Tips for those Applying to Founder Institute

As I mentioned previously I’ve been involved in the Winter 2009 semester of the Founder Institute in NYC. I thought I’d write a little bit about what I’ve learned to help others get the most out of the experience. Some of these are practical, some of these are just things to keep in mind as you progress through the semester. In no particular order….

  • You’ll get the most out of it if you have an idea of what you want to do before you start. To its credit, the Institute will accept you if you don’t have an idea, but to some degree I think this is giving people just enough rope to hang themselves given the aggressive nature of the curriculum. The fact of the matter is that those of us who got the most out of the Founder Institute came in already pretty much knowing what we wanted to do and spent a lot of time tuning and focusing it. Yes, the first couple of sessions will be about how to develop an idea, how to research the opportunity, etc. I found the information to be very useful, but more in a “good to know for next time” way. It’s really hard to keep up with the later sessions if you spend the first 3 or 4 weeks vetting 5 different ideas.
  • Therefore, getting in is about you as a founder, not your idea. But staying in is about how well you execute on your idea. Don’t forget that you are expected to have an incorporated company with a real business model and a real plan for success at the end of this. It’s not as easy as it looks.
  • Actively seek out those who will challenge your assumptions sooner rather than later. It took me a while to realize that those who didn’t want to talk about their idea (including myself) were doing so because they didn’t want to hear the hard truth about what someone else thought. I know it’s not easy to hear. We’ve all convinced ourselves that whatever we’re thinking of doing can’t possibly fail and that anyone who doesn’t see it that way is wasting our time. That’s expected. But keeping it to yourself doesn’t prove anything. You join this program because you want your idea to succeed.
  • Sign up for office hours. It’s free advice from people who have done this before and want to help you succeed. If you’re serious about building a business there’s no excuse for passing that opportunity up.
  • Keep an open mind at all times. That pain you feel when someone criticizes your idea – that’s called growth. No one’s going to plunk down a bag of cash for a clever idea. At times someone “just won’t get it”. When that happens you can either find a way to convince them or become defiant and disengage. You can probably guess which one will work in your favor long term. Take the feedback (good and bad) and get better.
  • That being said, know when to take advice and when to leave it. It’s your company. Don’t ever forget that. It was your company before the Founder Institute. It will be your company after the Founder Institute. If something really matters to you, stand your ground. Realize that you may still be wrong, but at least you learned something valuable.
  • Volunteer to be president of your working group. People act like being the president of the group is like getting the plague or something. It’s not that bad. For the most part you’re just organizing meetings and taking notes. Yes, there are some founders who can’t keep up and you have to find a way to motivate them. It can be time consuming in a lot of ways, but it’s good practice and there are a number of upsides that come with the role. I was president for the 2nd and 3rd groups and found it to be valuable.
  • Time is short, be ready to work. Kinda goes without saying. There’s not a lot of time in the program and a lot to do. If you’re going to do this right it’ll need to be a priority in your life for 3 or 4 months. Make sure your spouse or significant other understands this as well.
  • Network, network, network. Get to know the other founders. Go out for drinks after each session. Find out about their business. Tell them about yours. Organize on LinkedIn. Connect with mentors where appropriate. These people have a stake in making sure you’re successful and you have a stake in making sure they’re successful. A little extra effort will pay off for everyone.
  • The working groups can make or break your experience. A good working group can help you in more ways than you expect. A bad working group can really tax your energy. If things aren’t going well in your group, talk to your president. If he or she doesn’t listen talk to your local facilitator. Don’t let it slide. It’s up to you to get as much value as you can out of the experience, and every week counts.
  • The mentors are great but aren’t everything. I came in expecting a one-on-one mentorship. It was a bit naive. The mentors are both successful and busy. They are all nice, and all helpful, but don’t expect too much. Honestly I don’t think I connected on a personal level with many of them. Part of it is that none of them really know my space very well, and I can’t really blame them that for that. It might speak more about my company than I want to think about.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments. If appropriate I will contact you directly via the email address you supply. As I’m still participating in the Founder Institute I’ve tried to avoid any conclusive statements. There’s still a lot of time left in this semester and a lot has changed even since my last post.

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4 Comments so far

  1. Chris on November 16th, 2010

    I’m currently participating in the Winter 2010 Bay Area Founder Institute.
    Just wanted to say this blog post was very helpful. It’s great to understand how to get the most out of the Institute while I’m in it, rather than after it’s over.

  2. vdibart on November 16th, 2010

    Congrats Chris! Great to hear and glad I could be of some help. Love to hear updates as you progress through the program.

  3. Joshua Bauder on March 21st, 2012

    I’m applying for the Summer 2012 DC Founder Institute and was wondering if you had any tips on how to make it through the application process?

  4. vdibart on March 21st, 2012

    Hi Joshua,

    Unfortunately nothing comes to mind. I’m not even sure it’s the same process as when I applied. I do remember feeling like there was no way I would make it in after I finished but somehow I must have squeaked through.

    Good luck!


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