Tristan Pollock, a Minnesota native and NDSU grad, knows the hustle well.
He’s the co-founder of Storefront, a company that connects landlords and store owners with retail spaces to rent to pop-up shops. (For instance, Kanye West’s team used Storefront to book a pop-up shop to sell Yeezus gear during his tour in New York. Read more here)
He also started SocialEarth, a news site about social entrepreneurship which was acquired by 3BL Media in 2012. He was also named on 2015 Forbes 30 Under 30 list. And, the peak of his career, he spoke about creating creative cities in a TEDxFargo talk in 2015.
Now, he’s an entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) at 500 Startups in San Francisco, one of the leading global venture capital seed funds and startup accelerators
We visited with him in San Francisco to get a little more behind-the-scenes of what it’s like to go through the program, and some tips he offers to startup founders.
How does it work?
Every year, 500 Startups accelerator cycles through two “batches” of around 30-35 startups. Currently, 500 Startups is in between two batches, with Batch 18 launching on July 19.
When I went to meet with Tristan, walking up past other floors inhabited by startups such as NerdWallet, he greeted me in front of a green wall with a locked door. You get your photo and register your ID before you can enter the premises.
Once inside, it was evident that the place was in transition. Batch 17 was in the process of moving out, and half-full boxes were here and there, remnants of four months of intense activity. The space was large with a full kitchen, lined with desks stickered up with logos of companies come and gone.
Batch 18 is still going through the application process, where founders can apply to join the next crew. Thousands apply, and around 30-50 are accepted (check out their “Tips on how to get into our next batch” article).
It’s no surprise that the program draws global attention. They offer mentorship with the 500 Partners and seasoned veteran entrepreneurs, in-house distribution ability for marketing and branding, and the opportunity joining the “500 Family” network. Startups that complete the program also receive $100,000 in investment from the 500 Startups seed fund, in exchange for 5% of the company.
Most startups that apply already have a decent amount of growth, Pollock said.
“They usually have 3-6 months of customer data, and some revenue. The more customer data you have the more successful you’ll be at 500 startups going through the program,” he said. “You want to just pour fuel on the fire when you get here.”
A glimpse into what you do
Pitch perfect may be the name of the popular film starring Anna Kendrick, but it’s also a fitting title to a main concentration of the 500 Startups program. When it comes to getting investments, perfecting the pitch is everything. And the completion of the program involves pitching your startup in front of 500 investors; so you have four months to make it or break it, Pollock said.
“We have a hard stop in that, in four months, you’re pitching to 500 people in a room who are either going to love or hate you,” he said. “That’s what you want, you don’t want people sitting in the middle. You want yes or no, which can be hard to get from investors. It’s really going through that pitch process over and over again.”
That said, the first thing each batch does is essentially take the “before” photo of the founders. That is, they make each founder get up on stage and give their bare bones pitch, sans pitch deck, preparation, or any training.
“It gives you a good gage of, okay, we have a lot of work to do,” Pollock said. “Founders usually aren’t great at pitching their own company, because they spend so much time in it, they can talk about everything.”
He speaks from his own experience, Pollock said. His pitch was hard to grasp until he started stripping it down word by word, and finding that “one phrase” that he could use to communicate his work.
“What’s my one sentence that gets it across,” Pollock asked himself. “If that doesn’t get it, what do I drop to. I practice all the time and it’s always changing.”
Another piece of advice he offers founders as they train, is to “know what’s interesting now,” he said.
“If you say we’re building another on-demand food company people are going to hate you because they’ve seen it a million times,” he said. “What’s new, what’s different. You have to know what’s interesting.”
One area that he personally finds interesting is the realm of vice tech, or technology that centers around experiences. You can read more about his thoughts here, in his article “How sex, drugs and rock-n-roll are creating the next big tech companies”.
What it comes down to, he said, is getting the investors excited. Show them the opportunity and how you are growing — and don’t forget to talk traction.
It certainly worked for the 500 Startups success stories, such as MakerBot, Wildfire, Simple, Behance, and others that were acquired in recent years for numbers varying from $100 million to $402 million.
As I left 500 Startups, a large group walked in speaking in different languages and looking around, wide-eyed. They may be in between batches, but the place still attracts the eye of tourists, businessmen, and others who’ve heard tales of what goes on within these walls.
For Pollock, the place is a trampoline; a place where you come to work together, eat together, and struggle through the hustle together, before bounding out into the scary world of investors and competition. But not without the support of #500Strong family behind you.
Photo by Emerging Prairie.
Read more about 500 Startups here.