Twenty weeks go by in a blink. At Matter, our program can seem impossibly long when we begin with our bootcamp, and just as it gets hard to imagine what the end will be like, you lift your head and realize Demo Day is in just two weeks.
As a result of the pace of program, I often hear from our alumni entrepreneurs that there are things they wish they had done sooner, or attitudes and behaviors they had that were particularly critical to getting the most out of the experience. Now, a month out from Demo Day for the seventh Matter cohort, and speeding rapidly toward the eighth, I’m going to share what we’ve observed and what our founders have told us about our own program so the next group can benefit.
1. Approach every interaction as an opportunity for discovery
We’ve designed the Matter program with a few key principles in mind: community, empathy, and storytelling most visibly, but also the big idea of intentional serendipity. We define it as creating structures in which unexpected fortune (of various kinds) can occur. We bring together people of different backgrounds and interests, make space for them to connect, and see what happens. This is how we treat our Design Reviews, mentor office hours, and especially Demo Day, where partnerships and investments happen that we could never predict in advance.
This means that the best way to approach the community aspects of program is with curiosity and even creativity rather than skepticism and judgment. What’s possible together? How can this be useful to me? How can we create value together? In what unexpected ways can we impact each other? — These are the questions to ask. If you’re open and curious, you just might find a key advisor or even investor in a person who you would never encounter otherwise. If you’re in a less-generative mindset, a judging mindset, you’ll be too busy wondering moment to moment if you are getting enough value from a conversation. This transactional mindset doesn’t serve an entrepreneur well for all kinds of reasons, but it also makes it impossible to be in the moment and discover something about your business you wouldn’t otherwise notice, from optimal business models to insights about your users. Focus on relationships, and the rest will follow.
2. Bring the extended team to Bootcamp and Design Reviews
Matter’s program is designed for founders. While we welcome the participation of other team members, it’s required for entrepreneurs. That said, companies with larger teams won’t get the most value out of the program if their extended team members aren’t around for a few key moments, particularly Bootcamp and Design Reviews.
There’s good reason for this — Bootcamp is an immersion in what might be a new method, design thinking, and what is extremely likely to be a different approach to culture and management built around interpersonal dynamics research. It’s also the founding moment of our community, the bonding experience that allows our entrepreneurs to hold each other up. These experiences can’t be replicated by sharing takeaways on Slack or talking about them on a video conference. If your team isn’t there, they won’t know what you’re talking about. The value gets lost. One CEO told me just as the program ended, “You should really force everyone to bring their whole teams” (the CEO in question had left four employees in their home city rather than bringing them in for Bootcamp). I told her that we had said it was required, and that she herself had asked for an exception. Response? “I didn’t know how much it mattered back then!” Listen. She’s right.
Design Reviews are critical for the extended team to attend because they constitute the most concentrated blast of feedback — including positives, things to change, unanswered questions, and new ideas — from mentors and other entrepreneurs a team can receive. They can trigger pivots big and small, and can greatly influence the plans our founders execute. That impact gets muted or creates chaos when everyone affected by those decisions didn’t experience the feedback firsthand to know how to react to it.
Transformative experiences need to be felt directly. Don’t shortcut it. You’ll only sell yourself short.
3. Think fundamentals in workshop, tailored coaching elsewhere
It’s no easy feat to designing an accelerator program that has a real point of view to its content beyond pitch pointers and making introductions to mentors. No two entrepreneurs are exactly alike. Every company is at a different point in its history with different degrees of progress on product, revenue, and team. Trying to figure out what to teach and coach about that applies to everyone is a sure path to madness.
Consequently, we divide our content into two categories, the first of which is workshops that teach the fundamentals of key topics, like designing a user research plan or identifying a metaphor for the business or product you’re building. Fundamentals should not be confused with basics or simplification, however. It’s about learning and quickly applying the foundational ideas of these approaches. Real masters of any craft are masters of the fundamentals. Everyone benefits from a little time spent in the intellectual underpinnings of a method in order to make it their own. To deepen these fundamentals, we have teams apply the methods to their own companies, then share their work with each other, allowing teams to see other examples of how to do it and get good feedback on their own approaches.
We have a separate track of tailored, personal coaching based on the learning goals each entrepreneur wants to follow. These are delivered through regular working sessions with the Matter team and can be incredibly detailed and in the weeds. By separating these two needs and solutions, we have a program that delivers a lot of resources and tools that can work for any company pre-product/market fit.
4. Don’t try to figure out everything at once
All early-stage investors bet on teams, not ideas. There are lots of reasons for that, but the biggest is that the makeup of the team is the one constant when you’re rapidly iterating toward product/market fit. Most companies that succeed wind up doing something quite different from what they set out to do, and even those that are relatively consistent still change almost everything about their product experience and business as they scale. As companies grow, they change, and their leaders also change and grow as people.
The Matter program is designed to help increase the pace at which these changes happen. Through a human-centered, prototype-driven approach rooted in design thinking, we encourage teams to run lots and lots of experiments, learn from them, get feedback, and iterate. Some teams pivot into entirely new businesses over the course of the program. Some choose new customers and key users. Some get to new business models.
The key to all this is that you’re consistently re-examining, challenging, confirming, or changing the core assumptions on which the company is founded. It’s highly strategic, but it’s also really fast. It can be challenging to bounce up to a big picture assumption and then drop back into coding or making sales calls. It can feel like the whole plan isn’t in place, or like you’re making it up as you go along. It can feel exhausting. Challenging as it is as a leader, it can be even harder as a person.
Here’s the thing: it should feel challenging. That process of discovery, or non-linear progression — this is what we call the Drunken Walk of the Entrepreneur. Every startup that’s ever gone anywhere has succeed like this, not like the nice smooth hockey stick up and to the right. It’s two steps forward, three back, nine forward, four to the side. Knowing that truth makes it more survivable. It creates space to acknowledge fears and vulnerability and go forward nonetheless, with the support of peers, advisors, friends, and families. It also means that you don’t need to sweat the fact that there are unknowns about your business. You have time to figure it out. Just focus on your greatest risks and success factors, and you’ll find the way forward, both as a leader and a person.
5. Commit. Take your commitment seriously
The key to building a vibrant entrepreneur community within our program is that every team be in it to win it — committed to themselves and to the other entrepreneurs. Every program element is improved by everyone being there, truly engaged and lifting one another up.
This is why most of our program is mandatory. Now, we know there are going to be times when teams just can’t make a certain element. That’s fine. We need to know about as many of those moments as early as possible. Have a wedding scheduled during a Design Review? Tell us early so we can figure out how to create alternative arrangements and work through it. Always go hiking in the mountains every April? Get it on your plan for the program.
When we know about these challenges with program involvement, we can figure them out, and, most importantly, help you communicate them to your community in a way that respects their commitments, the norms of our community and the bonds you share. Suddenly gone for an entire week of program without having notified anyone? The culture sours. Teams that honor their commitments feel burned. Everything becomes tenuous.
And it can all be avoided just by taking commitment more seriously at the outset and being mutually accountable to your cohort.
You can change media for good. We’re here to help.
The Matter accelerator program is carefully designed to help teams move rapidly toward product/market fit through a combination of experimentation and a supportive, connected community. But it really comes from the teams we invest in and support. They create the community, they commit to supporting each other, and they embrace a mindset around growth and change. We can’t wait to welcome the 8th class and watch them make magic.