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May, 2012

Moxie Jean in the WSJ Today

How Your Start-Up Stacks Up


Systematic data analysis has changed the business of scouting for baseball talent, “Moneyball” style, and has altered Wall Street trading, now ruled by algorithms crafted by so-called quants.

Can analytical rigor also help entrepreneurs such as Sharon Schneider, of suburban Chicago, make better decisions about how to manage their start-ups?

In the past year, thousands of small-business owners have turned to free “benchmarking” services to assess their young companies, based on an analysis of comparable data from their peers.



Ralf-Finn Hestoft for The Wall Street Journal

Sharon Schneider, at work at her start-up, Moxie Jean Inc.

Read entire article in the WSJ

Filed under: Excelerate in the News — Tags: , — May 31, 2012

Why Your Company Needs a Mantra

Does your company have a mantra? If not, stop what you are doing and develop one. Like, right now. It’s that important.

What the heck is a mantra? Good question. It’s the core purpose for why your business exists. If you’ve ever seen Simon Sinek’s TED talk, ‘it starts with why’, your mantra is the why.

To catch you up to speed, here’s a quick, (somewhat-bastardized) synopsis of Sinek’s TED talk:

Every business has a what and a why. The what explains what your business does (e.g. sells widgets). The why explains why your company does this (e.g. to create world peace)

Let’s use Acme Electric Wheelchair company as a hypothetical.

What Acme does: sell electric wheelchairs to non-mobile elderly folks.

Why Acme does it: to provide freedom and empowerment through mobility.

Alternatively, here is a real world example. At GiveForward we give people online fundraising pages to raise money for their loved ones’ medical expenses. This is what we do. But our mantra is create unexpected joy. Creating a little bit of unexpected happiness for families during an otherwise dark period in their lives is why we get up and go to work every morning. It’s what makes work fun. It’s the core purpose that is driving us.

Now that we have a basic understanding of a what a mantra is, I suppose the next logical question is why is it important to have a mantra?

Having a mantra is important for many reasons but one of the more practical benefits is that it acts as a filter for business decisions. Once you understand the purpose for which your business exists, it makes it a lot easier to understand which path to take when faced with tough decisions. Once you have a mantra in place you simply ask: is this upcoming opportunity in line with our mantra? If the answer is yes, feel free to proceed. If the answer is no, pass on the opportunity.

For example, here’s a recent scenario where we relied on our mantra to guide our business decision.

At GiveForward, we used to have an email that automatically went out two weeks after someone donated. It would thank them for their donation and then would explicitly ask the reader to refer others to GiveForward. In exchange, we promised to give them a t-shirt if they did this. This email got marked as SPAM all the time and no one ever referred people our way.

One day, a donor named Alan wrote to us and told us how much we sucked and how spammy our email was. And he was right. We did suck. This email was SPAMMY and it wasn’t creating unexpected joy for anyone. So we changed it to fall in line with our mantra. Instead of asking people to spread the word in exchange for a cheap, cotton t-shirt, we changed the email so that it said:

“Thank you for the donation you made a few weeks ago to [Joe's] fundraiser. We hope that your act of generosity filled you with lots of warm-fuzzies. And just in case you are in need of some extra warm fuzzy goodness today, here is the cutest video EVER

After we made the change, I sent our friend Alan a courtesy email to let him know he was right and we were wrong. [here's my actual email]

Dear Alan,

A couple of week ago you let us know how sucky our update email was. And you were absolutely correct. It was spammy and it wasn’t what GiveForward is all about. We’ve since changed it. Thanks again for helping us see the light :-)



Now here’s the best part. Since we changed the email, not only have we stopped getting marked as SPAM, but we’ve actually started getting fan mail from people telling us how much they love the kitten video (duh…everyone loves kittens).

The lesson here is that when you base your business decisions on a core set of values, it resonates with your fans. And if you’re trying to build a brand that is going to last for decades or even centuries, the reality is that your fans are never buying what you do. They’re buying why you do it – they are buying an idea, not a product. On the other hand, when you stray from your values and make decisions based on short term objectives, you end up alienating fans and getting marked as SPAM.

At the end of the day, Mantra > SPAM. Be the mantra. Don’t be the SPAM.

For further reading on these topics, check out Start with Why by Simon Sinek and Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki.


Filed under: Company Blog Post,Status Updates — Tags: — May 25, 2012

Synergy Law Group as Excelerate Sponsor for 2012

Synergy Law Group Selected as Official Legal Sponsor of Excelerate Labs for 2012

Synergy Law Group is proud to announce its role as the official “law firm sponsor” for Excelerate Labs’ Class of 2012. Synergy will provide legal support and counsel to Excelerate’s ten start-up companies.

Says Troy Henikoff, CEO and Co-Founder of Excelerate Labs, “We are pleased to continue our relationship with Synergy Law Group and we are certain the firm will provide a high level of support to this year’s class, helping the entrepreneurs navigate the legal challenges they will face as they build towards growth.”

Excelerate Labs chooses ten start-ups, from hundreds of applicants, for a 3-month “mentor immersion” and “business acceleration” program that culminates with a “Demo Day” for would-be investors and partners. In less than 18 months, Excelerate Labs has launched 20 new companies–raising more than $15 Million in outside capital and creating more than 100 net new jobs.

“Excelerate is a fabulous platform for start-ups and a true asset to Chicago,” says Bart Loethen, a founding partner of Synergy Law Group. “We are thrilled to be chosen as Excelerate’s law partner and look forward to helping the incoming class of technology innovators and business leaders.”

For the official press release:


Filed under: Status Updates — Tags: — May 19, 2012

Power2Pivot – The story behind Power2Switch

A pivot is a change in strategy, without a change in vision

-  Eric Ries, author or “The Lean Start Up”

What was the initial insight behind the Power2switch idea?

The insight behind Power2Switch was that consumers lacked a mechanism for comparing electricity deals. We wanted to be the “Expedia for electricity” – providing consumers price transparency across providers.

What changed, when and why? What was it that your customers told you or your team discovered that promoted the pivot?

Shortly after entering the Excelerate program, we realized that we couldn’t acquire customers quickly or cheaply enough. We had to rethink our approach to customer acquisition. One of our mentors actually suggested that we work through local property managers and it was this insight that prompted a pivot to a channel strategy. The upside to this approach was that we were able to reach a lot more customers, the downside was we had to share some revenue in the process. Once we expanded our focus beyond residential to include small businesses, we chose the chamber of commerce as our channel partner.

How did you adapt the business plan?

We didn’t have to adapt our business plan in terms of how we made money. However, going forward we do see Power2Switch’s mission evolving. We believe that there’s a lot more scope for empowering and educating consumers around smart energy choices, both insider and outside the home.

What did you ultimately learn about pursuing path B over path A?

I think iterating on our business plan taught us the importance of focus. We quickly realized that you don’t have unlimited time and energy when building a new business. You aren’t all so smart and so talented that you can afford to pursue all paths simultaneously. You really have to pick one or two things to go after and focus on that. If your assumptions prove wrong, you can then pivot to the next phase armed with knowledge from your past missteps.

Could you have done anything else initially to have foreseen the need for this change?

Our decision to focus on partnerships was really an organic outcome of our market research so we probably couldn’t have pre-empted that learning. We tested a marketing approach that ended up confirming a previous intuition of what we thought might work but at the time lacked sufficient evidence to confirm. When you’re resource constrained you oftentimes don’t have an overwhelming reason to pursue something until it becomes blindingly obvious.

What advice would you offer other entrepreneurs facing the need to pivot?

The need to pivot probably emanated from a need to focus so I would say that having a targeted customer acquisition strategy is very important. We initially started out by targeting everyone before realizing the value in building clear partnerships. I’d encourage other entrepreneurs who find themselves at a similar crossroads to identify what they see as the biggest unmet need or challenge in their target market and to go after that.

Secondly, I think you have to look at your team’s strengths and see how those measure up against the market opportunity. For us at Power2Switch, we knew we could deliver on what we were really good at – technology, fast iteration, and partnership development. Those insights can help you qualify your thinking as you reposition your business.

What do you think has enabled you to be successful in making the transition? Anything you would have done differently? More quickly?

The experience at Excelerate was incredibly valuable and probably allowed us to pivot faster when the need arose. Relationships definitely win the day and the mentors provide incredible leverage on that front. We were probably able to avoid some costly mistakes because of the guidance they provided.

Finally, I would caution against “analysis paralysis”! At the beginning, we spent a lot of time planning, modeling and thinking through all possible scenarios. Oftentimes you have to take the plunge and “just do it”. With start-ups there are no certainties, it’s all about daily execution and experimenting until you find something that works.


Filed under: Company Blog Post,Status Updates — Tags: — May 12, 2012

Supporting Random Acts of Kindness


Our entrepreneurs give amazing speeches every year at our Demo Day. But one of the most incredible is still GiveForward’s from 2010. They were introduced by a young woman who explained:

“GiveForward saved my life.”

As GiveForward grows, they are continuing to make an enormous impact on people’s lives by making it easier for friends and families to send love and financial support to patients during a medical crisis. The latest is a commitment by venture capitalist Brad Feld for Random Acts of Kindness, where he’ll use GiveForward to make generous gifts to patients in need, like Justin Salcedo. You can read more about it on Brad’s blog.

Filed under: Company Blog Post,Status Updates — Tags: — May 10, 2012