There’s a reason why nearly 80% of startups fail — entrepreneurship is hard. For seed stage entrepreneurs in particular, navigating the countless hurdles that await around every corner can be a formidable challenge. These entrepreneurs need help — strategic, hands-on guidance and support figuring out the most critical components of getting their companies off the ground, like go-to-market messaging, hiring great talent, fundraising, and the list goes on.
Given the steep challenges today’s seed stage entrepreneurs face, we feel strongly that finding mentorship and targeted advice should not be one of them. With this in mind, we created Unusual Academy to specifically address the inherent needs of seed stage entrepreneurs and arm them with the tactics they need to succeed.
The other week, our Co-Founder and Managing Partner, John Vrionis, wrote about Unusual Academy’s Beta Cohort and the progress these entrepreneurs are making. He also teased a few changes coming down the pike for the next Academy cohort.
Today, we are excited to announce that applications for the fall Academy are officially open! We are accepting applications for the Gamma Cohort until Friday, August 2nd — both enterprise and consumer companies are invited to apply.
To give you an early preview of what to expect if your team is selected, we sat down with John and Consumer Partner, Andy Johns, to discuss what they are most looking forward to about our third iteration of the Academy and share more insight into the changes coming this fall.
Q: John, can you talk us through how the vision for Unusual Academy was conceived?
John: Seed stage entrepreneurs are not getting the support they need from VCs due to a massive gap being created by the explosive growth in the size of venture funds. VCs today are spending less time with these companies and that’s a shame because it’s the very moment when founders need our help the most. Granted, there are various accelerators and other programs out there trying to plug the gap, but we believe there is so much more VCs can — and should — be doing to better serve founders.
With this insight, the Unusual Academy was born. Based on the notion that we learn in life by doing — through tailored feedback from people who have been there before — we carefully designed our model and curriculum to deliver a truly unusual program and experience. The mission: to provide entrepreneurs with a set of interactive and personalized learning experiences taught by top experts in the business — seasoned veterans like Andy Rachleff, Adam Grant, and Jyoti Bansal — to help our entrepreneurs understand the best ways to solve seed stage specific problems.
Q: As you mentioned in a recent blog post, there are so many accelerator type programs out there. What differentiates Unusual Academy?
John: Unusual Academy has three core differentiators from other accelerator programs: the quality of the master practitioners, our hands-on curriculum, and the quality of the participating entrepreneurs. As I mentioned previously, we’ve assembled a rockstar lineup of master practitioners, whose combined experience level and reputation is second to none. Not only do our founders gain exposure to these experts through the Academy, but they also have the opportunity to receive one-on-one airtime with them. Which brings me to the Academy’s second differentiator — the hands-on curriculum. We have intentionally designed each cohort to be small, so that founders have the opportunity to interact and receive tailored guidance from the master practitioners. Finally, the quality level of entrepreneurs who make up our cohorts is exceptional. These founders are the brains behind some of the world’s most innovative technologies who are now striking out on their own to solve new problems they’ve recognized on their path to success. One of our favorite pieces of feedback we receive from participants — and we hear it all the time — is how valuable their interactions with other participating entrepreneurs are.
Q: What sort of impact have you seen Unusual Academy have on participants?
Andy: OrthoFx participated in the Beta Cohort this spring and sharpened their focus around positioning and go-to-market as a result. Originally, the team wanted to prove out distribution through two channels simultaneously — both doctors and direct-to-consumer. However, Billy Bosworth’s session on founder prioritization helped the OrthoFX team realize their initial target audience was too large and they needed to be more prescriptive. The team is now hyper focused in terms of the target customer they are getting on board first, which is reflected throughout their messaging, positioning, and sales process.
Q: We’ve now hosted two Academy cohorts — one non-portfolio cohort and one portfolio cohort — are any key learnings helping shape the fall Academy?
John: Unusual Academy’s mission is to provide founders with an unusual experience that will advance their ability to lead and make decisions in a unique way. Every time we host a cohort, we are constantly looking to learn how we can better serve our entrepreneurs’ needs. Based on these learnings, we iterate and make the sessions more compelling for the next cohort. For example, on the enterprise side, it was clear we needed to add more support around how founders initially do sales. We’ve created a tactical session around how to tackle customer development and outreach with all of the latest tools and processes that our master practitioners are currently using. We’ve taken the latest best practices used at companies like Harness and MongoDB and we’ve created an interactive experience to go through.
Andy: We also realized that we need to add a customer development session tailored specifically for consumer companies. This is a really important session for entrepreneurs building consumer technology companies because they need to have the ability to dig for information through open-ended customer conversations in order to figure out how to deliver something delightful and useful to the end consumer. In particular, they need to know how customers solve certain types of problems today and how they think technology can fit in. Consumer-oriented founders also need to know how to look for unexpected insights that will help them figure out not only what to build, but how to build it. There are so few consumer companies out there today that have a keen understanding of how to conduct customer development. However, these skills play a big role in a consumer company’s success (or downfall), and so we want to make sure our entrepreneurs are equipped for success.
Q: What specific changes are coming down the pike for the fall Academy?
Andy: For the first time, we will be offering a consumer-focused track. There will be some overlapping sessions with the enterprise track, such as the Fundraising session, but we have also built out sessions tailored to address distinct issues consumer founders face. Specifically, we will be adding the following sessions:
John: Based on feedback from our Alpha Cohort last fall, we changed Maggie Hensle’s session on Mindful Leadership from the typical classroom format to 1:1 coaching this spring. The feedback from our Beta Cohort was overwhelmingly positive — they LOVE working with Maggie. Being a founder is stressful, lonely, and hard some days and Maggie coaches them through the most difficult moments. We plan to keep this format moving forward.
Q: Andy, you mentioned we will be hosting a consumer track for the first time. Who are the master practitioners you’ve tapped to lead these sessions?
Andy: Josh Grau will be leading the session on product marketing and positioning. Formerly of YouTube, Twitter, and Wealthfront, Josh’s background in consumer marketing is extensive. During Josh’s session, entrepreneurs will learn how to position their product according to their target customer, the benefits of the product or service they offer, and the type of market they are in.
Brian Balfour will be leading the session on growth loops and how to build organic growth into the product experience. As an experienced growth leader, Brian led the growth team at Hubspot as the VP of Growth and is now the founder of Reforge, the top continuing education program for startup founders and employees to learn everything there is to know about growth.
Shan-Lyn Ma, the CEO and Founder of Zola.com, and I will be leading a session on figuring out what your next big innovation will be, and how to create a product development culture and process that leads to high quality product throughput.
Q: What are you most excited about heading into the fall Academy?
John: I am thrilled to kick off our consumer track and extend Unusual Academy’s help to entrepreneurs building the next wave of great consumer applications and platforms. Andy’s consumer knowledge combined with the knowledge of the master practitioners he’s assembled will make a huge impact on our incoming cohort. I’m also just all-around excited to see the progress we’ve made since launching last year — which came together in a span of just three weeks — and how we are iterating with the learnings from our past two cohorts.
Andy: I’m excited to get consumer-focused content in front of entrepreneurs to see what works and resonates with them. By introducing a consumer track, we are accelerating the marketing around the Academy a bit more and casting a wider net. I’m looking forward to seeing the types of applicants we will attract and to watch them improve throughout the course of the Academy.
Q: Now that we’ve gone over all of the exciting updates, let’s touch on logistics. When do applications open and where can interested enterprise and consumer entrepreneurs apply?
Andy: Applications open today and will be open until Friday, August 2nd. Interviews will take place in August and acceptance notifications will go out in early September. Entrepreneurs who are interested can apply via the appropriate online application.
Q: What sorts of qualifications must applicants have to apply?
John: Qualifications will be pretty standard across both the enterprise and consumer tracks. The applicants need to be either consumer or enterprise, seed stage (meaning, just getting started or haven’t raised more than $10 million), and the combination of team, idea, and market opportunity. One of the biggest things we will be seeking to understand — and it’s at the core of how we evaluate potential portfolio companies in general — is what does the company do that’s unique, consumers/companies love, and other companies can’t replicate?
Q: Are there any specific types of companies on either the enterprise or consumer side that you’re particularly looking for and/or excited about?
John: On the enterprise side, we are looking for developer tools related to an exciting open-source project, applications in core business functions that are taking advantage of machine learning, new approaches to IT security, and solutions to help customers work in cloud-native environments. We are also interested in ideas related to better marketing, sales, and compensation tools and technologies. All of these are core investment themes for us.
Andy: We are very interested in vertically-specialized marketplaces that have ambitions to improve the end-to-end experience for all customers using the marketplace, and especially if they are building marketplaces within finance, law, healthcare and education. We believe this is where the next frontier is because these marketplaces haven’t really come to fruition yet. On the content and social side, we would like to see ideas that continue to push the boundaries of what modern hardware and software can do to innovate the creative process, such as with computer vision. It feels like we are on the verge of a 10x jump in what you can create on your phone in just a couple of taps and swipes — an exciting moment for the space. Finally, we’re interested in subscription services, not subscription products. Consumers haven’t shown a desire to subscribe long-term to receiving a product on a regular basis, but they will pay for services on a regular basis.
Q: What was the acceptance rate for last fall’s Academy? What will the acceptance rate be for the Gamma Cohort?
John: Last year we received 500 applications and accepted 9 founding teams, so the acceptance rate was about 2%. This fall, we’ll be accepting about 20 teams to account for the consumer track, but will keep the overall cohort small to maintain the hands-on approach we set out to create.
Interested in applying to be a part of our Gamma Cohort? Apply now! For questions, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.