Start With Empathy: How We Ran a Successful Virtual Bootcamp for Startups.

While many accelerators and other programs have been forced into running virtual events as a new endeavor, we have been running virtual events for many years now at Nex Cubed. In fact, we have delivered over 150 weeks of virtual programming to nearly 200 startups, corporations, and governments in our short 3 years of existence.

That being said, even we have had to change our game with the COVID-19 situation. Last week, we wrapped up our Mid-Program Checkpoint for our FinTech program. During a “normal” 16-week program, the Mid-Program Checkpoint is an intense, two-day in-person program we jam pack with content, community, and inspiration to empower and prepare the founders for a strong second half of our program. 

But clearly, this was no longer possible.

Like all design projects, with constraint comes opportunity. Moving us out of our regular muscle memory allowed us to pause and ask the question: What are we really solving for?

After several discussions with this cohort’s advisors, we collectively felt that many of our startups were veering toward a common mistake made by early-stage companies facing tough times — the propensity to draw inward vs. push externally. More documents. More features. Fewer sales calls. Fewer external user tests.

Once we put aside the fancy startup nomenclature, we realized what we were dealing with was overcoming fear and vulnerability.

This is no indictment of them specifically. It’s actually a perfectly normal response and seen in all startups; however, the COVID-19 pandemic we thought has heightened the response. Could we design a curriculum that took fear and vulnerability head-on? 

If successful, we felt we could make a long-term breakthrough with our founders that could build both tactical skills as well as internal skills and would build benefits that extend far beyond the duration of our program.

Here is how we planned the week:

1. Keep It Short: Max 2½ Hours/Day —  Instead of two, 12-hour days that we normally run in-person, we opted for short interactions spread out over a week to keep energy and engagement high. As Kirin often said in planning, “We have to keep Zoom from being a cruel and unusual punishment.” What’s more, our cohort has startups spread from Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi, and we had to balance community building with human decency. Over 5 days of experimentation, we found 2½ hours with breaks to be the optimal length.

2. Ease Into It: Progress from Functional to Emotional — Look, we know no one likes to talk about vulnerability. So the first half of the week was going to be on functional topics such as sales and product, with a slow progression toward introspective skills such as leadership and embracing failure.

3. Back to School: Each Subject Has Lecture & Section — We wanted desperately to avoid the “talking head” and “useless Q&A” format. So we asked each of our presenters to create their content over a two-day period with: 

    1. Day 1 – An overview of the theory they were presenting
    2. Homework – Assigned to reinforce the learning of the session
    3. Day 2 – Wrap up Day 1 topic and introduce a new topic. By spreading one topic over 2 days, we wanted the startups to practice the skills being presented in meaningful ways that would help their business.

4. Mix It Up: Advisor Swap — We assign and pay 2 advisors to be staffed to 1 startup through the 16 weeks to provide maximum hands-on attention, but we started observing some of the feedback between founders and advisors becoming slightly repetitive. Thus, we decided to shake things up by having advisors change their startup just for this Mid-Program week only. By swapping advisors for the week, we hypothesized that new relationships could create new energy and trusted spaces for sharing and experimentation.

If you are interested in seeing what we did, the week’s agenda is available here.

Now one week past, we’ve been able to reflect a bit on the week. Here are some of the things we learned:

• Don’t rely on sharing videos over Zoom. Almost all of our presenters wanted to share a video. While this is a supported feature on Zoom, it worked precisely zero times for us.

• We saw more founder to founder sharing than we anticipated. We had really set out to improve the advisor-founder interactions; however, we were surprised to see that the emotionally laddered experience created a safe space for founders to connect to each other, usually in ways that were more profound and powerful than an advisor.

• Be disciplined about breaks. We overscheduled Monday and by Friday we became punctual about breaks. By week’s end, we were ending each session on schedule and advised everyone to “take the afterparty to Slack.”

• One week was too short for Advisor Swap. Although welcomed as an idea, one week was not enough time for advisors and founders to build a new relationship. We should have provided more scaffolding before the event, however, we extended Advisor Swap to another week after the program week to allow for more new interactions.

In sum, it may seem odd to design a Virtual Bootcamp around touchy-feely concepts like fear and vulnerability, especially in the rational, left-brained, logical world of FinTech startups. However, we thought it was a gamble that paid off and we wish you the same good fortune.

Special thanks to our external faculty, who I continue to be indebted to and amazed by:

And lastly, thanks to our Nex Cubed colleagues, Kip, Duncan, and Kelsey who crushed it, as always.

Mike Ma is the Managing Director of FinTech at Nex Cubed and Kirin Quackenbush is the Program Director at Nex Cubed.

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