Now that the Spring semester has come to a close, we’ll miss the bustling pedestrians peering into the Leslie eLab’s windows, the frequent ding of our cheery sign-in system, and most importantly, the stirring presence of our Ignite Fellows in our space each day. But with the ease of finals and intensive startup programming, these entrepreneurs took the time to reflect on the greatest lessons they learned from the Ignite Fellowship as they embark on their own into the open summer.
The Ignite Fellowship, a selective accelerator-type program for startups founded by NYU students, researchers, and faculty, hosted its first cohort in the Fall of 2016. Teams in the program engage in workshops, have access to coaching from experts at Blackstone LaunchPad at NYU, and receive personalized advice about how to progress their companies from seasoned entrepreneurs.
So after a semester of rigorous training and development, we wanted to know: what did they learn?
Many responded with a single resounding answer: Ignite Fellowship taught them how to focus on their customers.
“I had no idea what my target market was,” says Bill Haig, founder and CEO of WebReel. “It all goes back to focus. If you asked me in the beginning of the year what was my target, I would have said, ‘Well, it depends.’” He explains that now, “I can tell you definitively, it’s personal trainers, around ages 25-40, with around 25 clients. And I could get more and more specific.” He says Ignite taught him how doubling down on the target market could actually grow the company in the long term. WebReel would see faster user growth, he believes, by leveraging a specific community, making user numbers more attractive to potential investors.
AJ Keller, head of Waho Inc., felt the same way. “Ignite took us out of the lab.”
As the engineer behind a system designed to detect brainwaves that allow users to control their IoT connected devices, Keller explains that the biggest problem he faced entering the program was identifying whether there was potential demand for his product. “No one wanted the car when it was first invented,” he explains. Ignite helped him and his partner Rahul Chabria “find a minimum viable product for a product that has no demand. We couldn’t figure out how to do that. That’s the biggest thing Ignite taught us.”
Now, he’s landed on his ideal customer: someone who uses a computer frequently, such as a graphic designer or coder, who risks or experiences signs of bone and joint-related problems in their hands like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
Strategic community building was also a key takeaway, explain the founders. “I discovered the power of LinkedIn,” says Keller. “It’s really useful for finding influencers.”
Earlene Cruz, founder and CEO of Kitchen Connection, says that the community of the Fellowship itself was key. She believes Ignite “encourages everyone to email people, get connected, sit down and have a conversation,” because “everyone has a glimpse of knowledge that you don't, I think that’s poignant. It speaks to the way the [Entrepreneurial Institute] is.
As she is still debating between a non-profit or for-profit structure for her venture, Cruz explains the Ignite Fellowship helped her realize “everyone's on a different path, and you can’t compare your startup to the next. You can’t compare the money one venture is making to another, or app development, or return. It doesn’t mean one is making any less of an impact.”
She explains that she found particular value in this because she believes many mission-based ventures may face this problem.
After learning that the Ignite Fellowship is dedicating an entire cohort exclusively to mission-driven ventures for their Fall 2017 Ignite Fellowship, Cruz says, “I'm very glad they're doing something specific to social entrepreneurship. NYU is at the forefront of a lot of things. NYU is doing it now because there's a need for it now.”
In fact, the Ignite Fellowship is expanding broadly for the 2017/18 school year. In addition to a cohort focused on Mission-driven ventures, there will be several cohorts all aligned on common themes (e.g. stage of the venture, media/news, faculty-led, etc), based on teams entering the program.