OwlSpark | Rice University Startup Accelerator | WeekWise: Nine and Ten
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WeekWise: Nine and Ten

Week 9

As we move closer to the Bayou Startup Showcase, OwlSpark’s focus has shifted from business planning to pitch perfecting. The startups showed considerable improvement during the third Pitch Practice on Monday where we were joined by Kyle Dixon of Towbee, Melanie Jones of Marketing Interface, Anderson Ta of Open Factory, Keith Kreuer of RedHouse Associates, Beth O’Sullivan of Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business, Jordan Szymczyk of OcuCheck, Mike Evans of Rice University, Gayle Moran of Rice Center for Engineering Leadership and Matt Pena of OwlSpark Class 3.

Having met with the OwlSpark Advisory Board Meeting for the second time, the founders had the opportunity to adjust their presentations based on the feedback they received. Though there’s still more work to be done before BSS, the founders are are on the right track and have made great progress.

On Tuesday, Jessica Fleenor and Alex de la Fuente of OwlSpark, and Kelly McCormick of RED Labs met with startup teams and designers to storyboard pitches. For the Bayou Startup Showcase, the founders will need to convey their value proposition in an engaging, compelling story and visuals—this will be crucial in order to make the audience care about the problem they’re solving and the solution their product offers.

That evening, we gathered in the boardroom for dinner from Halal Guys and our eighth weekly Founders Meeting. As the summer has gone on, the requests heard from our founders have become unanimous and recurring: introductions to potential beta users. No matter the repetition, the large SCRUM of the Founders Dinner helps our teams celebrate their biggest accomplishments and focus on goals for the coming week.

The next morning, the cohort assembled for the 22nd step of the Disciplined Entrepreneurship curriculum: testing the Minimum Viable Business Product (MVBP). Up until this point, our curriculum has led the founders through the planning process, but at the end of the day their success will rely on the product they offer and how well it is able to solve their customer’s problem. Finding and earning the first paying customer allows the startup company to collect feedback, which they’ll use to further iterate on their product such that it eventually becomes the ideal remedy for the customer’s pain point.

Wednesday evening we were joined by Jay Steinfeld from Blinds.com. After seeing the opportunity to transition to eCommerce in the 1990’s, Jay founded NoBrainerBlinds.com (which later became Blinds.com) to bring the window blind and window covering market to the internet. After becoming the leader in online window blind retail, Jay had a successful exit to The Home Depot. When talking to our founders, Jay emphasized the importance of company culture and treating your employees well: if you treat your employees well, they will treat your customers well.

For the first time during Thursday’s 1-on-1 meetings, every one of the startup teams had a solidified idea of the product they’d create moving forward. Part of the customer validation process is discovering that many of the assumptions made are actually invalid. At every turn and pivot, assumptions need to be scrutinized—this is what we assist the founders in understanding during the 1-on-1 meetings. Founders are tasked with validating or invalidating every assumption they have made.

Friday morning we began with a penultimate Disciplined Entrepreneurship session. As a continuation of testing the MVBP, founders must demonstrate that “The Dogs Will Eat the Dog Food.” Simply put, they quantitatively showed that their customers would be willing and able to pay for their MVBPs, and develop metrics to measure traction. After the session, founders were done with sessions for the week (of course, most stuck around for a long while after that—even through the weekend).

Week 10

With only three weeks left, founders continued to refine their pitches while finishing up the last few sessions of the summer. The first of which was Matt Bell of Ikon Science Americas, who spoke to the founders on Monday morning about risk management. In the world of business (and in our daily lives), we encounter risk; however, there are practices and techniques that can mitigate these risks. Walking the founders through Quantitative Risk Analysis and how to manage it, Matt Bell provided the basic toolkit to avoid disaster as they prepare to launch.

The afternoon included our fourth Pitch Practice where we were joined by Tom Kraft of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Erin Flores of TMCx, Gayle Moran and Jordan Tractenberg of Rice Center for Engineering Leadership, Keith Kreuer of RedHouse Associates, Grace Rodriguez of Station Houston, Mike Evans of Rice University, Kyle Dixon of Towbee and Beth O’Sullivan of Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business. For the first time, the teams were able to use the slide decks our graphic designers created. Although far from complete, it’s been awesome to watch founders’ hard work moving towards a polished pitch.

Most of our program has focused on entrepreneurial strategy, so we shifted into money talk on Tuesday. The morning started out with a session from Bill Greisinger, Senior Vice President at Square 1 Bank, who specializes in helping startup ventures receive debt financings. Bill helped our founders understand the subtle differences between debt, convertible debt, and equity, and how they apply to new ventures.

That afternoon we were visited by Al Danto, professor at Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business and Founder of Structured Graphics. At the age of 24, he started the printing company and successfully navigated more than 10 acquisitions over during his time at Structured Graphics. With an extensive knowledge about the investor-entrepreneur relationship, Al provided insight on the key elements investors look at.

During the ninth weekly Founders Dinner on Tuesday evening, the cohort focused on future goals, both for the Bayou Startup Showcase and beyond OwlSpark. For the second-to-last-time, the founders shared their biggest achievements, challenges, and requests for help while enjoying some delicious sausage and brisket from Charlie’s BBQ.

Wednesday morning we required that all of our founders have their pitches memorized to present to the cohort. While it was clear some founders spent more time than others getting their script down, overall the pitches were very impressive. With less than two days’ notice, every single founder gave a roughly memorized four-minute pitch.

That afternoon we were joined by Andrew Swick, Founder of CheckedTwice (OwlSpark Class 1) and current Vice President of Business Development at Decisio Health. Having rapidly gained traction with CheckedTwice, Andrew’s focus is growth hacking and marketing analytics. Andrew led startup teams in a deeply interactive brainstorming session on potential marketing channels they might pursue.

Immediately after Andrew’s session we were joined by a panel of media specialists: Angela Shah of Xconomy, Mary Lynn Fernau of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Rich Winley of Gnomad Network and Forbes, and Joe Martin of Houston Business Journal. Our diverse array of panelists allowed our founders to ask about best media engagement practices—from the perspectives of a journalist, a marketing director, and an entrepreneur.

That Thursday, we held our final 1-on-1 meetings between the founders and our Leadership Team. Even though it was our last formal meeting, we always make ourselves available for any founders that reach out to us for help. We want our founders to know that even after the program, our OwlSpark family will always be a resource for them to plug-in to.

In the evening, we were joined by OwlSpark and RED Labs Class 3 alumni: Alex Wesley of Arovia, Kyle Dixon of Towbee, Anderson Ta of Open Factory, Jordan Szymczyk of OcuCheck and Kyle LaMotta of datafuel. After sharing experiences and tips for presenting and engaging attendees at the Bayou Startup Showcase, Jordan led founders through a lesson in overly expressive pitching in which he encouraged pitching founders to be as loud and exuberant as possible when delivering their pitch.

After the panel, we gathered together for a RED Labs and OwlSpark trivia. The excitement turned the evening into a more festive stress release. After four rounds of trivia and tacos, the alumni founders team emerged victorious.

Friday morning founders gathered for a session with Keith Kreuer of RedHouse Associates and Dan Watkins of Mercury Fund. The two talked with our founders about the key differences between Angel Investors and Venture Capitalists, and what they look for in startups seeking funding.

The week then concluded with our fifth Pitch Practice. Joining us for the afternoon was Erin Flores of TMCx, Ernie Davis of NEWT, Greg Wright of RED Labs, Brian Lang of Health 2.0 Houston, Jordan Szymczyk of OcuCheck, Beata Krupa Rice Center for Engineering Leadership, and Kyle Dixon of Towbee. After forcing our founders to memorize and present their pitch to the cohort on Wednesday, this was the first time our founders presented without a written script. Next week, we’ll be honing in on pitching and finishing up slide decks for the big day: Bayou Startup Showcase.

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