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Life at a startup accelerator yields unexpected takeaways

Posted by Chad O'Connor  February 12, 2014 06:00 AM

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Another installment in our ongoing series to showcase innovative MassChallenge companies. MassChallenge is the world's largest startup accelerator and the first to support entrepreneurs with no strings attached. Startups can apply to the 2014 MassChallenge summer accelerator from Feb 12 - April 2.

Life at the world’s largest accelerator is fast-paced, informative, well-networked, innovative, and full of opportunity, but you already knew that. Self-marketed as being “like drinking from a firehose,” MassChallenge exposes you to seemingly endless resources, but there is one resource they do not provide that you will have to bring yourself: motivation to engage.

Be the curator of what matters. Life at an accelerator is like being at an endless buffet. You can eat as much as you want with great variety of choice, but it is up to you how full you want or need to be. Find the resources that best address the current and future needs of your company. We started with an idea going into MassChallenge and left with a company.

The process is worth the price of admission (which for MassChallenge isn’t equity, just a $99 application fee) because you will learn the hard and wonderful truths about your ideas. Some are not worth pursuing. Get used to it.

Not many people realize that our co-founding team actually applied with two start-up ideas. We were fortunate to win a free application through another competition. We applied for two ideas for the price of one. One was accepted. One was not. The $99 for us was worth vetting out which idea was best.

Realize that not knowing the answer is an opportunity. If you do not seek help, if you do not let yourself get asked the tough questions, and if you hide behind your ego, good luck to you. You cannot know it all. Obviously you need to know more than you do not, but each question answered is a new strength in your arsenal.

Your goals can be massive, but remember you are likely a team of less than five people--most less than three. Can you really do it alone?

We started with over twenty-five mentors and condensed the mentoring team down to nine. At Verbal Applications our goal is to give the world a voice through patient-first point-of-care communication. Mentors help us execute that goal by filling the gaps in our strategy with expertise. We believe in learning by doing, but some things have already been done and are worth avoiding. It’s how we could be a three person company and have the throughput of a company ten times our size. In less than six months we launched two products, more than doubled our team, landed our first customers, and pivoted to a greater market opportunity.

Be prepared to collaborate. Every time we needed something, we did not hesitate to ask and we reciprocated. You may think you are the only one in need of connections or help. You are not the only person in the program. Do something awesome for someone else and expect nothing in return.

The startup community is exactly that, a community. You get what you put in. But don’t forget that at the end of the day, you are turning an idea into a company.

When we stepped up to the accelerator buffet we only tasted the items relevant to what we needed. As a healthcare company, we participated in the healthcare track led by Peter Parker (co-founder of LabCentral). We talked actively with the MassChallenge staff to best understand the pulse of the program and to be aware of which events could be of highest value for our team.

The worst thing you can do is get too fat at the buffet. Take your food back to the table and eat it. The most important thing you engage in is your company. The program is great, but only go back to the buffet when you need another serving (advice, new connections etc.).

Stay in shape and stay active for what truly matters: running your business. You may think that arriving at a startup accelerator is the finish line. It is not. Run through the ribbon until you reach the next one. And then keep running.

Nick Dougherty is the Co-Founder and CEO of Verbal Applications Inc. He is passionate about bringing positive change to healthcare and the world. As he often says, “if I am not making your life better, then I am not doing my job.”

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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