Every year, founders and CEOs of fast-growing businesses from around the world arrive in San Francisco to boost their startup with Blackbox Connect. Taco Potze, the co-founder of Open Social and THX Project, was among the 15 chosen to participate this year. In this post, he’ll share the top lessons he learned from the very best in entrepreneurship.

Sometimes, a blog post pours out. While others, just like this one, prove to be a bit harder to write. I struggled with this post because 1) Blackbox announced that they are ending their San Francisco Connect program after 25 cohorts. And 2) the two weeks I spent in San Fransisco was a rollercoaster and I am still processing a lot of the learnings.

I mean, it’s called Blackbox for a reason.

After a short intro of the program, I will share three major takeaways that I took home to Amsterdam after two weeks in Silicon Valley.

Blackbox Connect Accelerator Program

Fadi Bishara, the founder of Blackbox, describes his organization as a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit working to elevate entrepreneurs across the globe.

With a history of working in the tech-world, Fadi loves to share his insights, thoughts, and network with founders who have great ideas but are new to the tech ecosystem of the Valley.

The program started in his own villa and grew into a non-profit with four yearly cohorts yearly of 15 startup founders from all around the world. Many of them are sponsored by Google for Startups (for example, I was nominated by TQ - shout out to Gibran Khan and his team at Google).

In the past 8 years and 25 cycles, Blackbox Connect worked with 415 founders and has seen a combined $435M in funding & liquidation events, created more than 10K jobs, and resulted in 91% of startups that continue to grow and thrive.

It’s all about how to grow as a founder and help your company thrive. Or as Blackbox director and my amazing mentor, Marie Paoli states:
 

“Blackbox created a pioneering approach to startup acceleration -- one that places a much-needed focus on founders themselves, without whom there would be no startups.”

Some of the amazing people that joined us in San Francisco were:
 

  • Joe Hudson, Tide Turners #leadership #communication
  • John Lyman, Google Ventures #investorinsights
  • Terra Carmichael, Eventbrite #strategy #communications
  • Rana Chakrabarti, SAP #experience #design
  • Sander Daniels, Thumbtack #founderstory
  • Bill Duane, ex-Google #leadership #resilience
  • Brendan Boyle, IDEO #play #innovation
  • David Hornik, August Capital #investorinsights
  • Bill Joos, Go To Market #pitching
  • and more...


Our program included excursions, mentor evenings, sessions, and various pitches. It’s safe to say that it was a jam-packed accelerator. See how this was a bit of a rollercoaster? Thankfully, we had Mackenzie Hall to keep us relaxed and focused with morning yoga and mindfulness.

Take a deep breath...!

Lesson 1: Stop running and evaluate

In a start-up, there is always an item on your to-do list, an email to reply to or some issue to resolve.

It’s hard to take time off in any work environment, let alone when you are responsible as founder and leader for your company, clients, and staff.

The downside to this is if you're always in the go-go-go-mode, it’s easier to follow the known path of least resistance and harder to consider if the direction you are going leads to success or makes you happy at a personal level.

Blackbox cuts you out from your daily routine and places you in a separate physical place and timezone to give you the insights and tools to rethink your goals and strategy. I want to express my gratitude to my team back home here since they took over my workload to give me the time to submerge fully in the experience.

Some of the questions I considered during this break were:
 

  • What are you personally most afraid of when it comes to your startup? How is that feeling holding you back? How can you eliminate that fear or feeling?
  • Why are you doing? What makes you happy? What is your big-hairy-audacious-goal that you want to achieve in 7 years? How do you get there?
     

Lesson 2: Take a breath. Calm down.

I was never into mindfulness or yoga. San Francisco has a great mix of cultures though (tech, hippy, international) that provide more attention to the health of the mind. During the program, we did exercises to become more aware (mindful) of ourselves and our surroundings.

My favorite mindfulness lessons are:
 

  • 10 Deep. The whole group would start the day by closing our eyes and taking 10 deep breaths in your own pace. It’s a simple but highly effective to calm down and refocus before starting a new meeting. I tried it out with our team before our last all hands and, although it’s a bit strange at first, we will keep doing it!
  • Gut check. Ask each other how you are feeling. Take a moment to see what is going through your mind: stressed, nervous, excited, tired? Make sure to explain this to the person asking. End the conversation with the question: “Is there anything you need?” This is an effective way to understand your colleague, partner or friend.
  • Meditation. When you have the time and right guidance, there are great ways to work on your mind. One of my favorite exercises with Mackenzie Hall was to space-time travel to a future 25 years from now and meet yourself. Which location do you end up in? Who’s with you? Who’s missing? What can your future self teach you?
  • Yoga. Yeah… still not my thing ;)

 

Lesson 3: The Silicon Valley Startup Game

I have come to see our work ecosystem as a bit of a game. There are a set of rules you need to play to buy into the game, there are players who participate, and winners and losers.

Understanding who plays by which rules, which language to use and how to participate are important lessons. There are the things I took away from this metaphor:

Double up.
When comparing, for example, your funding price in the US to the Netherlands, you almost want to double up what you’re asking for. Looking for 1M in Europe probably ends up as 2M in Silicon Valley. And also, salaries are much higher there. As someone once said to me: “If you make less than 120.000 USD/year you are considered poor in the Valley.”

Moving to the US or staying in Europe?
A lot of fellow founders struggled with this idea. Should I or my company move to the US? How do I survive the expensive life there? I believe that if you are still small and agile, you could pitch to US investors and move your company there. But if you are already in a good startup system moving becomes less sensible.

We are not doing bad in Amsterdam ourselves with a 4th place globally according to Bloomberg. Access to capital is still a major challenge though, so my thoughts are evolving as we go.

Multi-stage funds.
A Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist (VC) firm expects 1 of his 100 investments to earn back the other 99 failed once. So, if they would invest 100 times 1 million, you need to earn them at least 100 million back. If they buy 10% of your shares, your company needs to be worth at least 1 billion dollars and your market size XX billion.

I usually followed Guy Kawasaki’s quote that states:
 

“Entrepreneurs would do themselves a favor by simply removing any reference to market size estimates from consulting firms.”

But if you don’t have the numbers, you are seen as a niche. My feeling is in Europe we are not used saying my company is worth X billion by 2025, but you better have those numbers ready if you want to go through seed, Series A, B, etc.

Don’t give up.
We heard from founders that got rejected by 40 VCs before number 41 invested. They are now a very successful platform with amazing round B and C investors and hundreds of employees.

Try to learn from the rejection about what can you do better next time. Tweak your pitch, deck, and business accordingly and try again.

Blackbox Connect ending...

After this amazing experience, I wish I could recommend all startup founders reading this to also apply to the program. Unfortunately, Blackbox decided not to continue since it was time for a change.

The lessons learned will apply to many startup founders. In my own capacity as founder and board member of the Dutch Startup Association, I will keep promoting the methods and values learned.

Thanks, Blackbox for this amazing experience!!

 

Taco in San Fransisco

 

Further reading