can be incredibly difficult for startups.
The second month in Techstars is all about executing and doing. After all, the main advantage you have as a startup is speed and execution. Big companies (especially in travel) move extremely slowly and your ability to out-execute them is critical.
You should be iterating constantly and sharing your progress with mentors, advisors and most importantly customers.
Don’t build prototypes that take a year to build. Build one that sucks in a week, and share it. If it doesn’t work, you haven’t lost anything and can move right along.
If it works, gather feedback and improve it. Having processes and procedures like big companies do will make you just as slow as they are. To that end, I’ll sumarize this lesson with a phrase from David Cohen’s book Do More Faster: "If a startup can’t do more faster, it usually just gets dead faster."
There are countless other lessons to learn from a totally immersive experience like Techstars, but you’ll notice all of the lessons above share common themes:
Communication. Sharing. Feedback. Mentorship.
So, what to do next?
All of above are why I’m writing this article. The travel industry and travel startup ecosphere needs a lot more of these.
From the outside, it’s incredibly difficult to understand a lot of the nuances of the travel industry. Far too many startups throw their hat in the ring and then just wait for something to happen.
So let me conclude with some ideas the travel industry could use to foster a better startup ecosystem:
If you’re a travel industry veteran, reach out to a startup you find interesting and mentor them.
Does this take time? Yes. Will you get paid? Unlikely. Will good things happening as a result of your mentorship be exhilarating? More than you could ever imagine.
Your feedback and mentorship is giving life to a new entity and could be creating jobs. What’s better than that?
2. Seek advice
If you’re a startup, reach out to industry veterans who you think might be able to help you do more. Talk to as many people as you can. Will it be hard to find someone who will listen? At first, yes.
But build your network and attend industry events like TravelMassive or conferences. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself a degree or two away from everyone. Again, communicate and don’t be afraid to share your ideas.
3. Work together
It’s no secret that there is a lot of money at stake in most travel businesses and that keeping the ecosphere static with high barriers to entry is the way many prefer it.
But if you’re a startup, there is hope: the more I talk to even the largest companies in the travel industry, the more I sense a much more collaborative working environment evolving.
Change is in the air, and it smells good.
4. Give more than you take.
Getting advice and mentorship is amazing. But that core concept fails if you don’t quickly learn to pay it forward. Take some time and help someone else when and if you can.
Finally, to follow my own advice, I’ve had the extreme pleasure of working with great mentors over the past few months and would like to publicly acknowledge Bruce Rosard from Phocuswright, Michael Zeisser from Liberty Media, David Cohen and Nicole Glaros from Techstars, and the countless other great people from travel companies all over the world who have taken the time to give us feedback and advice.
NB: This is a guest post by Alex Kremer, co-founder at Flextrip.
NB2: TLabs Showcase - Flextrip.