Following on the heels of TechCrunch Disrupt and NY TechDay, the ladies and gents of Techstars brought their Patriot Boot Camp (PBC) program right here to the Big Apple this weekend. Pursuing the mission of training and mentoring active military, veterans, and military spouses in the finer arts of launching technology ventures, the respected accelerator invited nearly 100 participants to their temporary home at Goldman Sach's HQ for three days of intensive programming.
Heading into PBC, I admit, my expectations were pretty lofty. As a dedicated techie and staunch vet supporter, this shindig was exactly what I've been hoping to see more of in the startup ecosystem. Having been impressed with the work of PBC Director Taylor McLemore and Program Manager John Hrivnak -- and tracking the accomplishment of program alums like Uvize CEO Dave Cass and Techstars London Director Tak Lo -- I anticipated a workshop that would have the potential to dramatically impact a number entrepreneurial careers. It delivered.
For those who couldn't make it, I'll share my observations on the three areas I think are most central to PBC: the 1) people, 2) training and 3) mentoring. I'll then finish off with a short list of PBC startups to keep your eyes on.
The first thing that was evident on arrival to 200 West was the quality of the vets present. Whether they came from backgrounds in Naval Special Warfare (SEALs), served in U.S. Cyber Command, or pounded the ground as 0311 Marines, each had a level of engagement, drive, and confident humility that is tough to find in any industry. The dynamic itself was also very unique. I can't think of too many conferences where participants were genuinely more interested in hearing about the work of others than talking about their own progress and accomplishments. And, while academic creds only tell a small part of the story, most people I spoke with had passed through the hallowed halls of places like Harvard (the most attended by my count), Stanford and Wharton. Good luck learning about their alma maters directly from them though; vets don't brag about themselves.
With a curriculum covering topics like product management, leadership and pitching from the likes of Union Square Ventures co-founder Fred Wilson, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and former Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, participants were able to listen to and interact with, leaders who've been there. The breakout panels, which examined areas such as marketing and legal considerations for founders, also proved popular.
Arguably the most significant part of PBC, Techstars brought together mentors from across its rather expansive network of experts and startup/VC leaders to sit down with participants in 25-minute blocks (think entrepreneurial speed dating). Each vet was paired with no less than five mentors who provided guidance on a topic relevant to that individual's venture and/or goals. To have access to this network feels almost like cheating at the startup game. Now, any right-minded entrepreneur would be ecstatic to sit down with this group of mentors, but what really grabbed me was how eager and enthusiastic the mentors were to support their veteran mentees. Catching up with participants after the sessions had wrapped up, I heard stories about advice being given, rolodexes being opened, and further meetings being set for potential investment.
As Rafael Jauregui, a proud enlisted Air Force space operator and alum of last year's program described, PBC has had a major impact. "This [program] has changed my life," he declared. "When I first arrived last year, I felt like I was drinking from a fire hose. Now, I'm controlling the hose." Carrying a new confidence, the ASYNCT founder explained how, the day prior, he walked straight up to Fred Wilson, hands shaking and all, and pitched him on his startup. With an emphatic smile on his face, he insisted that never would have happened before. "I realized I am that guy! I can do that!"
For Andre Santana, who will be rolling out a startup bringing sports fans fantasy football all year around, the mentoring and sense of community were the best parts. Not only did he sit down with lawyers and get free legal advice about incorporation, fundraising, and vesting schedules, but also gained a network of supportive peers who are in the same boat. "As a startup founder, you're trying to navigate the waters of entrepreneurship," he said. "Here, you're talking to people who are going through the same thing at the same time."
The common refrain I heard from each participant, however, was that it was great to be back in a community with such camaraderie. "I could let my guard down and be very open," Marine and SlideJoy CEO Robert Seo told me. "It's the one thing I really miss from the military and to have that all back was the best thing from this weekend." That right there about sums up PBC.
Startups to watch:
In attendance were entrepreneurs from every stage of the startup life cycle, from pre-seed to scaling product. There were far too many great ventures to fit here, but here's my list of standouts with mature products to keep your eyes on. If I missed a PBC startup you love, list it with a description in the Comments section below.
Led by former Army Ranger John McClelland, popAD is a crowd-sourced advertising platform that enables users to monetize photos they share through social media by selling them to businesses looking for fresh content.
Founded by military spouse Tameesha Desangles, Wedding Worthy is an e-commerce discovery startup that enables you to plan and purchase relevant wedding items online.
This app gives users the option of getting paid every time they unlock their phone. Slide to the right to continue to your homescreen, slide to the left to engage the ad. Either way, the user gets paid. Led by Marine and CEO Robert SEO.
This company, founded by Navy helicopter pilot Dave Cass, partners with universities like Duke and John Carroll to provide their campuses with an online veterans center. It helps connect vets with each other, unites them with potential mentors, and enables them build a community and personal support infrastructure.
Macho is a startup that helps you navigate the many transport options for door-to-door travel in the northeast. Co-founded by West Pointer Danny Cho.