Lessons learnt at the Founder Institute in Melbourne – StartupSmart

Last week I pushed the ‘eject button’ and withdrew from the Founder Institute in Melbourne. Of course, there’s nothing remarkable about that — typically less than 50% of the entrepreneurs-in-waiting survive until graduation in any given Founder Institute class. But what you may find interesting is why I withdrew, and what I would do differently if I had my time again.


This is my story of what I learnt at the Founder Institute.


All about the Founder Institute


The Founder Institute is a four month business accelerator/incubator for technology startups. It started in Silicon Valley and now runs in over 70 cities worldwide.


The program follows a logical progression of the steps any budding technology entrepreneur needs to follow to get a viable business off the ground. Each week of the program has a set topic — starting with ‘Vision & Values’ and ending several weeks later with ‘Bootstrapping & Fundraising’.


It is intentionally tough. But so is the real world. Each week you spend about eight hours in classes and group work, and an additional 15-20 hours on your weekly assignment. The program runs after hours, so you can still have the pleasure of your day job at the same time.


Most of the people who leave the program do so because they don’t want to work that hard or they can’t keep up. Nobody who has graduated from the program suggests that life after the Founder Institute gets any easier. Quite the contrary.


My dream — MoreSo


I joined the Founder Institute because my dream is to build a company I named ‘MoreSo’, which is short for ‘More Social Good’.


For me, the job to be done is connected to the growing business movement around social purpose and sustainability.


There’s a real communication disconnect between businesses and their communities around social purpose and sustainability.


Many businesses recognise that true social purpose and sustainability goes much deeper than just putting a tick in the CSR box. They understand the importance of using their social purpose and sustainability efforts to drive revenue growth, and not simply as part of their profit distribution plan.


Yet it’s very hard to discover which businesses are genuinely part of this new world order, and more particularly how they are making changes and how we can get involved. We have B Corporations, Conscious Capitalism and the Circular Economy. But still, the specific stories are hard to find.


And stories are important for business, because they create a memorable call-to-action.


The solution?


I envisaged MoreSo as an online community where businesses could talk about their social purpose and sustainability initiatives.


Businesses would post short, instantly shareable videos about their social purpose and sustainability. The public would be able to search our database to find stories on specific businesses. MoreSo’s pièce de résistance would be our Impact Map. This is how businesses demonstrate the full reach of their social & environmental impact, by linking their business partners to stories they feature in and growing their impact network.


At the Founder Institute — after some refinement — I positioned MoreSo as a platform for matching values-aligned employees and businesses. After all, by 2025 millennials will account for 75% of our global workforce. And research indicates that more than half of these people — who are currently aged 18-34 — would take a pay cut to work for an organisation that matches their values.


The pitch presented well at the first Big Review, and the mentor feedback was all generally positive. There was a lot of hard work to come, but I thought I’d pull through and make graduation.


Then everything came to a sudden halt.


My ‘Aha’ moment


I received an email from one of our Founder Institute Mentors — Justin French from Envato.


We were having an email conversation about customer interviewing techniques. Learning how to ask the right questions so you get useful information out of your potential customers is super hard. And Justin is incredibly talented at doing just that.


Justin’s email was all about how to extract reliable value indicators from what your potential customers tell you about their current solutions to the problem you’re trying to fix.


What he said made me realise that although MoreSo’s potential customers do want values-aligned employees, the people I spoke to weren’t breaking down my door telling me they need a better solution. What they currently do to get the right people working for them works reasonably well.


I was forced to listen to that small voice that had been telling me for some time something was out of kilter. But until I received Justin’s email I hadn’t been able to identify exactly what was wrong.


Now I knew. My product/market fit was wrong.


It wasn’t a particularly remarkable problem for an entrepreneur. Almost nobody gets it right the first time around the block. But it is a big problem if you’re approaching the later stages of an accelerator program. We were due to incorporate our companies next week and have a do-or-die pitch review the same day. A bad product/market fit would be spotted at 100 paces by our eagle-eyed mentors. And I needed longer than a week to re-jig MoreSo. So, sadly, I had no choice but to withdraw from the program.


Lessons learnt


Even though I didn’t make it to the end of the Founder Institute, I’m still so pleased that I embarked on the program. I learnt many things about building a startup and also about myself. Most importantly, it has given me a solid foundation to continue building and testing MoreSo.


But the crux of what I wanted to share is this:


Seriously slow down when you are working on your product/market fit. Even if you’re in an accelerator program – no, especially if you’re in an accelerator program.


Why? Because a bad product/market fit poisons everything about a business. From revenue models to ‘go-to-market strategies’ to de-risking it for co-founders and early employees, and everything in-between. But (happily) the reverse is true for a good product/market fit.


You will never regret taking time to perfect your product/market fit. And when you think you have it, ask yourself: Why is this problem a problem? What solution(s) is/are my potential customers using to solve this problem? Why is my idea at least ten times better than those solutions?


And if you can’t make other people’s heads nod in genuine agreement when you answer these questions, there’s still work to be done.


Most of all, I’d encourage you to be honest with yourself and trust your gut. ‘Trust your gut’ is advice our esteemed FI Melbourne Director Matt Allen taught us when it comes to choosing a potential co-founder. He’s absolutely right. But I also think it applies to almost every aspect of building a startup.


The road ahead for MoreSo


MoreSo is down, but definitely not out.


It’s back to the drawing board. I need to spend more time with socially aware businesses (the kinds of customers I wish I had) to understand their business and look for the right problems to solve and the right way to help.


If this is an area that interests you, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me on jo at moreso dot co or ping me on @jomsayer.


I look forward to continuing the conversation.


Jo Sayer is an ex-pat Kiwi. Prefers savoury to sweet. Mum. Founder @MoreSoCo. Tech Entrepreneur. Lawyer. Would like to WolfTrek.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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