Round two of the Triangle’s edition of the NEXT pre-accelerator program is kicking off April 23rd at HQ Raleigh. And here’s your chance to learn all about it from a local entrepreneur who graduated from the inaugural class in 2013. ExitEvent conducted a question-and-answer interview this week with Durham entrepreneur and graphic designer Archana Gowda.
Below, Gowda shares her story of having an idea and sharing it at Triangle Startup Weekend. She then entered the five-week NEXT (which meets once a week for three hours) to develop it further and get advice from experienced entrepreneurs. Though Gowda hasn’t launched her business, she’s learned a lot about what it’s going to take.
Read on for all of her insights and observations, and hopefully, a little motivation to apply before April 20:
First, briefly your business idea.
My company’s name is Vouch. We help singles create more trustworthy profiles by allowing the people you know to vouch for you. Research shows that the number one way that people meet their partners is still through friends and family. But second is online dating. Vouch is really just the next logical step in online dating.
Why did you decide to apply to the Next program? Also, who was your mentor?
NEXT was designed to fill the void between Triangle Startup Weekend and launching a product. So I can’t talk about NEXT without talking about TSW first. I participated in TSW Durham in July 2013. A childhood friend of mine, Avani Parekh of lovedoctor.in, encouraged me to attend AND pitch. She was tired of hearing me talk about ideas for the past three years and she helped me take the leap. I came, I pitched and miraculously, my idea for ‘Linkedin meets Online Dating’ made it through the voting process.
My team consisted of nine people with different skillets. We got quite far in our market validation—though we didn’t have a working MVP by the end of Startup Weekend, we still placed. It was a pretty amazing feeling to have people you just met believe in your idea.
I heard about NEXT a month later…. From July to September, I’d met with my team just once and realized that I couldn’t move forward with a large group. I asked two teammates to join me. I also took that time to read and research. I learned about entrepreneurship and lean startup, and read a lot of dating and matchmaker blogs.
Ricky Spero became my mentor. We met twice a week, once in class and once outside of class. I didn’t expect the out-of-class meetings, but having people that go above and beyond makes you want to work harder.
What did Next provide different from other entrepreneurial support programs?
The people. And that Google connection sounded impressive, too. 🙂
John Austin was one of the judges at TSW Durham. My team came in third place and I was really proud of that. He approached me after the winners were announced and said something that changed me. He congratulated our team and said that I was a leader, and the coaches who had been circling and visiting with groups had offered this feedback. In all of my working life, no one has told me that. That hit me.
Or perhaps people tried, but they didn’t say it like John did. Mostly, I would get criticized for not being assertive enough, and then when I would improve, I would be criticized for being too aggressive. It was classic marginalization of women in the workplace crap.
At a 9-5, you fall into set roles and you stagnate. TSW gets you to break out of your zone. At Triangle Startup Weekends, you are free to become the person you really are—everyone is welcome.
I am totally new to the startup culture and I am still naive about starting a business. I don’t have an MBA, and even though I want to leap, I am still planted in a 9-5. The startup culture is invigorating and I think when you find something where you can’t sleep and don’t really care about food, there is something there.
NEXT gave me an avenue where I could get some of the nuts and bolts: a reading list, Udacity videos, drive-by critiques of your idea and business plan. The ‘drive-bys’ are good to note. But eventually, you’ll have to prioritize what you want to test and what is best for later.
What were two or three key things you accomplished during the program?
Nuts and bolts/Getting a foundation.
TSW was the first time I heard about lean startup. I don’t live under a rock, I swear. It just wasn’t in my world. I am a traditional learner and I like learning the lingo of what I am studying. I feel better now talking about a business model canvas, pain/gain and I have an understanding of the lean startup methodology. Learning the lingo helps me communicate better at any entrepreneurship event. It also helps me to learn something and have other people to discuss it with.
Do I have a team? What skillsets do I need?
By defining what I need, I know what to ask for. I went from nine people to about 1.5 people that were willing to continue to work on this. I had to rethink and understand what it means to be a founder. I am still figuring that out.
Establishing my role.
I am a designer, thinker, researcher, observer, experimenter and maker. and the list continues to grow. I need to be around people to bounce ideas off of, laugh and work. I made some good friends and real connections. My best work comes out when I feel like I am in a safe space where I can be my authentic self. Something as simple as taking a dance break keeps my spirit up and my ideas flowing. I began to see how my natural self came forward when I got to think, tinker and research. But I also see how traditional jobs helped me be able to delegate, communicate what I need and work under pressure. I think the right business goes hand-in-hand with who you really are. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. If something just isn’t working, meet up with your team and keep at it.
My mentor Ricky Spero candidly asked me during NEXT: ‘Do you see yourself working on this for the next 5-7 years?’ I had a simple answer—I will do this until it is not fun anymore. And, trying to work out one idea but ending up somewhere different is fine by me. I also have a few other ideas up my sleeve.
After TSW and NEXT, I also realized I needed a support group.
I needed a tribe. Go to any entrepreneurship event and there really aren’t many women. On top of that, there aren’t many brown women. It is easy to feel uncomfortable. Two friends (Avani Parekh and Joye Speight) started a group where women with similar experiences start preparing themselves for an event like Startup Weekend.
Avani was testing a theory that one of the reasons that women are underrepresented is because they don’t feel comfortable in the usual startup spaces. A life in entrepreneurship can be lonely and demoralizing at times, but you can also have some really awesome highs. Durham and the Triangle have a lot of fresh and seasoned entrepreneurs, and that is a great combination. I hope more women start to really represent at events for entrepreneurs. If anyone needs convincing, talk to me.
Was there anything unexpected about Next? Things you got out of it or didn’t get out of it that you hadn’t accounted for?
I didn’t account for groups to be at such differ
ent stages. However, what’s special to Durham and the Triangle as a whole is the openness. This is a group of pretty happy people who dance to the beat of a lot of different drums. So, if you have learned something, share it. There is always something you can learn from people you meet. Sometimes people can get into the mentality that their idea is the million dollar one and they have to play it close to the vest. The faster you get over that, the better.
How specifically has your company benefitted from it?
Community is important. People can be resources. But you are actually responsible for the work. Get your fuel and momentum from the community when you get stuck. I benefitted in a few ways—not all are tangible, but I think that is okay. I was able to determine who on my team was willing to move forward. I realized if I want this to work, I need a technical co-founder who can commit a number of hours. And I know that I want to apply to Groundwork Labs soon.
Are there things you wish you’d done differently during the program? Ways you could have taken more advantage of the opportunity than you did?
The customer discovery process was the focus of NEXT cohort. It is the point where you define what your business actually does based on evidence. You have to be open to the discovery and pivot accordingly. There is value in the founder conducting her very own customer discovery interviews.
My group was further along since we did a decent amount of market validation during TSW Durham. That made us kind of an outlier—the first 2-3 weeks of NEXT were focused on this. We spent time re-validating what we had already validated. BUT, I can’t say that time was a setback.
I do wish we just made a minimally-viable product (MVP) quickly and tested one thing with actual users. Momentum is something you don’t want to lose, but it happens. It is good to take stock of what is important during those times.
If you were to give a piece of advice to someone entering the program, what would it be?
My advice comes in the form of homework: )
*Come to NEXT with a concrete idea, not five half-baked, luke-warm ones. Pick the one that makes your heart beat faster or lights a fire under your ass. Put money and funding out of your mind.
*Try out your elevator pitch on friends and some people you trust. Gain some confidence. The more you repeat your pitch and approach different people, the more you can edit your pitch on the fly. Don’t sound like a robot.
*Now, try your elevator pitch on someone who isn’t going to sugarcoat their feedback to you. Your real friends will be the ones that challenge it. Better yet, strike up conversations with random people where you can. I am an out-and-about person. In the first week alone, I talked to a hair stylist, customers at a local beer store, and friends of friends of friends get-together. Be kind and real and you will be surprised at the karma that comes back to you. Essentially, I want all of Durham to vouch for me.
*Be yourself. You don’t need to sound like an infomercial. There are plenty of resources for becoming a better public speaker. This one is pretty high on my Archana-do-better list.