I was lucky enough to get the chance to go through a ‘boot camp’ style startup program recently. A really great experience, and it means in the last 12 months, I’ve been intimately involved in a boot camp, an accelerator and a Lean Launchpad program. So…what’s the difference, and which one was the best?Well, that kind of depends. These programs are all quite different in intent and outcomes, although they are all designed to take an idea and move it quickly through to the point where the startup has a good (or at least better…) ‘product-market fit’. So in other words, to make sure they’re not wasting money developing something that no one wants!
And I have to say that I don’t know what the people that put these programs together intended to achieve, I can only say what my experience was. And of course, they might be totally different things.
So! Here we go.
Program No 1 – the Lean Launchpad
I was involved with a university led Lean Launchpad program for an Australian research organisation (the CSIRO). In this case I was a mentor for several of the teams.
The great thing that the Lean Launchpad program had going for it was structure. The format that Steve Blank has created for this program really drives that product-market fit thing. There was a strong emphasis on customer interviews – the more the better, and no week could pass without showing progress.
This led one of my teams to change their target market three times, and they hadn’t arrived at one that worked! How good is that? No time or money wasted building an idea for a market that didn’t want it! And even better, they saw a failure to find a suitable market as a success! Again, no wasted time or money going down the rabbit hole.
What the program didn’t do was really help develop a suitable business model – although that was an issue created by time, not the program; there’s only so much you can achieve until the teams nail that product-market fit.
As an aside, the next step for CSIRO was to put some of the teams through an accelerator, so that gives you an idea of where Lean Launchpad and accelerators fit together.
Program No 2 – Accelerator
The second program I’ve been involved with was an accelerator, again as a mentor. Now in contrast to the Lean Launchpad, this program ran for longer, and required a greater commitment from the startup teams. It provided a much deeper educational and mentoring experience and allowed for more in-depth mentoring and support.
So, my key observations on the accelerator was that it turned out more rounded teams. They pitched at the end and presented solid pictures of their ideas and how they would exploit them. There was an emphasis on hardware based startups in this accelerator, so while the teams also showed some great advances in their hardware design, the iteration process happens a little more slowly than for pure digital startups.
There was also funding involved for the teams, so that changed what they could do – including obtaining patent protection for their ideas.
It also incorporated customer interview work, but it wasn’t the focus of the program.
Program No 3 – Boot Camp
The third program I’ve been involved in was a boot camp, but this time as a participant.
To some extent, my experience of this was coloured by the fact that my startup (‘WineMinder’) was already on market. So a lot of the boot camp activities forced me to refocus, rather than reinvent.
However, the boot camp was a much shorter and more intense process that the Launchpad or Accelerator programs. The final outcome was a competitive pitch, so while there was some customer discovery work, given the timeframe most of the effort went into filling any gaps in the business model. That ranged from basic market research (how big is the market), to who is the customer (product-market fit) and pitch training.
So my key takeaway from the Boot Camp was that you can achieve a lot in a short period of time, but it’s probably most useful very early in the process. A bit like the Launchpad, but with a sharper emphasis on getting a pitch together, rather than a better formed view of an idea prior to more development in an accelerator or even a Launchpad program.
So what does all that mean?
Well, which program suits a startup depends where it is in its development. Lean Launchpad is great when you’re early in the process and need to ‘get out of the building’ to talk to customers. Don’t do that, and you’ll get hammered in a Launchpad program! Boot Camps are probably better when you have done some of that work and need to rapidly prepare for a pitching opportunity. And an accelerator is better when your idea is relatively well formed and you need to literally accelerate your business to being on market.
However… Some more general observations are these;
- All these programs are good; if you have a startup and get a chance to participate in any of them, do it!
- If you do, leverage them as hard as you possibly can. Make contacts, challenge the mentors in the program to add value (because they should be challenging you!). It’s really unusually in business to get free access to such a range of capable, busy people. Make the most of your time there!
- The key to any of these programs is structure, structure, structure. Startups need to move quickly from where they are to somewhere else – and structure provides the – well – structure to get there! Programs without a formal structure are likely to deliver lesser outcomes (in my opinion).
- If you are lucky enough to have a choice, other than structure, look to the people involved. Their experience will tell you what you might get out of the program outside of the structure, and that can be as important, if not more, than the structure itself.
So did all these help me? Absolutely! You can read all the books you like, but there’s no substitute for experience. I’ve done lots of the former, and now some of the latter. I like all these programs, and they’ve all been run by great people.
If you’re in the mind to create a startup, find you way into one of these programs if you can. There’s never been a better time, so take the plunge, and good luck if you do!