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Interview with Robb Kunz, BoomStartup



Salt Lake City-based venture accelerator BoomStartup (www.boomstartup.com) is one of a new class of programs aimed at helping get companies out of the idea phase, and off the ground and funded. Like YCombinator and TechStars, BoomStartup is aimed at turning what might have just been good ideas, and applying experience and mentoring to get those companies off the ground much faster. The group announced its 2011 summer class Friday, and we thought it would be interesting to hear from co-founder Robb Kunz about what the accelerator is up to.

First, for those who haven't heard of BoomStartup, describe what your program is all about?

Robb Kunz: BoomStartup is a mentorship driven seed accelerator. What we do is provide companies, 10 a year, with $15,000 in cash, and $15,000 in in-kind services. If you think about all the legal work that a company needs to get started, servers and technology to build a product, PR help, office space, and all of that other stuff that companies don't want to have to worry about, we provide that in-kind through a group of different sponsors each year. So we are giving money, services, and surround startup founders with a group of about 40 mentors, who coach them over a 12 week summer program. The idea is that you can be much more successful by getting direct mentorship. It's not just about money, but it's also about getting the knowledge of CEOs and serial entrepreneurs, who help coach and train startup companies. Our summer program runs from May 15th to August 15th, and at the end of the program, we take companies and we put them out on a stage. That is for our big investor demo day, where we give those 10 companies eight to ten minutes to pitch to accredited investors. Those investors are both angels and venture capitalists, from Utah, the Intermountain region, and last year we even pulled in venture capitalists from Silicon Valley and the East Coast as well. It's a new way of starting a company, and a new way of finding companies to invest in.

It sounds like you're closely following the YCombinator and TechStars model?

Robb Kunz: Yes, we are very closely following the TechStars model. In fact, we were selected in January of this year to be a founding member of the TechStars Network. TechStars wanted to launch an affiliate and membership partner program. David Cohen, who created TechStars and the membership and partnership model, asked us, along with 8 to 10 other leading accelerators, to be the first charter members, to help set up a framework and foundation to help him build out the network. We do have our own identity and brand here, because we're already one year out of the gate--this is our second year this year. We spent the last year building out infrastructure we needed to survive and sustain, to create a durable program as an accelerator. So the partnership will allow us to share best practices. We'll share our best practices with them, and they will do the same with us, and we may even share mentors. The idea is to roll out a more national accelerator program, rather than just something in Utah or the Intermountain West.

Talk about the inspiration for the program?

Robb Kunz: I am a serial entrepreneur. I started Ventureblue in 2007, which has a very similar model, although with investment dollars from just me and a couple of other principals at Ventureblue. We perfected angel investing at the early stage, with pre-angel firms, providing them with mentorship and a platform to get started. However, we realized that we were only starting up a new company once per quarter, or even once every other quarter, which was only two or three companies a year. We wanted, instead of accelerating just two or three companies, to accelerate ten to fifteen, which is why we moved to the accelerator model. We heavily recruited a concentration of members, 35 to 40, and got other sponsors involved. It's almost a commercial entity, though none of the revenue flows into the accelerator. All of the contributions from the community, including people committing time, goes to the companies. It's really, as David Cohen says, doing more faster, creating more companies and building an ecosystem here in Utah. I feel sometimes that people disrespect, or don't know how vibrant the community is that we have here in Salt Lake, Orem, and elsewhere in Utah. There are companies like Omniture and others who have put Utah on the map as a serious technology center and entrepreneurial hub. It's one of the best places to start a company, particularly with the work-life balance and with the outdoor lifestyle we have here.

Speaking of Utah, what do you think the biggest benefit of starting a company in Utah is?

Robb Kunz: One of the things we are recognized here for is the loyalty of the workforce. The culture of Utah is a very committed workforce, which is loyal to the workplace. We get very strong workers, who are very dedicated to their job. I think, as a general statement, our workforce is more dedicated, more loyal, and more productive. Also here in Utah, people are free to do anything they like. That sometimes isn't the case in Silicon Valley or New York, which is different culturally. The other thing we have to offer is the Universities. The University of Utah just passed MIt in terms of being the number one university in the United States producing companies from their technology commercialization office. There are lots of students, Ph.Ds., and a lot of research coming from the schools here. We're creating more companies out of our research here in Utah than MIT does, even though they spend $1.3 billion on research, and it's only $230M here. Even though we have five times less money, there are more companies started here. Entrepreneurs in the State of Utah are able to take that research and technology from the university, and build those into fully fledge companies. That's one of the things that is really unique for our ecosystem.

Are there any specific kinds of companies you are seeing most in your accelerator, or any area where there seems to be a strength in this last class?

Robb Kunz: I do think we're seeing a trend. A lot of the companies we are seeing that are interesting are in the application area and companies doing more in the business-to-business sector. Also, lots fo companies applying are those conquering big data. Those are things like big data warehouses, and databases as part of their applications. Historically, we've seen more B2C type plays, with applications trying to serve the consumer, with web consumer products, and now with web and mobile. But, I believe the vision will shift in the coming years toward more B2B and global enterprise, as the economy gets better and corporations start having more money to spend.

Do you think that corporate focus here has to do with the long line of enterprise companies in utah--you mentioned Omniture, but there's also companies like Altiris, all the way to the days of Novell and Wordperft?

Robb Kunz: Absolutely. We believe our ecosystem here is very centric around the enterprise. Those are the big companies here, and I do think that has influenced some starting entrepreneurs. I was talking to one recently at a launch event, and he mentioned three ideas, with the one I really liked which happened to be a B2B enterprise play. That's definitely what we have produced historically as a state.

You just announced your 2011 class, what's next?

Robb Kunz: It's a three phase program. We announced our winners last night, and we kick off on May 16th. There will be a week for orientation. Then, the first month, regardless of where the company is, we'll be working on business model validation. We'll talk though the business model, talk with customers, and really make sure they are pursuing the right business model before anything else. Month two is primarily about building the product and solution. Once that business model is validated with target customers, they build that product and leverage the framework and relationships to go back and validate the model, and validate the product. Month three, after they've built and validated things, built some product, they continue to build the product, but really shift their focus to investor day. We make sure they've got their investor pitch nailed, and are really prepared to go on stage and pitch for investment dollars in mid August.

Thanks, and good luck on this class!


 

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