/ 500 Startups

Our Path to 500 Startups

Label designed by Carrie Phillips because she couldn't contain her excitement.

Before anything else, I wanted to make sure our Chief Creative Officer, Carrie, got the credit for making this awesome “whiskey inspired” label for our latest batch of 500 Startups seen to the right.

I could not be more pleased to announce that Zach, Carrie, and I have accepted an offerfor LaunchGram to join 500 Startups’ 5th accelerator batch starting this fall. While this is only the beginning of an even greater adventure, I thought it might be helpful to others to document our path thus far. Telling our story is fun for me, but chances are you, the up-and-coming startup community, don’t care that much about the story. You’d like to read something to help you get into 500, so I’m going to try to emphasize certain points.

Our journey to Mountain View began in Austin, Texas at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2011. It was my first time at the conference and my employer at the time bought me a pass to see all the talks. My good friend, Ben Gilbert, urged me to go see Dave McClure talk, but I declined, as I hadn’t heard of him (I’d find out later this was short-sighted).

Somewhere in that same week I met Danielle Morrill, still CMO at Twilio, for the first time just as the first box of Twilio shirts arrived in the now famous “Zaarly mobile world headquarters.” Later that week, I got dinner with Danielle and some folks. At this dinner, Dave McClure came up as she discussed his philosophy of “data, design, & distribution” and the corresponding optimal team for a startup: “developer, designer, & hustler.” These theories were new to me, and I realized how much more I could have learned by actually seeing Dave talk.

Fast forward seven months: by now I had gotten very familiar with 500 Startups and Dave McClure. After doing a good bit of research on 500 Startups, we learned – as many others have – that there is no formal application process; all the deal flow comes from 500’s network of trusted mentors and advisors. They push for at least three mentors to make glowing recommendations before they’ll take a meeting with you (obviously this is flexible, but a safe rule).

After starting what would become LaunchGram at a Startup Weekend in Columbus, OH, I recruited a developer and a designer (both friends) and put together a minimally viable product (MVP). Soon after, we packed up and moved to the Bay Area, all with the goal of getting into 500.

It didn’t take me long to realize that people I knew through my involvement with Startup Weekend were connected to mentors in the 500 network. Conveniently, my friend Nick Seguin was on the board of Startup Weekend with Danielle and Dan Martell. My work organizing and participating in events made asking for introductions from Nick easy. After those two, through a combination of luck and hustle, we got in touch with a few more mentors.

Additionally, our CTO had interviewed with Twilio fairly recently and shot Danielle an email (two approaches are better than one!). We met up after a month or so of back-and-forth and learned she was moving to Mountain View, not far from our own apartment, to run Refer.ly during the summer class of Y-Combinator. After a cup of coffee with Danielle at Red Rock, I shot her an email asking her to join on as an official advisor, which she accepted.

Something my co-founders and I talked about and worried a little bit about was how to ask these mentors to vouch for us once we talked to them. Much to our surprise, however, after speaking with each of them the offer came from them! As to why this happened, I can only speculate. That said, while each made the offer to make introductions, we had to follow up - sometimes several times - to make sure it happened.

A couple nights later, Danielle called me up and told me to come over because she was having some people over to play poker. I grabbed Carrie & Zach and headed over.

When I arrived, Danielle casually mentioned that Paul, Christine, and Dave would be joining us for poker. I immediately reached for a Corona and prepared myself. When the 500 team arrived, I played it cool and used a tactic I like to call The Anti-Pitch.

The Anti-Pitch is based on the premise that people like Dave, Christine, and Paul don’t like to be pitched by people they don’t know. We all chatted for a bit, started the poker, and then as Paul was leaving I grabbed him and introduced LaunchGram briefly and asked if we could meet sometime soon.

Thankfully, he obliged and we set something up for the following Friday. Meanwhile, Dave got pocket aces – TWICE – and took Zach and I to the cleaners. He told us he’d pay us back 50x over if he did our deal.

The following Friday I met with Paul at the 500 offices and I felt like it went well, but they weren’t doing deals for the next accelerator batch yet, so we set up another meeting. A part of me was expecting either a yes or a no from that meeting, so the next couple weeks were agonizing. At our second meeting, I brought my co-founder Zach. Paul told us he wanted to see a clearer strategy for user acquisition / traction and we set up another meeting for two weeks later.

In that two weeks, we doubled our user-base and traffic. Finally, I showed up to the 500 offices mid-renovation, Paul grilled me on some metrics and strategy, and then he asked us to join Batch No. 5.

After an expensive phone call with our lawyer, we accepted the offer. I bought some six-dollar champagne sparkling wine, some orange juice, and headed back to the home-office to tell the team.

Getting into 500 Startups is a win for us, and while it’s clearly only the beginning of a lot more hard work, it is still a win and wins deserve to be celebrated. We know only so many of the companies in our batch will go on to be successful, so we’re feeling the fire underneath us and intend to build something that people want to withstand the test of time.

The big takeaway is that relationships matter to 500 Startups and that’s not to say they don’t to other accelerators. I really want to place emphasis on how much relationships mattered in my personal experience with the 500 team so far, and I doubt that’s changing anytime soon. If you want to be #500strong, get to know mentors and founders of 500 companies on a personal level and don’t just sell your product or idea, sell your team.

– Join the discussion here on Hacker News –

Starting October 8th, I’ll be writing a series called “The Chronicles of 500: Weekly Essays on What I Learned from 500 Startups.” Follow along each week to get a first-hand account of what 500 Startups is really like.

I can’t thank 500 mentors Dan Martell, Nitin Gupta, Ray Grieselhuber, and of course, Danielle Morrill enough for their help & mentorship thus far.

Also a huge thanks to Jarrett Ervin, Zach Boerger, & Carrie Phillips for editing this post.