This past Spring, I left my full-time job to go into business for myself. My startup is Brili, Inc. and I invite you to check out the website learn about how it helps families deal with challenging child behavior.
Starting in July, I took Brili through Toronto’s first Founder Institute cohort. The Founder Institute is the world’s largest entrepreneur training and startup launch program. It runs for four months and is an intensive way to learn on the job. Graduation night is tomorrow (I made it!) and one of our last assignments is to share our experience.
What It’s Like
In a nutshell, it’s hard, but it’s worth it if you’ve got the right things going for your business. Of the 46 startup founders who got accepted into the first Toronto cohort, only 10 of us are graduating.
To get in, you need to apply and pass an online admissions test that measures fluid intelligence and personality traits that FI deems to be predictors for entrepreneurial success. Only 40% of those who applied for the Toronto cohort got in. The tuition is relatively modest, especially when there’s an introductory rate going on. I paid $649. But there’s a catch: to graduate, you need to incorporate and sign a warrant granting 3.5% to FI. If you get more than $50K in debt or equity financing within 48 months, you owe an extra $4,500 in tuition. The upside to all this is that each founder gets a tiny bit of every other founder’s 3.5% so we could each end up with a nice cheque if any one of us has a “liquidity event”.
Overall, for the quality of the training and the networking opportunities, I can say the cost is well worth it for my situation. Read the next section to find out if your situation would also be a good fit.
Once you’re in, you have to attend weekly 3-hour classroom sessions. The sessions consist of mentor presentations on topics such as idea development, branding, marketing, product development, fundraising, etc. The mentors are some of the country’s brightest and most successful entrepreneurs and advisors and provided high-quality instruction and feedback on our businesses. After the sessions, we always went for drinks with them and got amazing advice.
We were assigned to working groups minimum of two hours weekly of working group sessions (two sessions of 1-2 hours each, at least one being in person.) Missing any of these is grounds for getting kicked out. The working groups were a mixed blessing at first. They are a great forum for comparing notes on how to solve challenging issues. Some people found some great solutions and were able to give others a leg up with their assignments as a result. The downside was that some members persisted for too long while lagging far behind the others and ended up being a drag on the group during the meetings. By the end, though, the working groups were made up entirely of the strongest contributors and became very valuable.
As an aside, I learned a bit of a secret about the initial working group assignments. The FI platform assigns founders with certain “dropout predictor” attributes to Red Working Group in the first round. I don’t know what my predictor was, but I was placed in this group and got to be the working group president. Interestingly, our group was the one that went the longest without a single dropout. My guess is that finding out that we were somehow likely to drop out pushed us to prove them wrong. If you get assigned to team Red, redouble your efforts!
There’s an average of 20 hours of assigned work to complete per week. Keep in mind it’s an average. Some weeks you’ll need about 50 hours to devote to the assignments, and other weeks (particularly after the big pitch sessions) will be lighter if you didn’t get a special assignment. Assignments are not graded, but must be deemed acceptable at random checkpoints. Failure to complete an assignment on time can get you kicked out.
Keep in mind that pretty much every single assignment is for you to work on your business. There are not theoretical case studies or group projects. It’s all real, and it’s for the purpose of validating good startup ideas and killing bad ones quickly. (The latter is a good thing.)
One slight exception to the applicability of assignments was that we had to develop three different business ideas, not just the one we came in with. This effectively triples the workload in the first weeks. After a few weeks, you get to pick one to continue with. I chose my original idea, but now I have a somewhat viable fallback if I ever need it.
Pitches and Hot Seats
Founders have to regularly pitch their business to mentors and get graded at most sessions. It is necessary to maintain a good score on your pitches, lest you receive a “special assignment” (with a supposed 90% failure rate) or get kicked out altogether. These will put a lot of pressure on you if you’re new to presenting. The pitches are timed and you’ll get cut off if you run over time, killing your score. It’s harder than it looks.
Sometimes special assignments are thrown at the founders for no particular reason except to simulate the crises that sometimes happen in business. These come with very aggressive deadlines and must be completed to an acceptable level in order to remain in the program. Again, they are designed to be highly relevant to getting your business launched, and in fact are often customized to your business’ specific weak points.
I thought Founder Institute was great and helped my business immensely.
But it’s not for everyone.
Though FI markets itself as a way for you to start your business from the idea stage while you’re working full-time at a day job, there are some pretty important factors that will make or break your ability to complete the program and realize its benefits. While you don’t have to have all of the following points going for you, the more of the following boxes you can tick, the better your chances.
☐You’re not completely new to basic business concepts
You should have read a few books like The Lean Startup, Running Lean, REWORK, etc. or have some experience in the business world. Don’t come to FI with zero skills in business unless you have a co-founder who can help you in the background; the learning curve will be too steep for the time you’ll have.
☐You have a reasonably clear idea and a notion of how it can make money
Seriously, don’t even bother if you haven’t researched your idea and competition and how to make money with it. I observed that some people with very vague ideas did get into the program but none of their ideas solidified sufficiently under the high-pressure deadlines to make it though to the end.
☐You have some ability to build or at least demonstrate your idea effectively
A few people showed up with ideas they had no hope of executing on their own, and no co-founders. With the FI assignments, you won’t have much, if any, time to teach yourself how to program or design or even to find someone talented in that area to partner with.
☐You are doing a highly scalable software or internet-based product
This is the type of business that lends itself best to high growth, and it’s largely the type of experience that the FI mentors and directors bring to the sessions. As such, the program and the steps you follow to develop your business are very much tailored to this type of business. If you’re thinking about launching an ad agency, for example, you may succeed as a business, but you won’t get a whole lot out of FI.
☐You have a bit of money
You’re going to need to retain a law firm, get incorporated, do some market research, develop branding and other things that business need to do to get started. While you may be able get some of these things done cheap or free, you don’t want to skimp on quality, and you may not have time to do things yourself. Plan to have at least a spare couple grand available to you over the four months of the program.
☐You have a co-founder
Running a business is very hard work and you’ll be better off if you can spread the load with someone else. If you’re employed full-time and don’t have a co-founder, be prepared to put in ridiculous hours and late nights. Having one or more co-founders puts you in a much better position to build out your validated idea so you can maintain your company’s momentum after you graduate.
☐You are already full-time on your business
I didn’t have a cofounder, but I was working on this full time and had a bit of money to pay contractors to help me. It allowed me to thoroughly complete the assignments and really feel good about the validation they were bringing to my business.
☐You have solid language skills
You’ll have to do a lot of communicating and pitching in FI. If you’re not completely and comfortably fluent in the local language of the cohort, you’ll have trouble with the networking aspects of the program, which in my opinion are the most valuable.
☐Your business is not a secret
The conventional wisdom nowadays is that nobody cares about your business idea and that it all comes down to execution. Nevertheless, some people in the program had reasons for not sharing what they were doing publicly. This was a major hindrance to their ability to complete the program because they force you to establish traction with complete strangers (which is how your typical customers will start out, in most cases).
I’m very grateful for the experience that Founder Institute, its local directors and mentors have offered through the program. You’ll get chance to learn a lot of things by doing them. I had come to the program having done a lot of reading about things like online advertising, for example, but there’s nothing like playing with that stuff hands-on to thoroughly understand it.
I’m certainly not the first graduate to point it out, but FI’s biggest boost for entrepreneurs will be the network of people you’ll meet throughout. They bring in some very high quality mentors, and the directors themselves were very knowledgable, helpful and connected as well. You have to be prepared to talk to everyone you can and establish relationships in order to truly realize the benefits of FI.
At tomorrow’s grad ceremony I’ll be pitching my well-developed business to a roomful of investors and there’s going to be an investor demo day in December for the graduates. As the cohort president, I also get to say a few words about the program to a room full of influential and smart people, which will be great public speaking practice and a wonderful opportunity to gain a bit of notice.
Then, on Wednesday, I’ll be riding some amazing momentum as I get back to work on building my business.
And next Saturday and Sunday, I will do absolutely nothing for a change. 🙂