TechStars: a startup accelerator in times of a global pandemic
Techstars is an American startup accelerator founded in 2006 in Boulder, Colorado. As of 2020, the company had accepted over 1,600 companies into its programs with a combined market capitalization of $18.2bn dollars.
Around 3 months ago, I was just starting to settle my life in Amsterdam - a new city, a new home, and a new job. And what a moment for a “fresh start” - at the doorway of a global crisis. With only a few years of experience, I was getting tons of rejections, few interviews, or no answer at all. After a little clash of self-doubt, anxiety and still living on my friend’s couch, I’ve started trying to shift the negative thoughts and figure out - what I want, and what kind of job would bring me fulfillment.
As a designer, I’ve often struggled to work on projects with no major impact. And as a millennial, I wanted to change the world or at least try to make it a better place.
I continued my job-hunting mode and a recent opening grabbed my attention. A couple of words stuck in my head - TechStars, startups, sustainability, and the city of the future. YES! That was it! In a few days, I got an email invite for an interview from this friendly guy with a green cap. Unfortunately, it turned out it’s a program that only lasts 3 months. But I thought "Wait - wasn’t that it - that thing that I wanted? Nothing so big can happen in 3 months! After all, I can just job-hunt again and see where this brings me! At least now I might get a chance to help make the world a better place…"
And it turned out, it was way more than that:
For those months, I got to know an amazing team - supportive, transparent, passionate, and lighthearted. Together we were helping 10 startups shape and accelerate their business. Founders from all parts of the world - from Melbourne to Vancouver. And it’s not just their cultures that are diverse, it is also their missions. Some deal with data - mapping waste, predicting traffic, and human movement. Others - tackling urban design, civil engineering, water treatment, transparent governmental data, and even climate change. With all of them, this year we created a connection that marked us for life. We started at the beginning of February in Amsterdam at the beautiful MindSpace office and the founders were just settling here for 3 months, leaving their homes and families on the other side of the world for the sake of success and full dedication.
Two weeks later, the epidemic was slowly turning into a pandemic and we were all starting to get worried.
There was still toilet paper in the supermarket, but we were noticing the hand gel and soap section disappearing rapidly. A cashier at AlbertHeijn noticed my surprised face once and told me: “People are preparing. We don’t have a supply for the next weeks. It’s happening.” It was the first time I panicked (slightly) I got back to the office and multiple founders shared that they’d feel safer back with their families. We realized the situation was getting serious and soon announced that we will be switching this process to fully virtual. And so we did.
It was quite sad, new, and scary, but we had to continue and we all knew this shouldn’t bring us down. Catching very last-minute flights, jet lagged and still confused about the world, we seamlessly managed to switch to a fully virtual program.
From suits to sweatpants, from a whiteboard to a white cat, from MindSpace to our most personal space - our work environment rapidly changed, but our passion grew bigger and our bond became stronger.
In such uncertain times, and with some founders remaining in Amsterdam, spending this whole period in full isolation, we knew we need to give each other extra support. People are dying, the market is crashing - a global catastrophe.
Many of the founders started doubting their decision - is this the right moment to start a business? Would people invest in anything now? Would the world ever be the same? Nobody knew the answers. Many found the situation inspiring and tried to make the best out of it - dedicating their product to solving problems related to the pandemic like applying their technologies for measuring social distancing and creating apps and services related to the situation.
And so passed March, April, and May, and we've adapted.
Tons of mentors, workshops, and KPI sessions. We’ve learned, we’ve grown and we've continued to thrive. In our living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens, we continued to accelerate and do more, faster in times of change. Everyone was progressing in some way or another. People were even expanding their teams, making their dream deals, and getting publicity. Nobody gave up.
Now our society is slowly starting to recover, and some new-old problems are getting finally the deserved attention, but while the world keeps on spinning quickly, we’ve learned there’s always space for innovation and people with good missions and bright ideas, real world-changers.
And why did I start this story so personally - telling you what I wanted as a designer?
Because the lesson I’ve learned was priceless. Those 3 months as a Design Associate at TechStars gave me the confidence I’ve missed and I finally dare to be a freelancer and work independently. Being trusted by the whole team, and being able to plan and execute multiple projects at once, gave me the confidence that I was missing out on. And I’m already getting projects and clients!
I don’t want to conclude this story with one of those naive thoughts that this pandemic was something meant to be or that I’m thankful for it - nobody is. The whole situation made the accelerator program more challenging and it helped us connect on a deeper level. It motivated us, it made us more emotional and more open to one another.