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MIke Bradshaw, executive director of CoLab

MIke Bradshaw, executive director of CoLab

A few days ago I spoke to Mike Bradshaw, CoLab’s executive director, as Gig Tank 2014 was moving toward its climax on Demo Day. Here is the first part of our conversation, about Gig Tank wrapping up. The second part was about the program’s 3D printing track and will be summarized in my July 31 Chattanooga Pulse column.

Posted on Demo Day, 3 hours before the fun begins

Rich Bailey: Here we are 10 days from the end… What are you seeing? What are you thinking at T-minus two weeks?

Mike Bradshaw: That we’re not approaching the end, we’re approaching the beginning. It’s a moment. That day is a moment where a certain phase of the work ends, it’s true. [Teams] preparing to talk to people who can influence their future in a very positive way, talking about money people, talking about market contacts, industry insiders that will be hearing their pitches and that can establish opportunities for them. Then it’s going to be up to them to carry it on, hopefully what they’ve learned here is going to help them make that passage. But I really very seriously view it as a beginning of things.

There will be some endings. Part of this process is to subject people who passionately hold their attachments to their ideas to a really rigorous examination in the marketplace. You’ve got to go out there and see if you can sell somebody something. That could be a business, it could be an institution, it could be a consumer. It runs the whole gradient of who the customer is. And that’s part of the trick.

The purpose of a program like this to see if what you think is the customer really is the customer and use that information to build a story that’s interesting to a potential investor. A lot of time what happens is you find out there aren’t any customers. Where are you now? And you go “ah!” Is it because you’re trying to sell what’s the right thing to the wrong people? So that happens and you discover there’s a different market segment. You work your way through that process, and if you don’t end up finding the customer, well, you know what that’s the end of your business as you know it and understand it. And within the framework of Gig Tank’s time, accelerator time.

They call them accelerators because that process is what happens in any business, and it lives and dies by its customers that are translated into revenue quite directly of course. So the normal growth trajectory or the failure of a business usually takes a long time. We accelerate that process, really, by brining potential customers as close the startups as we can, a wide variety of them. IF they can’t find them, they can’t identify the possibility that these people we’re talking to represent some really interesting class of people—an available market—then, guess what, it is an end.

Is that happening in some cases?

No. It happens quite frequently in the accelerator world. It’s happened here in our accelerators. [This year,] we haven’t had an out and out revelation that there is no business here. We’ve had lots of pretty serious pivots. “Pivots,” that naughty word.

Which conceals so much.

Pivot implies some sort of a deflection of your trajectory into some other path as if it were continuous change, that you could connect a and b and c. Well, sometimes they go from English to Sanskrit, and they’re speaking a whole other language now. We’ll call it a pivot, just to keep it simple. We’ve had a lot of those.

This year, too?

This year especially. The reason for it is there are some people that are much further along than we are used to having.

Why does that make it especially likely to pivot? I would think it would be the opposite.

Well, you would think so. But they’re in a position to really explore. You’re talking real businesses here. In the past, we had companies that established pilots and they learned a lot. But even in an accelerated environment, your ability to get meaningfully close to real paying customers is dependent on getting things together. And you consume a certain amount of the program getting things together to the point that you can make a meaningful proposition to a customer.

When people come in further along, they’re able to make that meaningful proposition sooner. They get more serious feedback—and the intelligence that they gain, the insights—and because those are coming earlier, you’ve got time to deal with it. So that’s what I mean. In that case when you actually had something to go to market, you go “Oh, that isn’t what these guys are buying. But we learned in that process what they’re not buying, maybe what they will buy, and if they’re not buying who is buying.”

It’s interesting how those contacts lead to revelations. And then they’ve got time to do something about it. And because they’re further along, they’re more mature organizations in some cases. Or lets say more mature business people. These folks have been through things. They know how to react. They’re able then to effectively respond to what they’re learning.

So that’s the other dimension to being a little further along and why it counterintuitively yields a larger number of pivots.

When it happens when a co is further along it’s more dramatic. It’s a different thing. You really were developed into something you thought you understood. And then you subject it to this process, and you go “Oh, no that isn’t right. What is right?” But you’ve got the maturity and the discipline and the core conviction that the kernel of what you’ve got is meaningful to a market. Now you’ve got to discover what that market is. Or the kernel of what I’ve got is interesting to this market if it were presented in a slightly different way, if it looked like this instead of that.

We’ve had two-people companies become one-person companies. We’ve had team dynamics of a whole range of stuff that happens in the startup world. It happened in 10, 11, 12 weeks, and its breathtaking. Now here we are in this time we’ll say is more of a new paradigm beginning rather than an ending.