What one founder learned during her time at TechStars.

By Mamtha Banerjee (CEO & Founder, Magicflix)

Applications are now open for the fall 2015 class at TechStars, a tech startup incubator that provides $118,000 in seed funding and intensive mentorship for 7-10 percent equity in your company. 

On Nov 6. 2014, TechStars Seattle Demo Day, I presented the pitch for Magicflix to a packed audience of entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and supporters, culminating the intense 12-week program. The days were a whirlwind of mentor meetings, customer interviews, networking events, guest speakers, curriculum, connecting with potential investors, seeking business development opportunities and refining our pitch while continuing to drive Magicflix forward.

I am deeply grateful for all that I learned and the relationships I formed at TechStars. To all the startups that will enter TechStars in the future, I’d like to say — getting into TechStars is an incredible opportunity. But don’t let the program overwhelm you. From my personal experience, here are seven tips to maximize your TechStars experience:

1. Engage with Customers to Learn from Past Behaviors

When you’ve made headway with your product, it’s tempting to think you know your customers needs and have built a product that meets them all.  During the customer development stage, learn to ask lots of behavioral questions, seeking past behaviors instead of aspirational answers. Ask more “How do you solve this problem today?” and “Tell me more about that” types of questions instead of leading customers into giving you the response you expect to hear.

For instance, we tried to survey parents for behaviors with questions like: “I always monitor my kids when they watch YouTube.”

2. Make the Most of Mentor Meetings

You will meet with several amazing mentors, each with something unique and useful to contribute. But to get the most out of mentor meetings you should anticipate and learn to manage mentors and deal with whiplash.

Our initial mentor meetings were fairly unproductive. That changed when I began to set desired outcomes for my subsequent meetings, aiming to get a mentor’s feedback on one or two focused areas that were top issues for us that week. For instance, I would use a mentor as a sounding board for our proposed business model, to review our financials or help us debate between the merits of different app designs or the name of our company.

3. Tap into TechStars Leaders and Alumni from Other Locations

It takes a village to raise a startup! We benefitted from a support network spanning Boulder, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles in several ways. The MDs of two other TechStars programs helped me with business development connections.

4. Begin Fundraising Early On

Start connecting with investors and building relationships as soon as possible. Take the time to understand the nuances of making deals and avoid deal-making pitfalls. Don’t shy away from asking to be connected to investors even though you are often advised to put off fundraising until the end of the program.

5. Don’t Lose Sight of Your Business Goals and Growth

We were initially overwhelmed by the packed schedule, the expectation to attend TechStars events and the need to do more in-depth customer development. But we should have continued to aggressively focus on content acquisition, marketing and biz dev to stay ahead of the game.

6. Seek Opinions when Preparing your Pitch

Save the pitch for last. Pitch practice can be draining especially when we have so many more important activities to focus on. I was constantly behind on all the practice sessions. But I’m glad I decided to focus on it in the last two weeks, which helped me make it to the ‘top pitch’ on Demo Day. I also won the first prize at a pitch competition at the Cascadia Summit in Vancouver the following week.

7. Figure Out Your Support System

You’ll need an incredibly supportive circle to see you through the challenging schedule. I couldn’t have maxed out my TechStars experience without the rock solid support of my husband and close friends. Figure out in advance who is going to be able to stick by your side and see you through the 12-14 hour days, 7 days a week for twelve weeks.

Reminder: Submit your application to Techstars Seattle 2015 by April 30th!