I recently had an opportunity to meet with a founder of a fairly new startup in Boston. Though quite young with no previous experience as an entrepreneur, the founder had secured a hefty investment from a leading VC firm. I was naturally curious about how he found his investor and was able to get through the financing process. Did he have an MBA? No, but he probably felt like he did now, we joked. He had gone through many of those ulcer-causing decisions on his own. The experience had taught him much, but there were also things he would have done differently in hindsight.
While I was impressed by his success, learning as you go is not the way one should be negotiating funding terms, and pitching untested decks to seasoned investors is incredibly risky. It’s the classic dilemma: investors are more comfortable with seasoned entrepreneurs, but how can this experience be gained other than by actually going through the investment process? Doesn’t everyone have to fly blind their first time?
The Startup Leadership Program (SLP) doesn’t think so. Founded in Boston in 2006, SLP is a 6-month program that recruits outstanding first-time and future startup founders for their annual Fellow class. Working with their own startups as tangible examples, Fellows go through the hard and soft skills of entrepreneurship: term sheets, business plans, pitches, negotiations, managing investors, boards and founder conflicts. Each class is volunteer-led by the year’s previous Fellows, and has since spread across the US to New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Silicon Valley, Seattle, and San Diego, as well as internationally to Europe and Asia. As Zoe Barry, class of 2013, Founder and CEO of ZappRx, describes it, “It is a crash course in business for entrepreneurs who want to work through real world problems.” She closed a seed round from Atlas before even finishing the program.
One of her first tests was to pitch to a group of over 40 people, both Fellows and guest judges, in one of the first classes. “The experience was safe, but very real. You are pitching to a room full of people who are not only the other members of the class, but lawyers and actual investors. It helped me prepare for when I went on Springboard’s 3 day roadshow and pitched to Life Sciences Angel Network”. SLP’s Term Sheet Competition, where Fellows negotiate a mock term sheets with actual investors, prepared her well for when she received her seed-round offer.
Beyond building an entrepreneur’s street-savvy, the Startup Leadership Program’s network of fellows goes broad and deep. Suelin Chen, an MIT PhD and Founder of My Exit Strategy, met her co-founder through SLP. “I found an amazingly supportive and inspiring group of people...we all root for each other's success and that is great. The journey of an entrepreneur can be lonely, and SLP creates a network of people that are there for you--they celebrate with you on your highs and give you advice and encouragement on your lows. There will always be highs and lows, and my friends and colleagues from SLP have made the process a lot more fun”. Fellows are encouraged to connect on a global level and to drop in on classes in other chapters. While first tilted towards the tech and software space, SLP has increasingly recruited founders from biotech startups, especially in national biotech hubs like Boston.
The program leverages its combined networks in the startup, Angel, and VC space to bring in top-notch guest speakers and panels to supplement course curriculum. Throughout the program, each Fellow will take responsibility for a specific part of that curriculum a “Class CEO,” who colors the material through the lens of their founder experiences, finds guests, and structures hands-on exercises. SLP also leverages their sponsors, Foley-Hoag, one of Boston’s premier legal firms for high-profile startups. Their support and guidance is an invaluable resource for fellows as the take their ideas to funding.
Since its founding, SLP has graduated over 1300 Fellows, with 1000 startups and $400M raised between them, including RunKeeper, Shareaholic, and Ixigo. SLP has been strengthened greatly by the continued engagement of past Fellows, who give back their time, their advice, and their networks, and is seeking to continue that tradition with its recruitment of the 2014-15 Fellow Class, starting this Fall. Those interested in learning more are encouraged to stop by an info session, which allow for interaction with fellows from previous classes and learn more about how SLP and the network have helped them with their journeys.
The first info session for SLP Boston 2015 will be held at Venture Café on Thursday, June 12th at the CIC at One Broadway, 5th fl., Cambridge, MA or go to SLP’s site at http://www.startupleadership.com/