Giving Nashville entrepreneurs a Jumpstart, and my Return on Involvement

“Given your background, we thought you might be interested in getting involved with JumpStart Foundry as either a mentor/advisor or an investor.”

I’m sure it was a coincidence that it arrived on my birthday, but on December 23rd last year when I read that invitation in my email, I thought that was a pretty kickass gift.

If truth be told, I had some initial reluctance about becoming a mentor in Nashville’s own seed-stage micro-fund affiliated with the TechStars network: I bootstrapped [meta]marketer, and while I’m certainly proud of that, the fact that I haven’t led a company through outside funding or any significant exit made me question what good I could do as a mentor.

But after a few discussions with the previous years’ mentors, I ultimately conceded that my experience working in nearly a dozen (!) software startups in dot-com-bubble-era Silicon Valley could supply useful perspective and war stories, and that, of course, I’m a very tech-savvy marketer (or a very marketing-savvy technologist — I can never decide which it is), so my practical, hands-on knowledge of product development, online customer acquisition, and so on, is potentially beneficial to any tech startup company.

And so I applied. And was accepted. And began to show up at mixers where the founders of the six companies selected by the Jumpstart Foundry directors sipped Yazoo brews and chatted with dozens of the most notable and successful entrepreneurs in Nashville. And me.

And eventually, as the deadline approached for the founders to invite mentors to become more deeply involved for a share of equity, three companies approached me. With two of those three, I went back and forth into the final hours of the deadline, and finally selected DAIO, Ben Stucki‘s company, which planned to build a rapid prototyping platform for mobile app design. One of the reasons I was attracted to DAIO? Because it’s a product built out of Ben’s interest, expertise, and passion, and while outside investment will help it rocket into success, it’s a setup that could work without outside investment. What can I say? I’m a sucker for hard-core sustainability.

In the weeks that have followed, I’ve watched and been part of discussions that have helped Ben fine-tune and dial in to where his customer need really is, and how the product roadmap makes the most sense. We’ve had a-ha moments around positioning, audiences, messaging, brand, and what he wants his company culture to be. As a bonus, I’ve introduced him to Kidd Redd, a content genius and one of my favorite people in Nashville, for help with getting the words just right that convey what the value of the product is.

In the span of a summer, Ben is sitting on a mountain of solid work that will help him launch his company with what must be a significantly higher likelihood of success — not just survival, success — than had he gone it alone. I see Ben getting more confident each week, more ready to lead, and more ready to be a winner in his market.

So where does my ‘birthday gift’ part come in? It’s this: by pushing through my doubt about the value of my contribution, I’ve enjoyed a tremendous boost in confidence of my own. Not to mention one hell of a boost to my professional network.

Even better: by acting as a mentor to others, I’ve heard myself saying things I know I should do better for myself. I’ve reinforced for myself the importance of positioning, of clarity of purpose, of listening to the market, and of focus. My own business is performing better across a variety of metrics because I’ve fine-tuned my own marketing after reflecting on what I’ve seen the Jumpstart Foundry companies learning to do, and what I myself have advised them to do. Since I’m an analytics geek, it’s perhaps not surprising that I think of this as my ROI: my return on involvement. Because I’ve been committed to having a regular presence at the Entrepreneur Center and helping out wherever I can with whatever Jumpstart company is struggling, I suspect my reward is substantially greater than it would have been if I’d simply shown up every few weeks and asked the founders how things are going.

Best of all, there are six new companies nearly ready to hit the Nashville streets, so to speak, and they are highly investable, ready to hire talent, and poised to make a significant contribution to our local economy and national reputation as a technology incubator. With this program, the resources we have to offer entrepreneurs are mind-boggling in their generosity and depth. What we need now for future years is more, more, more: more funds through the program, more mentors participating, more companies going through the program and coming out strong on the other end.

And at that point, it really and truly becomes a gift to us all. Happy birthday, Nashville.

Edited to add: I’ve received compliments via email and offline regarding my use of the phrase “Return on Involvement,” and I’d like to clarify and disclaim that although it occurred to me genuinely as I was writing this, 50+ million results in Google show¬†it’s not a new concept. And as I’ve since found out, my friend Jackson Miller (a Jumpstart Foundry alum himself) has been using this phrase in his own business, including in an article for Entrepreneur magazine, so there’s that.

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  1. Posted August 5, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    You were the first person I was told to meet upon my arrival in Nashville. And I am so glad that I was able to get to know you so early in my entrepreneur career. Your skills are sharp and your knowledge is vast. A lot of people in your position wouldn’t be so open to sharing, but we are lucky to have you in Nashville where you share your expertise constantly. Thank you for thinking of others :)

  2. Kate O'Neill
    Posted August 5, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Courtenay – as long as I live, I’ll never forget the bizarre coincidence of meeting you at the very moment Len told you we should meet. In a Starbucks. (I so rarely go to Starbucks!) In downtown Franklin. (It’s almost 20 miles from my home and office!)

    Thanks for the lovely feedback. I’m truly thrilled to be playing a tiny part in this phase of Nashville’s growth and development. And I’m thankful there are smart, funny, kind people like you here to be part of it too.

  3. Posted August 5, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Leave it to you Kate to be so humble about the value you can bring. My favorite thing about YOU being involved in mentoring these businesses is that you understand the marketing side of business so well. Regardless of what business someone thinks they are in, they are in the marketing business. These start-ups need to know that, and you help bring that element to the table. I think your insight on that is invaluable.

  4. Kate O'Neill
    Posted August 5, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks John! I appreciate that. I did make cite Drucker during my mentor talk: that business has only two functions, innovation and marketing. And that by marketing, we mean finding customers. That point seemed to connect.

  5. Posted August 6, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Kate, good points, very well written and persuasive. Seems you’ve been involved in all the meta-important initiatives in the tech sector here in the past two years.

  6. Kate O'Neill
    Posted August 6, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Milt. That’s a rather generous association. :)

  7. LD
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    I needed to read this today. Thanks for sharing your experience and for the reminder of the internal payback of being involved.

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  1. By Kate O’Neill’s ROI | Jumpstart Foundry on August 8, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    [...] wrote a terrific blog post last week about her experiences mentoring at Jumpstart. In fact, she touches on some important [...]