OwlSpark | Rice University Startup Accelerator | WeekWise: Three and Four
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WeekWise: Three and Four

Can you believe we’re already a third of the way through our sixth #bayoustartupsummer? Time is flying by and founders are working hard to stay on track. At this point in the summer, many teams’ biggest focus is customer interviews, so we made sure founders spent some time getting out of the building. To keep founders on their toes, OwlSpark and RED Labs’ interns developed a Customer Interview Leaderboard on the wall of in the Lilie Lab. What’s #startuplife without some friendly competition?

Week Three

This week’s theme was “How do you reach your customer?” Kaz Karwowski, executive director of the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership kicked off the discussion with a Leadership Lunch focused on team development.

Tuesday was full of lectures Kathleen Clark from the Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business came to workshop branding strategies with the cohort. Kathleen discussed the importance of branding early on in a startup’s life. A brand, she said, is more important than just a logo. The teams later went on to create brand boards (we’ll talk more about those later!), where they established a brand identity for their companies. Ed Blair from the University of Houston gave founders the tools to help them reach their first customers through a talk on go-to market strategies. Founders really resonated with some advice that he had for us: “Price is not meaningful until value established.”

Steve Wilbur from the RED Labs leadership team taught us about competitive positioning, with a fun workshop. In order to understand how their product or service meets their customers’ top two priorities, founders ate several different cookies and developed a value chart for determining their perfect cookie. It was the perfect sweet treat to start off our morning. Our founders spent the afternoon with Hesam Panahi of the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Jon Nordby of Houston Exponential getting the basics of sales, and mapping the sales process. Hesam explained the importance of understanding who ultimately makes the purchase of a product, despite who it might be marketed to. Through a short video about children’s toys, it became clear that the product needed to appeal to both kids and parents, which resonated with the teams. Hesam also talked about the importance of making short, medium, and long-term sales strategies to assist in the mapping of the sales process. Jon Nordby discussed in-depth the different types of sales strategies, as well as what types of strategies would work best for certain types of startups. The founders learned that sales strategies are not a one-size-fit-all deal, and that there are many ways to establish what works best for their companies. Jon has more than 15 years of sales experience and took a lot of time answering thoughtful and in-depth questions from the founders.

Founders then took a morning to engage in some interactive mentoring! Special thanks to our wonderful mentors: Matthew Bukovicky (AtmoSpark Technologies), Mike Evans, Alex de la Fuente, Ken Jones, Tom Kraft, Daniel Lee (Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship), Tom Levitz (HPI, LLC.), Tejus Mane (AtmoSpark Technologies), Deb Mansfield, Andrew Swick (CheckedTwice), Steve Wilbur (INTX Capital, University of Houston), and Adam Wulf (Milestone Made). Their wisdom and advice were just what our founders needed to spend a long weekend conducting customer interviews.

Week Four

Following a long weekend of interviews, our teams returned to the Lilie Lab. Now that founders are gaining more knowledge and data from their research, the steps they’re taking are more geared towards building their brands and websites. We’re seeing the beginnings of tangible results!

Tuesday featured lectures from within the REDSpark family, when founders participated in sessions led by Kelly McCormick (RED Labs) and Jessica Fleenor (OwlSpark). They spoke about pretotyping—essentially a fast, easy precursor to a prototype—and brand translation, respectively. Then, Alex de la Fuente, who was on the leadership team for both OwlSpark and RED Labs in Class 4, spoke to founders about building websites, and offered up this piece of advice for founders:

“Your website layout should match your sales funnel. Start with your ultimate point of conversion and work backwards.”

This week’s startup founders series featured Alexander Schueller of Adhesys Medical. Alex’s team won the Rice Business Plan Competition in 2014 and his startup rose to success. Throughout his journey, Alex learned he had to make opportunities for himself rather than wait around for them. He stressed that “opportunity is the act of creation.”

The next day our morning session was all about creating and collaborating. Teams presented on their business theses and brand boards. Each team created a small presentation based off of what they learned from the branding lecture from the previous day, highlighting their logos, taglines, color schemes, and font choices. Even the smallest details hold significance when it comes to building your brand, so founders were especially helpful in providing advice and feedback. We kept the collaborative spirit going during founders lunch, so as we stuffed our faces with Pi Pizza, each team shared their accomplishments and challenges over the past week.

Melanie Bell, president of Marketing Interface, spent some time with founders talking about marketing tactics for startups. In the age of social media, marketing has transformed in the past twenty years. In fact, marketing is changing every day as new platforms are generated and reaching target audiences has become far more specific. Melanie helped founders with all of their in-depth questions specific to their startups as they begin to think about marketing strategies.

The following day, founders engaged in some good old-fashioned mentoring. Meeting with seasoned entrepreneurial leaders from Houston is so crucial and appreciated by founders, so they can get weekly  feedback and advice from a wide variety of sources. During this session, teams met with Matthew Bukovicky, Tom Levitz, Mike Evans, Tejus Mane, Deb Mansfield, Alex de la Fuente, Andrew Swick, Ken Jones, Tom Kraft, Daniel Lee, and Steve Wilbur.

Many thanks to all of our mentors for taking the time to provide valuable advice for founders. Later on, startup teams had the chance to meet with attorneys from Vinson & Elkins LLP about IP, corporate formation, and employment. These virtual meetings are helpful as the startup teams plan for the future.

Next week, we’ll be diving into market research, design, and some really fun socials. Our teams are in a heated battle over who can get the most interviews each week, with the winner of the previous week getting the honor of eating first at Founders’ Brunch each week.

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