We’ve been closely following the process of the inaugural Nike+ TechStars partnership ever since Sprout, one of our Invoke Labs products, was selected as one of 10 startups to participate in their immersive three-month program. When the last-minute opportunity came up to check out the Nike+ Accelerator Demo Day this week, I jumped at the chance (wonder how many NikeFuel points THAT gets me! Okay, no more wearable puns.)

Invoke co-founder David Tedman and I made the trip to Portland, Oregon to see the companies present their final pitches and make their cases for future investment. I came away inspired, not only by the companies’ value propositions but also by the impact of the “Nike touch” – the quality of the teams and the polish and production values were impressive.

Sprout at Nike Accelerator demo day

I’ve been observing and talking with entrepreneurs, accelerators and startup bootcamps in general, and thinking about what makes that process beneficial to a young company. What I saw at the Nike+ Accelerator Demo Day helped some ideas and trends coalesce for me. Here’s my takeaways:

There’s a huge value in brands and companies getting involved in innovation

Nike and TechStars is, to me, the gold standard of what an partnered accelerator can be. It provides a great template for brands and companies to participate in innovation and connect with startups. The overall cause of fitness and wellness in all the companies aligned so well to the Nike brand. At the same time, the program gave Nike an opportunity to observe – and feed into – how NikeFuel could be incorporated across a broad cross section of companies and industries, all at different stages of development.

Incubators and partners should invest time in building businesses, not just strategy and pitches

The TechStars approach is to focus on business strategy as a part of the accelerator process as opposed to product development, and this was evident in the pitches I saw this week. Great work, but I believe that more time could be spent by all innovation partners on preparing startup CEOs and teams to be good business people – learning about process of pivoting, negotiating term sheets, the brand and community side, etc. Being successful means building a great business, not just a great software product.

Brand building and marketing matters

Relatedly, having a strong brand and knowing how to market your product is just as important as having a savvy business plan and a technically sound app. Valuing branding as an essential competency is something we pride ourselves on bringing to the table at Invoke Labs.

Generic mentoring needs to be paired with specific expertise

It’s great to get feedback from all-around successful entrepreneurs, but it’s also important to have input from those who’ve succeeded – or failed – in your particular vertical, industry, and/or business model. If you’re an ad network participating in an accelerator program, you better be getting grilled by folks with ad network experience well before your Demo Day.

Don’t start your round during the cohort time

From talking to several folks, I’ve gathered that some companies thought the process and the brands attached alone were enough to lock up that critical funding. Not so much. Even at the start of the program, you still need to have put in the work to find the right investors and close that round. Participating in a big-name program won’t guarantee the close – only YOU can.

The closer to the napkin, the less the bootcamp model fits

The products that are the most thought out and built out tend to benefit the most from an accelerator program – mentors, access to investors, brand and marketing value. The more loose the idea, the more the timeframe becomes confining. Companies often end up pivoting their concept multiple times over a three-month period; consequently, the teams tend to fatigue and aren’t going to be ready to demo or pitch a finished product to investors at the end.

Transmedia is growing and isn’t going away

While any tech companies tying into the Nike FuelBand will naturally have a hardware component, several of the companies were perfect examples of how tech can be an enabler of a startup concept. For example, FitDeck has been a successful fitness playing card game and is now building out its digital version. I expect the multi-platform trend to explode in the next six months to two years. Build great businesses that are empowered by tech; don’t have tech exclusively as the end goal.

Enterprise is underserved

Invoke Labs’ cohort member Sprout at Work, which is a compelling enterprise solution for employee wellness and reducing healthcare costs, was the lone enterprise product featured at Demo Days. There’s still tons of opportunity in the connected health and quantified self space for enterprise, and for innovation in B-to-B in general. A look at what’s happening in SAAS finance and accounting supports this further.

Overall, it’s clear to me that the “incubator industry,” while still nascent, is growing and evolving rapidly – and that can only be beneficial for the startups and companies that are participating in that evolution.

 

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