by Emily Corum, JumpFund Intern
Here at The JumpFund we have many partner networks that helped us have such an amazing first year. One of these partners is Start.Co’s Upstart, a Memphis, TN based accelerator for women-led tech startups that connected us to Casey Casterline, founder of eDivv. Upstart isn’t just any ordinary accelerator. Upstart understands that sometimes women entrepreneurs have different needs than male entrepreneurs. I was able to talk to Mara Lewis, Managing Director, about what makes Upstart so successful.
Mara Lewis is a “serial entrepreneur” who was living in San Francisco and working on her fourth startup when she first learned of Start.Co. She joined on as a mentor and soon became Entrepreneur in Residence. It wasn’t long before she became the Managing Director.
One of the major differences between Upstart and other accelerators, besides the fact that it is targeted toward female-led startups, is the amount of one-to-one coaching and support each entrepreneur receives. Lewis states that a huge advantage is that she has been in the same position and has a great amount of empathy. She knows when the women need someone to be there for them, but she also knows when the entrepreneurs need to be left alone to work. She states, “there are so many insecurities and emotional things that happen while you’re building a company and risking it all. You don’t want to fail and it’s really scary. Having that emotional support, knowing that you’re on track and being able to brainstorm and bounce ideas around is so essential, and we’re there for them. We’re kind of like startup cheerleaders and startup psychologists because a lot of what we do is facilitation.” This hands-on approach is very different from many other accelerators which might have one-one meetings occasionally, but there is a often a distance between the entrepreneurs and mentors. This distance does not exist at Upstart. “My desk is right there alongside their desk,” Lewis explains, “so if they have a question, I’m right there.” This approach saves the entrepreneurs so much time in the long run because they are provided with mentorship that keeps them from going down the wrong paths and making mistakes that can be avoided.
When a female entrepreneur is accepted to Upstart, she is not just given a handshake and sent on her way. Upstart focuses on customization and making sure each company has the resources and connections it needs to be successful. Lewis described a three-step process each company experiences through the accelerator: discovery, delivery, and dollars. In the discovery phase, the entrepreneurs really begin to decide just how marketable is their idea. They begin to research who needs their idea and discuss the product or service with businesses that might act as their first customers. Upstart lines up these partnerships so that the entrepreneur does not have to make a cold-call. After they research and identify the market for their product or idea, the participants then move to the second stage: delivery, where they begin to execute their plans. They work to develop their product and test them with the contacts from the first stage. This allows the participants to get great feedback on their products or ideas before they plan on mass producing them. Upstart is able to assist the entrepreneurs in this phase through their strong partnerships with businesses such as PayPal, SendGrid, and Twilio. The final phase, dollars, is where the participants really begin launching the product and creating revenue plans while making sure they have a sustainable way to monetize the product. They also begin our favorite part of the process, honing their investor pitch. They are guided through creating a pitch deck and developing their sales training. During the process, investors are available so that the participants may practice their pitches and get feedback. The accelerator program culminates in a Demo Day, which draws people from all over the country to hear the company pitches. 100% of the 2014 class from the Upstart Accelerator received early-stage funding.
We know that women make great entrepreneurs, but we were curious if Lewis could identify any specific, unique characteristics of women founders that made them successful. Lewis stated that one of the greatest traits of women is perfectionism. It can also be their worst trait. She stated that, in her experience, it seems that men will launch before proofreading; they will release the product and make adjustments afterwards. Women tend to be a little different. She has noticed that many women want something to be perfect before they launch. This creates a quality product, but it may be too late to compete with products that were released and then updated. While women may be harmed by a constant need for perfection, they usually excel in marketing and communication. Women tend to have a higher emotional intelligence, which translates to better understanding of the consumer and customer discovery. In fact, recent studies have shown that women-led companies tend to have higher rates of return and revenues. These findings encourage companies such as Upstart and The JumpFund to accelerate and invest in even more female entrepreneurs.
If you are interested in learning more about Upstart, you can find more information and access the application here. Applications are due March 1, 2015.