June 3, 2019

Unusual Academy: Empowering Founders to Learn by Doing

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Unusual Academy: Empowering Founders to Learn by DoingUnusual Academy: Empowering Founders to Learn by Doing
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Editor's note: 

Last fall, we launched our first Unusual Academy — an immersive, hands-on learning program to equip seed-stage founders with the tactics, network, and funding to level up as leaders and win big. Why? Because the explosive growth in the size of venture funds in recent years is creating a massive gap in the startup ecosystem: VCs are spending less time with seed-stage companies, leaving founders without the hands-on help and custom support they need at the most difficult phase of the entrepreneurial journey.

Most recently, the best attempts to bridge the gap in seed stage help for founders were programs, such as Y Combinator, other accelerators, and online groups run by venture firms. We felt there was something more that could be done to better serve founders. At Unusual Ventures, we have a strong held belief: We learn in life by doing — through personal experience and tailored feedback from people who have been there before — and less by being lectured at or pushed to read articles or books.

Think about it — today, it’s pretty rare to encounter a seed stage entrepreneur who hasn’t at least picked up The Lean Startup or Steve Blank’s seminal book, The Startup Owner’s Manual, or who hasn’t attended some kind of accelerator program. And yet, we almost always find that entrepreneurs are having trouble translating the insights laid out in these books and/or programs into action as they work to overcome the countless obstacles they face throughout the seed stage. They’ve been exposed to the concepts, but it’s simply not enough.

At Unusual Ventures we’ve witnessed firsthand why entrepreneurs need to go through a carefully designed set of interactive, personalized learning experiences to truly internalize how best to solve seed stage specific problems. Only this type of hands-on, bespoke work can move the needle on day-to-day decisions. What’s more, entrepreneurs need guidance from seasoned practitioners whose credibility stems from empathy and experience. Our master practitioners were once in their shoes and now have a keen understanding of the challenges they are up against. With that in mind, we assembled practitioners of the highest caliber — like Andy Rachleff, Adam Grant, Jyoti Bansal, Billy Bosworth, Karina Sobieski, Ken Rutsky, Jake Harriman, and Maggie Hensle — to give Academy participants an even bigger leg up by having the unique opportunity to learn from the best in the industry.

We appreciate that some may disagree with our approach and believe the venture model can scale well. However, at Unusual Ventures, we believe the practice of venture capital, particularly at the seed stage, is a craft. That is to say, in order for an investment partner to give founders the best help possible, the investor must recognize that each founder’s journey is unique and therefore the support must be as well.

The Beta Cohort

We originally created Unusual Academy with the idea that each cohort would be comprised of non-portfolio companies that would then receive a convertible note ranging from $250,000 to $1 million, depending on the stage of the company. However, as mentioned in a recent momentum blog post, the feedback from our original cohort was so outstanding that existing portfolio company founders caught wind and wanted access to the Academy and our world-class practitioners too. How could we say no?

Comprised of eight portfolio companies, the Beta Cohort kicked off in March and wrapped up just a couple of weeks ago. As experienced entrepreneurs — all had already raised money in some capacity — the bar was raised. The speed of Beta Cohort founders and the depth of the questions they asked our master practitioners were impressive. The same goes for the details provided in their exercises and actionable items they applied to their businesses immediately.

For example, Billy Bosworth, the CEO of DataStax, teaches a session on founder prioritization. This time around, he had the cohort go through an exercise where they rated certain aspects of their business as “tolerable”, “broken”, or “acceptable” and then analyzed what specifically kept them from advancing something from “broken” to “tolerable” or “excellent”. With Billy’s help and guidance, the Banyan co-founders started to ask why certain areas of their business were falling short. They quickly realized that their own inability to take action was inhibiting their business in several key areas.

Don’t take our word for it. We asked founders to share feedback on the impact that attending Unusual Academy is having on their business. Here’s what they had to say:

Aakrit Prasad, Co-founder and CEO of AptEdge, said:

Marco Sanvido, the VP of Engineering at Styra, had this to say:

Looking Ahead

The whole point of Unusual Academy is to provide an unusual experience that advances a founder’s ability to lead and make decisions in a way that’s unlike anything else out there. Every time we host an Academy cohort, we get better at serving our entrepreneurs’ needs by iterating and making the sessions even more compelling.

Based on our Alpha Cohort’s feedback last fall, for instance, we changed Maggie Hensle’s session on Mindful Leadership from the typical classroom format to 1:1 coaching this spring. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and we plan to keep the session in this format going forward. This time around, we discovered a few new opportunities to improve the Academy even further and are now planning to launch additional sessions for our Gamma Cohort this fall.

We are beyond excited to witness both the progress our Beta Cohort made this spring, as well as the overall momentum behind the Unusual Academy. Stay tuned for updates that will be coming down the pipe for the fall Academy, including our very first consumer track, led by Unusual Partner, Andy Johns. We will be announcing the latest changes and opening up applications next week.

As always, thank you for being a part of our “Unusual” journey — this is just the beginning. Onward!

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