When I pulled the trigger this summer and decided it was time to head back to work full-time after a year-long hiatus, I knew I wanted to do something meaningful and interesting. I had just finished a stint as an EIR at TechStars Boston. I loved working closely with the founders and key members of early stage companies to help them strategize on their businesses, hone their messages and prepare for Demo Day where they would hopefully garner interest from prominent investors. I made some great connections along the way and even invested in a few of these companies myself as a first-time Angel. But it wasn’t enough. I knew I liked the dynamic nature of working with different startups and building relationships with various founders and their teams. However, I also yearned to go deeper with companies; to roll up my sleeves and dig into technical work and business strategy as well as help develop operations including the companies’ employee culture. My challenge was to find the right home that wasn’t just a C–level position at one particular startup. As I explored options, I found there was a new type of opportunity unlike those offered by accelerators and incubators. There are Foundries, like newly created Blade Boston.
So, what makes Blade different than an accelerator or incubator? TechStars (or Y Combinator, MassChallenge here in Boston, and others) is a national start-up accelerator that offers a wonderful opportunity for early stage companies to get skilled on how to do everything from bootstrap and solidify their MVP to raising seed capital. Like most other accelerators out there, it’s a fairly well defined program with a specific set of activities offered over a defined set of weeks that culminates into a demo day or some other type of grand finale. Accelerators take a fair amount of equity in a company (average 5%) in exchange for their offering and most startups that take this route consider this reasonable given the fine tuning and exposure they receive in these programs. Accelerator organizations enlist the support of a broad array of local, seasoned mentors who spend time with each class offering advice and their valuable network of resources. Often, these mentors are also Angel investors and VCs who end up on the cap table and/or boards of these companies. These programs are terrific, don’t get me wrong, but as someone itching to go deep, they didn’t offer what I was looking for as my next gig.
Incubators are somewhat different. There are two flavors – those that come up with their ideas themselves and then find CEOs to execute (e.g., Redstar Ventures) and there are those that offer a facility and resources of like-minded people, as well funding to develop their products (e.g., Bolt* or Greentown Labs). There are less programatic features to incubators, but they can be invaluable to companies who need a space to work with amenities and skilled resources and mentors available to help them along the way. I love hanging out at these places and can see the value they offer to the companies I work with – several of whom had already “graduated” from TechStars and MassChallenge – but again, these were not places where I could get the right level of engagement.
Then along came Blade.
As I discussed what I was looking to do next with my Personal Board of Advisors, several of my board members said “Talk to Paul English, he’s doing something that may be perfect for you.” Paul and I had met only a couple of times before and I knew he was building Blade, but I wasn’t really clear about what Blade actually was. I knew Paul had an excellent reputation as a startup founder and all around good guy and I had heard he, along with his co-founders Bill O’Donnell and Paul Schwenk, had attracted some amazing talent (e.g., Brian Kalma, a nationally recognized top designer with whom I had worked at TechStars) to get Blade off the ground. So, I reached out to Paul to learn more. What I found was a startup Foundry and the perfect fit for my next gig.
As a startup Foundry, Blade offers something uniquely different from accelerators and incubators. We attract very early stage companies with great founders and a hard problem to solve. At Blade, we care less at first about how the entrepreneurs are solving the problem, because we assume that the right team is on the right problem and they will figure out, tweak, and evolve the solution until perfect. We don’t want to be heavy handed on defining the solution. We trust the founders to do that. We are just very, very active helpers. This is what makes us a Foundry. We have hired a lean, but extremely talented team of designers, engineers and product people that are assigned to work with our intentionally small set of companies we invest in at a time (3-4, max). We set no specific timeline on how long each company can hang out at Blade, but our goal is to help each company launch successfully with a solid team and a healthy series A. Because Blade can assign significant industry talent on a startup, as well as Blade management assistance, Blade takes some co-founder equity in the venture; the amount varies per deal.
So, it’s been a few months now and I am happy to report that life at Blade is pretty amazing. The team I get to work with every day is some of the most talented I have had the opportunity to work with in my career. Not only are they a wealth of expertise, but they are also exceptional humans – kind, compassionate and extremely fun. The companies we’ve invested in (three so far: Wigo, Classy and one stealthy one I can’t write about….yet!) are thriving. Blade is a startup itself, so we’re also continuing to develop what we do and how we do it, but so far so good! Look for future blog posts on progress at Blade – including lessons learned, tips and tricks for startups and their mentors.
Have more insight into the various accelerators, incubators and foundries out there? Please reply in the comments below!
*While I’ve categorized Bolt as a startup Incubator, Ben Einstein, Managing Director of Bolt, says “Bolt is technically a venture fund, so we use ‘extremely hands-on seed VC'”. Hm, perhaps Bolt is a Foundry too!