Gregory Coleman, co-founder of weight loss app Nexercise, has heard his product called an “ugly baby” many times.It prepares him for the criticisms that accompany “Mentor Dating Month” at TechStars Chicago, but not for the taxing nights of work.
Previously dubbed Excelerate Labs, TechStars Chicago — an accelerator located in the co-working center 1871 — is in the midst of its first month, according to Troy Henikoff, co-founder of Excelerate Labs. This month, ten start-up companies, including Nexercise, selected out of 904 companies to undergo a rigorous 90-day mentorship process, are being “ripped to shreds” and reinforced by possible investors and successful entrepreneurs.
“It’s not like a 9-to-5 job,” Henikoff says. “It’s sort of like a 9-to-5 of mentor meetings, a couple hours of follow-up, a couple hours of prep, and then you get to start working on your business, so it’s very intense.”
Last year, Excelerate Labs saw 610 mentors in one month, according to Henikoff, who estimates each company will see 60-70 mentors by the end of this June.
While Coleman said he is used to his company being critiqued, the hard part has been trying to make time to continue improving the company while meeting with up to five potential mentors per day. In between meetings, the Nexercise team has been focusing on redesigning the product, although the conferences offer a time constraint.
“The biggest challenge is continuing to run your business during mentor month,” says Coleman. “If your company fails, it fails. So we’re already out and deployed with real customers and we, really, get maybe one shot to make a first impression. The stakes are still the same.”
Coleman says that, while “Mentor Dating Month” makes for some late nights, he loves being a part of the endeavor; sentiments reflected by Sarah Press, a fellow TechStar and co-founder of dating website Project Fixup.
Like Coleman, Press says that she and her co-founder have found the mentor consultations helpful, and are taking critiques into consideration. Press recalls one particular review from Nik Rokop, managing director of Jules F. Knapp Entrepreneurship Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which expanded on Project Fixup’s concept of creating date ideas for the users.
“For people who are older, they might want a more developed date,” says Press. “Not just drinks, but they might want dinner and a movie or dinner and a show and that they’d be willing to pay more for that because they’re getting a more whole experience. So I thought that was great advice.”
Although Excelerator Labs has seen an “embarrassment of riches” within the last few years, in terms of mentors, Henikoff says the TechStars name has brought attention from outside the city this season, one of the small perks of being associated with the brand. He said the development saw more mentors fly into the city this season than ever before.
Henikoff adds that it has also been exciting to be a part of the larger TechStars community.
“Watching this community… our alumni magnitude just got bigger because it includes TechStars,” he says. “To have that kind of a network behind you, literally hundreds and hundreds of founders of great digital technology companies as your peers, it’s just an awesome resource.” ❒