The Founder Institute offers a challenging and comprehensive 3.5 month curriculum of company-building sessions designed to help entrepreneurs plan and start building every aspect of their business, from the core idea to the product and revenue model. Each weekly session lasts about 3.5 hours, and is led by 3-5 startup CEO Mentors who share their advice and provide our participants with critical feedback. In addition, our Founders are given challenging assignments to build key aspects of their companies between the sessions that are completed in Working Groups with their peers.
In the "Product Development: From Idea to Offering" session, Founders learn how to advance from an idea to an offering, as well as common mistakes to avoid, best practices, and how to navigate the competition.
The following session synopsis gives you an exclusive look at how a typical Founder Institute session operates, as well as what to expect and how to prepare.
This session begins with talks from experienced Mentors, who will lay out a roadmap on how to design and build an impactful product and/or service. Topics that will be covered include establishing priorities, brainstorming strategies, outlining features, creating a schedule, and determining production costs.
Here is an example talk at a Founder Institute session from FI Mentor Phil Libin (CEO of Evernote).
"Founder Hotseat" Pitches and Feedback
The next portion of the session is the "Founder Hotseat", where Founders pitch of their startup idea, progress, and plans to a panel of Mentors. On a scale of 1 - 5, Founders’ pitches are graded on the clarity of their presentations, the quality of their idea, and more. One important thing to note is that the Founder Institute has a "no threes allowed" policy (read the explanation here). After providing their ratings, Mentors give the Founders critical advice on how to improve the pitch, idea, and business.
Watch a portion of a "Founder Hotseat" session below, with FI Mentors (from left to right) Ron Palmeiri (Founder & CEO of Layer), Phil Libin (CEO of Evernote), Eric Ries (Author of The Lean Startup), and Aaron Patzer (Founder of Mint.com and Fountain).
The final portion of the session is a Q&A discussion in which Founders will have the opportunity to ask the Mentors questions about the evening’s topics. Here, Founders can hear personal stories from the Mentors themselves, get additional feedback on their startup ideas, and more.
Watch a portion of the same Mentor panel answering questions on Product Development below.
The weekly Founder Institute training sessions are just the beginning..
Once the session has concluded, Founders are encouraged to join the Mentors at a nearby bar or restaurant for informal networking and socializing. In many cases, this is where the best networking and information exchange takes place.
After each session, Founders have until the following session to complete a challenging list of step-by-step company building tasks and exercises, which are designed to take approximately 15-25 hours total. Each week's assignment is based on the topic of that week’s session.
For example, a portion of the Product Development assignment ("Step 2" of 8 total steps) is listed below;
"Step 2. Organize a product brainstorming session with your Advisors, coworkers, friends and / or Working Group members to create a prioritized set of features to develop first (or next). See this sample Roadmap of Prioritized Features worksheet, and try the following methodology:
- During the session, write down a series of “Features” that you want your ultimate offering to have on sticky notes.
- Then, organize the Features on sticky notes into logical “Groups,” which may be in categories like “Registration” or “Search.”
- On a wall, place the important Features on top of less important Features vertically within the Group, and place the more important Group to the right of the less important Groups.
- Batch items from top to bottom and from left to right into named Releases, such "MVP, "Beta" or "Version 1."
In this example, "Step 2" covers creating a Product Specification, and there are eight total steps in the Product Development assignment.
If a Founder falls behind in the program, or receives notably poor feedback from their peers, mentors, or Local Directors, they may be given a "Special Assignment". These assignments are extremely difficult and have a high failure rate, forcing Founders to "catch up" and complete a large amount of business-critical progress within a short timeframe.
Special Assignments are tailored to each company and are designed to address the poor feedback a Founder has received, in order to help them correct the issues in their business. For example, below is an example "Special Assignment" that was given to a Founder who received very poor feedback related to their product definition and customer development progress:
SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT: "First, study the best practices to complete market research and surveys for your target market, and summarize your conclusions in a one page document. Second, produce a professional fifteen question survey that will help you to understand the needs and issues of your target market. Third, secure 1,000 responses to the survey from your target market via online advertising, social media, and more. Finally, produce a 10+ page PDF report that analyzes the results and outlines conclusions that will influence your product development."
Office Hours provide Founders with the opportunity to meet with the Local Director(s) for 20 to 30 minutes, to discuss issues they are facing with their business, and address any issues with their progress. To make these meetings efficient, Founders must bring (1) a printed agenda of the topics that they would like to cover, and (2) an updated executive summary of their business.
Throughout the program, each Founder is placed into rotating Working Groups with their peers, in order to build camaraderie and allow Founders to help eachother on their weekly assignments. Working Groups meet at the beginning and end of each training session, and are expected to meet at least twice per week in between sessions. Working Groups also have self-selected "Presidents", who take a leadership role and handle additional responsibilities for the group.
There are at least three "Special Sessions" during the Founder Institute Semester:
- Orientation: This is the first session in the curriculum. Throughout this session, you’ll discover your peer base and how you can help each other, go more in-depth about the program and its expectations, identify your personal strengths and weaknesses, and find 3 mentors to help you make the most out of your time in the program.
- Mentor Idea Review: This session, which takes place at the 1/3 point of the program, is 100% devoted to pitching your idea to large number of Mentors (typically at least 10) for feedback on the viability of your startup idea. This is the first major "checkpoint" for the progress of Founders in the program.
- Mentor Progress Review: This session is identical to the "Mentor Idea Review", except that it takes place at the 2/3 point of the program, and focuses Mentor feedback on your program progress, financial model, product development, and scalability.
Many local semesters also create additional sessions in the curriculum to address regional and location-specific topics. For example, it is typical for many European chapters to host additional Legal Sessions to ease the burden of incorporating a company, and many Asian chapters also host special sessions on "Doing Business in China."
This session synopsis is only a small taste of the experience you can expect in the program.