When I left Toyota in 2015, I wasn’t entirely sure about what my next step would be- I just knew that no matter where I landed, I wanted to make an impact. After my first year as Program Manager of a nationally-recognized accelerator, I can honestly say I feel like I’ve accomplished just that. The Brandery consists of just 3 full-time employees, which means there’s always a lot to do, and plenty of ways to make a difference. I learned a lot last year, especially from the standpoint of being new to the tech startup scene. I present to you 10 key learnings that are hopefully not so generic to the point of boredom, yet general enough that you can apply these points to your day-to-day, regardless of what you do for a living.
- The Importance of Initiative. There’s a difference between being a go-getter and being a go-fer. If you’re waiting for someone to give you something to do, you’re not passionate about what you’re doing. Take the lead on projects. Actually see things through to completion. Don’t join the all-too swelled ranks of the all talk, no action army.
- Learn from as many people as possible. People always ask me: “If the accelerator only runs for sixteen weeks, what are you doing the rest of the time?” Fair question, and one I would have asked a year ago. I’ll tell you what I spent the vast majority of my first two months doing: meeting people. Not just any people, mind you- I spent mornings, afternoons, and evenings chatting with Brandery staff, alumni, mentors, investors, community partners, and anyone else even remotely associated with StartupCincy in an effort to learn as much as possible about what the accelerator has gotten right, but more importantly, what it could do better. And with every person I talked to, that was one more connection, one more dot that I could call on during the program to help our newest class.
- Learn just enough to be dangerous, not an expert. Listen, I’m no startup wizard, nor do I claim to be. I’m a former automotive engineer with an MBA who just happens to enjoy program management (sick, I know). When I first started at the Brandery, I was “assigned” a stack of books to read to immerse myself in the startup scene. Zero to One, Startup Communities, Venture Deals, The Lean Startup- I made sure to read them, but I definitely could have done with the Cliff’s Notes. Here’s what I recommend doing instead: get Flipboard and start following the heavy hitters like Inc., Entrepreneur, Fast Company, First Round Review, VentureBeat, and TechCrunch. Save the articles that mean the most to you, or ones you think your cohort or colleagues may find interesting. Hell, show some initiative (see 1.) and Slack it over to them immediately. These articles will serve as great jumping off points for conversation and insightful feedback when you have 1:1 time with your startups.
- Organization is imperative. I can’t emphasize this one enough, folks. When you’re not in program, you’ll think you’ve got everything under control with your 25–30 emails per day. Inbox Zero? Fat chance once you hit Day 1. From there on out, you’ll be responsible for ensuring each of your companies are getting what they need to succeed daily, and as Program Manager, you’re the first point of contact most of the time. There are several ways of accomplishing this: Slack is a great tool, as is Trello, whose bandwagon I have yet to hop on. Nope, this PM uses the tried and true notebook and three-ring binder to stay on top of things. I (try to) make a checklist each morning consisting of the top ten things I need to get done (prioritized by deadline, ease of completion, and whether I like whoever I’m doing it for- kidding).
- Communication, Communication, Communication. With an ever-bountiful inbox comes the potential to forget to respond to people on a timely basis. This is something I struggled with early on, and have only now been able to barely get control of. Block out time during your day to respond to emails- whether it’s a detailed response or a short “I’ll get back to you on this tomorrow”, the punctual reply will show respect for the other person.
- There is no task beneath you. Odds are you won’t have the luxury of a large staff that can cater to your every whim (and if you do, congratulations- don’t blow it). This means that you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and get dirty more often than you would have thought. I worked with our Office Manager a number of times to help set up events, our Demo Day, and even our lunches. Don’t think that just because you’re the Program Manager, you’re exempt from this stuff. Subscribe to the “all boats rise” mentality and be a team player.
- Realize that your startups’ wins are your wins. Never have I ever taken credit for someone else’s work; I refuse to do that and will always acknowledge and recognize an individual or group’s work. However, as a Program Manager, you’re tasked with providing your cohort with a quality curriculum, meaningful connections, and resources that will help them succeed. You’ll know you’ve done a good job when you get a “thank you” or when your founders tell you that they’ve reached a new milestone because of something you were able to provide or be a part of. Don’t be ashamed of feeling good about these moments. Finding individual wins as a PM may be difficult, but the ability to connect your startups’ successes to something you had a hand in makes the job all the more worthwhile.
- Still maintain some semblance of a life outside of work. I’ll admit, this one was tough at times. As a Program Manager, you may feel that the success of your startups rests solely on your shoulders, and because of that, you need to be there for them 24/7. This isn’t the case. Sure, there will be days (and nights) where you’ll scramble to provide a time-sensitive response or connection, but for the most part, you have to remember that your startups are adults (for the most part) and are ultimately responsible for their own success. In my case, 2016 was a challenging first year- not only did I pivot from corporate to startups, but I also got married a few weeks after our Demo Day. You can imagine the work it takes to not only manage a cohort but plan a wedding at the same time. For me, I made the decision to put my personal life ahead of work when I could. This meant not being able to support as many social/community events as I may have wanted to or felt obligated to, but at the end of the day, my personal relationships are far more important than my professional relationships.
- Do your research. If you’re an old pro when it comes to your industry, this may not be as relevant. However, for me, leaving the automotive world and joining the tech startup scene left me with no understanding of the industry. Luckily, my GM didn’t hesitate throwing me into the fire- I met with VCs, sponsors, agencies, and startups almost immediately, not knowing what the hell they were talking about. ARR? Cap tables? Investment thesis? I was overwhelmed almost every day, early on. Reading the books in #3 helped, but so did simple research ahead of my meetings. LinkedIn is a great resource, as are the websites for whoever you’re meeting with or talking about. Please, please don’t “fake it til you make it.” BS is easy to sniff out, especially when you’re speaking with seasoned veterans of the startup community.
- Be an advocate for your community. This may not be as important for established ecosystems like the Bay Area or New York City, but for startup communities in the midwest, you have to work twice as hard to ensure your environment is in the same conversation/train of thought for founders, investors, media, and sponsors. This isn’t always easy, and it certainly take a village, but you can do plenty as an individual. Write a blog. Tweet. Share stories. Reach out to universities, high schools, middle schools, and summer camps, and build a presence at those levels. Share with your audience the wins and good news, but also share the bad news- people can learn from both. Don’t always paint a rosy picture, but do maintain a relentless optimism about where your community is headed. Meet challenges head on, and commit to bettering an aspect of your community. Work with other dedicated individuals to do this. It will be hard at first, but when you get that first win under your belt, you’ll be further motivated to do more.
With our 2017 program beginning in mid-June (applications open now, by the way), I’ll be reflecting on these ten points daily. Last year, I struggled with finding a balance between the creative, open-ended nature of startups and my structured, Japanese-influenced drive for efficiency and performance. My goal this year is to find that balance and give our founders what they need to thrive, during our program and beyond. If you have any advice to impart, don’t hesitate to reach me!