Interview with Natty Zola, Techstars Boulder

It's now ten years since Boulder-based Techstars ( launched what has become the most successful startup accelerator model in the world, and it's still going strong at its original Boulder location, in addition to Techstars locations around the U.S. and the world. We caught up with Techstars Boulder Managing Director Natty Zola to hear about the latest class for Techstars Boulder—it's 11th program—and what has changed in the last few years.

I think most of our readers are familiar with Techstars, however, it would be interesting to hear what's new at Techstars Boulder. What's new this year?

Natty Zola: This is our 10th year with our 11th program. Although it works super well, we're always innovating on the model. The first big change, is this year has thirteen companies it it. That's larger than usual, and also includes our first nonprofit. We haven't done nonprofits in the past, so 12 companies plus a nonprofit is a little different. Of the companies, five are from Colorado, and eight are from out of state. Two are international, one from Portugal and one from Canada. We have companies from both coasts, with companies from Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, and Austin. That's not necessarily different than prior years, but we continue to see a lot of interest from out of the region. With this year's program, ten of the thirteen are what we call diverse founders, founders that we define as diverse across genders, nationalities, ethnicities, race, or age. We don't have our past numbers, but it's something that we're proud of, and we've been putting a lot of time and energy into our diversity initiative. In terms of things happening at Techstars that are new this year, is we are continuing to focus on mentorship, and also adding support to founders themselves. That includes coaching, mental health resources, and really giving founders the skills and tools to weather the emotional roller coaster of being an entrepreneur. We believe that a founder and team's interpersonal relationships are important to success, as they ride the roller coaster of entrepreneurship, so we've put tons of energy, conent, and support around that. The number one criteria for joining the program, is we are looking for entrepreneurs with great potential. On the business side, we are looking for companies that are playing bigger. That means it's companies that are building something that is different, not just something that is better. As we look at our data on the most successful companies, the did not start by just iterating on an existing thing and making it better or cheaper. Instead, they are doing something that solves an existing problem in a completely different way, or a problem that we didn't know we had. We think and we hope we've found entrepreneurs in that space who are capable of doing that. I think that choice has been much more intentional this year. Howe we take a look at companies, is we are looking for companies who have the potential to play bigger.

Talk a bit about the reason to extend the program this year to a nonprofit?

Natty Zola: We believe in their mission, in this case, global entrepreneurship. They help international entrepreneurs get a visa to build, grow, and keep their businesses in the United States. That helps keep jobs in the country. They partner with universities, and give back their time and energy to the university they are sponsored by. It's a powerful win-win, and if we can get more entrepreneurs into the United States, that's great for all of our communities. We believe in what they are doing, and want to accelerate and help them achieve their mission. We've partnered with the Techstars Foundation, which supports initiatives and causes that we typically wouldn't support through our accelerator model, to get them the resources, connections, and access to our network. The Techstars Foundation is supporting the organization through this program as a nonprofit, something we've never done before.

Explain how you decided to really focus in on startups who are doing something different rather than incremental?

Natty Zola: A lot of being an investor, is trying to spot opportunities people can't see. We try to find entrepreneurs who know about those opportunities, and have an idea on how to reach their vision. Our experience has been that things that look weird, different, and crazy, sometimes are the breakthrough successes that really change the world. I even wrote a book that helped me think about this, called Play Bigger. With the companies in this year's class, we said, we want someone whose approach or vision is different, big, and is audacious, and we want to support and work with entrepreneurs with those big ideas.

Is what you are doing in Boulder different now, that you have programs all over the world?

Natty Zola: I think, overall, it gives us more resources. When a founder goes through Techstars Boulder, but they want to live in New York, we can plug them into New York. We also have great partnership potentials in Los Angeles, with tons of great resources there to help them out. Or, even if one of our founders is on an international business trip, say to Berlin, they can stay at our Berlin office, and can hang out and meet mentors there. That's given the companies even more resources to be great, which is awesome. You might think it would make the program more regional, but it hasn't. Our hope with our classes, is that we get some of the most interesting local companies, but that we'll also attract people from around the country and globe. This class has 8 of 13 which are not from the State of Colorado. Those companies are here because they know about our track record in Boulder, plus the entrepreneurial scene in Boulder has been attracting tons of entrepreneurs who want to build their business here, to get the exposure to the community and the ecosystem. What's different in Boulder, somewhat, is the holistic approach to entrepreneurship. Boulder and Denver is a place that values lifestyle, values inclusivity, values collaboration, and I think all of that is emphasized and brought out in the way we run the program.

What's the biggest lesson Techstars has learned between starting in 2007 and today?

Natty Zola: The first, for me, is that we continue to be amazed on how entrepreneurs are everywhere. They are lots of them, and as we continue to grow, we keep meeting great entrepreneurs we want to support. When we started in Boulder, we wanted to invest in some great companies. It wasn't about just companies in Boulder, but in great companies. Now that we're in 20-plus locations around the group, we've found that there is a huge supply of new entrepreneurs, with interesting ideas everywhere. It's been a huge learning lesson. You can start a business and thrive, anywhere. You don't have to be in San Francisco to build a tech companies. We've proven that at Techstars. Although we have a big presence there, and a team there, we don't run an accelerator there for startups. We find we have a much larger impact in other communities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Tel Aviv, Capetown, or Berlin. It's a huge lesson. The other big lesson, is that mentorship and mentors are really what move the needle for companies at this early stage. It's a hunch we had from year one, but from the lessons we learned, that hunch was spot on. Mentors are the magic that help the companies accelerate.

What's the biggest piece of advice you'd give to companies looking to get into Techstars Boulder?

Natty Zola: Reach out and get to know us. The best way to get involved, is to develop a relationship before and outside of the application process. We want to get to know you, see how you work, and understand your vision. There is a great blog post by Mark Suster, called Invest In Lines, Not Dots. The thesis is, it's hard for us to make investment decisions if we only see you at decision time or meet you at one. We want to get to know you over a long period of time, and see as your product or idea develops. We want to see that there is momentum around your company, as opposed to just seeing your company at one point in time.

Thanks, and good luck with this year's class!