Part II: The Founder Institute, Lessons Learned

Some of you are familiar with Inkwell—I founded it as part of the curriculum for the Founder Institute (FI). I had come to FI to see what I could do with the idea, and that idea carried me through to graduation.

What I got from the Founder Institute

I came to the Founder Institute wanting two things:

  1. An overview of what I would need to know to run a company.
  2. A network of professionals, both going through what I am, and mentors who have already succeeded and can help me succeed as well.

I got both.

The curriculum was excellent. There is only so much material you can fit into a weekly meeting, even if it spans three months. Nonetheless each class was well thought out, and delivered by professionals with deep knowledge of what they were presenting, as they had learned about it through experience.

This network of mentors is phenomenal. Most of the mentors were receptive to helping and those who were, were generous with their time.

The founders who made it through the program were all of high calibre and given their diverse backgrounds, each gave tremendous insights and suggestions into each other’s startups.

What I didn’t get

One aspect of FI that I didn’t know going in, that I felt was somewhat deceptive, was the costs. FI is very upfront about the requirement to incorporate in order to graduate. Going in, if you research a little, it looks like it will put you back only a few hundred dollars. But due to special requirements by FI of how you need to incorporate, it will actually put you back several thousand dollars unless you have legal savvy. In addition, the tax requirements of running a startup costs over a grand a year, if you find the right accountant. There are other assignments throughout the program that cost money, all of which add up.

I went in expecting to put out a significant amount of money—as cheap as it’s become to get a startup up and running, it’s not free, more so when you bring legalities into the mix.

I saw, and still do see, my participation in FI as an alternative to doing an MBA, and ultimately it was cheaper. Moreover, I received a hands-on overview of what it means to launch and run a company, and got to have late night beers with some of the top minds in the startup community.

My critique

Adeo explains that the idea behind the incorporation requirement is that it pushes founders to action. It forces them to have skin in the game, and as I understand him, is akin to throwing someone in the pool to teach them to swim.

While I think this concept is important, I am not sure that incorporation is the most effective way to achieve that goal. A startup does not need to legally be a corporation to prove its viability. The rest of the program, though, pushes founders to show viability of concept and proof of concept. As an early stage incubator, this is what budding companies should focus on.

I think that, instead of incorporation as a requirement for graduation, a better requirement would be another metric of proof of viability, like creating $X/month of revenue, or a user growth of X month over month. There are ways of launching a product without a fully developed prototype. Both the Lean Movement and the Four Hour Workweek discuss this in depth as well as many others. These metrics are far more important to potential investors than whether the startup has incorporated yet.

Landing pages cost pennies to set up, yet can provide powerful metrics to prove the viability of an idea. I think a focus towards actual metrics and proof of concept, rather than who is fortunate enough to be able to afford a lawyer, would give FI a higher success rate of graduates and be better overall for their community.

Conclusion

I’m proud to be a Founder Institute graduate. I think it’s a great program. I met high calibre people and learned a lot, but I think that the program is flawed. But not by much, a small tweak to the model would make it significantly more successful and facilitate much more viable startups.