TechStars Demo Day rocks the house

I’m sitting in the Denver airport heading home (if the air travel gods allow it) from TechStars Boulder Demo Day 2009. I’ve been a fan of the organization since it started, not least because Brad Feld (a Judy’s Book investor and board member) is a prime mover behind the project. But this was my first live Demo Day and I was blown away by the presenting companies, their founders, and the incredible mentor network that Brad and co-founder David Cohen have engaged as key participants in the experience.

Beyond the scripted presentations, the event offered a great opportunity to connect with both current and past TechStars companies, and in each of these conversations I asked the founders to describe what was the most powerful element of the program: the peer group, the coaching received during the twelve weeks, or the extended mentor network. To a man (and they *were* all men), every founder I spoke with described the mentor network as the greatest single source of value, and most expressed surprise at how accessible and supportive this group was.

Beyond David and Brad (no slouches themselves when it comes to mentorship), the TechStars mentor group includes an incredible list of household names in the software and early-stage investing world: Stewart Alsop, Jeff Clavier, Dick Costolo, Dave McClure, Rich Miner, Matt Mullenweg, Jared Polis, Fred Wilson, and on and on. And according to the TechStars
entrepreneurs I spoke with, these aren’t just names on a website; they show up, dig in, give feedback and are quick to pick up the phone to make a connection within *their* extended network on behalf of the companies in the program.

As you’d expect from a solid day and a half of drinks, dinners, formal pitches and informal chats, my TechStars visit stuffed my brain with new ideas and relationships. But if I had to pick just two, my biggest takeaways from the experience are:

  1. TechStars is a great and *scalable* model for early-stage venture formation. Y Combinator is a powerful brand and franchise (and in many ways the model on which TechStars is based), but it’s hard to imagine it without Paul Graham at the helm. By contrast, the TechStars brand and experience is largely defined by the credibility and proven effectiveness of its mentor network. This probably makes it harder to understand and evaluate from the outside, but offers a far greater capacity to scale across geographies, industries and types of opportunities.
  2. Founders Co-op can and should do more to leverage the power of its network, beginning with the involvement of our Limited Partners (or at least those that have the time and appetite for it). Andy and I have always thought of this as one of our great sources of strength, but based on my experience at TechStars it’s clear that we aren’t doing nearly enough to engage our own community on behalf of the companies we fund.

Thanks again to David and Brad for inviting me down and hosting such a great event. I already loved my job, but I’m coming away from TechStars even more fired up to make the Founders Co-op offering as differentiated and effective a member of the Seattle startup community as TechStars is in Boulder.