From Inside the Machine: Day One to Demo Day with TechStars Cloud 2013

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Steven DarbyDemo Day was a smashing success. For the groups of people working on their startup ideas for the last three months with TechStars, the first rewards of many came in the form of a cheering audience, exponential growth in their business relationships, and the gushing pride of their peers.

I was backstage helping teams get ready for the scariest moment of some of their young lives, and shaking hands with the likes of hip young San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, and Rackspace Chairman and Co-founder Graham Weston. No big deal.

During the program, I tried my best to do a weekly recap on my blog of the evolving nature of things, but time became limited pretty quickly.  For those needing some quick background, TechStars is a startup incubator of sorts. Based out of Boulder, Colorado, over the last few years TechStars has grown to have startup programs in Boston, London, Chicago, New York, Seattle, Portland, and our very own San Antonio. The San Antonio program is themed, TechStars Cloud, with companies having some focus on technology revolving specifically around cloud computing.

TechStars Cloud class of 2013 at Geekdom offices. Weekly meetings on Wednesdays start at 10:10pm and typically last until just before sunrise. Photo by Steven Darby.

TechStars Cloud class of 2013 at Geekdom offices. Weekly meetings on Wednesdays start at 10:10pm and typically last until just before sunrise. Photo by Steven Darby.

With offices at Geekdom in the Weston Centre, we had access to a great built-in network of local mentors, potential customers, development and design support, and a tech-savvy audience to bounce off ideas. TechStars is an annual, three-month program at each location, with startup teams relocating from around the world. During that three months, they go through TechStars’ brand of startup incubation, which is really boot camp. They get professional mentorship from some of the most successful people in the game, and they get advice and help with all sorts of stuff crucial to being a viable business in their respective industries.

Hackstars, the little crew that I joined, was created by TechStars to provide support for development and production so these companies can get everything figured out quickly, and go out and be somebody. Typically, the Hackstars group consists of a small group of individuals with specific professional skills who also have this wandering samurai ethos. Hackstars includes people with deep knowledge about some things, yet remain generalists. Me. All day.

This year’s program in San Antonio began in February. I do art direction and graphic design, so within the first week of the program, I jumped in feet first, getting to know the teams and their specific situations. I come from an advertising and marketing background, so my loose plan was to create a very condensed version of an agency experience for the teams. That idea didn’t really pan out. The fast-paced program I expected turned out to be more a white-knuckled blur of business activity.

TechStars Cloud class of 2013 at Geekdom offices. Weekly meetings on Wednesdays start at 10:10pm and typically last until just before sunrise. Photo by Steven Darby.

TechStars Cloud class of 2013 at Geekdom offices. Weekly meetings on Wednesdays start at 10:10pm and typically last until just before sunrise. Photo by Steven Darby.

Consistent 18-hour days of strategy meetings, informal lectures from heavy hitters in tech and business, review and redress of brand messaging, and of course, graphic design, made up the bulk of my day-to-day. In the middle of everything was SXSW Interactive.

Yeah, we killed that too.

It’s not surprising TechStars’ slogan is “Do More Faster.” It was stressful, hard work, and sometimes filled with interpersonal drama. It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

TechStars Cloud Demo Day 2013 companies

TechStars Cloud Demo Day 2013 companies. Photos by Miriam Sitz.

The TechStars Cloud class of 2013 presented their business pitches at the Empire Theater on April 18th to a crowd of venture capitalists, technologists, and entrepreneurs from far and wide.

Demo-Day, as it’s called, is kind of the first milestone for many startup teams. It’s the day startup founders publicly announce their business models to prospective investors and/or companies interested in acquiring new technology. Each team’s CEO gets up on stage, one at a time, with a (mostly) memorized pitch, explaining their product or service, market, projected growth, and how much help they need, capital investment or otherwise, to reach the next major milestone.

As someone who sat through much of the iterative process of these pitches, believe me—few of these CEO’s have a natural gift for public speaking, let alone any kind of comfort level being on stage in a packed theater. Those who know me personally know that I’d be quick to say if someone bombed. Nope. Each team’s pitch was excellent; they all nailed it and they deserved every ounce of applause they received.

Mayor Julian Castro at TechStars Cloud Demo Day 2013.

Mayor Julian Castro at TechStars Cloud Demo Day 2013. Photo by Miriam Sitz.

Our Mayor even dropped by and cracked wise to the audience about checking-in on Foursquare and finding he was, indeed, mayor.

When TechStars Cloud started in February, some of the teams had only a clue of what they were doing. Others knew exactly what they were doing, or thought they knew, until a few weeks into the program and found themselves starting nearly from scratch. This incubator isn’t solely about great ideas, necessarily. It’s about having the right people to make the ideas work. The teams include some of the smartest people I’ve ever met: Ivy Leaguers, data and computer scientists, psychologists, lawyers, designers, and all-around business beasts. These people have excellent backup plans if things don’t work. What’s important, though, and crucial to why they’ve experienced success thus far, is the passion and skills they have to make it work. I worked closely with most of these companies, and it’s really been thrilling to watch them grow and develop as time has gone on.

I busied myself most of the time doing logo design, design for app and web-based interfaces, copywriting and editing, and general art and creative direction to make sure things stayed as consistent as possible across the teams’ various pieces of visual communication. It was definitely a challenge. Day to day, many companies were changing focus in terms of their main value propositions and their target markets. It was. in-effect, designing for an ever-moving target, because so much was completely in flux during parts of the program.

TechStars Cloud class of 2013 at Geekdom offices. Weekly meetings on Wednesdays start at 10:10pm and typically last until just before sunrise.

Drinks were had. Photo by Steven Darby.

I was somewhat prepared because I cut my teeth in advertising design where everything is on a deadline, but it was still much faster-paced than I could’ve expected. Many times, in only the span of hours, teams would build and implement huge changes to their business models, marketing strategies, and even develop and program new crucial features to their products. It got pretty real sometimes. Typically, it wasn’t more than a few end-of-day drinks and hugs couldn’t solve, but the next intense day was always right around the corner. I’m proud to say everyone made it through, better, faster and stronger than they were before, including me.

Our final group meeting on Monday felt like the last day of high school. In the next few days, many would be headed out-of-town, some back to where they came from, some to new cities to headquarter their businesses, and some on the road to trade shows and conventions to keep the wind at their backs. I know none us will forget the program or our time together in San Antonio.

As one of the few people in TechStars Cloud who’s a longtime resident of San Antonio, it was inspiring to have such talent descend on my hometown, if only for a short while. We’ve still got some work to do in making this city a no-brainer destination for tech companies, but we’re definitely making progress in large strides. I heard typical and sometimes reasonable complaints about the lack of downtown to-dos from some of the teams, but most admitted they’ll miss this town when they leave.

These are great evangelists for San Antonio. They’ll always remember fondly their time here, and they’ll be back as mentors to new startups in the years to come. I know I’ll be involved again in a heartbeat if TechStars will have me.

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Steven Darby is a mercenary art director and graphic designer. He lives and works in San Antonio for clients near and far. When not doing design, he’s usually talking to someone about the value of sincerity. Find some of his work at hellodarby.com and follow him on Twitter at @hellodarby.

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