As much effort and time as it takes to start out a business, growing a fresh venture from 5 to 50 employees could be a lot more challenging. And unlike the first days of a company, when founders may have the camaraderie of an incubator program to depend on, another stage in the startup life cycle is usually a lonely one.
The NYC Venture Fellows Program really wants to help these entrepreneurs log off their islands. Since 2011, this program — a joint initiative between your city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and Fordham University — has provided startups in NEW YORK with a support system for that post-incubator, post-seed funding period.
Previously, "government was hardly ever really understood as a partner" in entrepreneurial efforts, says Brian Cohen, among the program’s mentors and the chairman of NY Angels, a consortium of private investors. "Now [the city] government has been recognized as an excellent, thoughtful partner in assisting to grow these businesses."
The program’s 12-month fellowship matches startup founders with mentors drawn from the ranks of business, technology, media and finance.
"NY is a great place to begin a company," says Sri Swaminathan, an assistant director at the EDC. But that’s not enough, he says. The procedure of growing startups into profitable businesses with employees and dependable revenue "is what sustains the ecosystem of a city."
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As the program will not provide direct funding, it can offer mentorship, peer networking and the prestige and visibility that may lead to funding. Cohen says money "is always a possibility" for the fellows, either from mentors themselves or from others in the mentors’ personal networks. Guillaume Gauthereau, a 2012 fellow, raised $19 million in a string B round for his company Totsy within the program.
To be accepted as a fellow, you need to first be nominated by a pal, a colleague, a mentor or an investor. Only then is it possible to fill out an application. For the class of 2013, a three-person selection committee sifted through 148 applications to find the 30 fellows. The committee members were Martin Sorrell, leader of communications services giant WPP Group; Joseph McShane, president of Fordham; and Lawrence Lenihan, founder and managing director of capital raising firm FirstMark Capital.
When coming up with decisions, the committee considers the growth trajectory of every startup and its capability to raise capital, any media coverage it has received, and its own potential to create employment in NEW YORK. In 2012, the committee chose 28 fellows from 117 candidates. The program’s limit, according to Swaminathan, is approximately 30 fellows.
According to current fellows, the program’s main benefit is that it fosters relationships with high-profile entrepreneurs and other business leaders whom they otherwise will be unlikely to meet up.
NYC Venture Fellows Program class of 2013 fellow Shane Snow (left) and three employees celebrate Contently passing its 1,000th user mark in the summertime of 2012.
Image credit: Contently
"The grade of people there just blew me away," says Shane Snow, a 2013 fellow and co-founder of Contently, a platform that allows brands to create editorial content in collaboration with journalists. Among the 2013 mentors are Steve Brotman, managing partner at Silicon Alley Venture Partners, Milk Studios founder Mazdack Rassi and Bit.ly’s chief scientist, Hilary Mason.
Twice a year, in February and August, this program brings all 30 fellows together for a rigorous weeklong group of panels and workshops. Furthermore, several workshops or panels are held once every six weeks.
This meeting of the minds has allowed Snow to use of what he calls the "incestuous" world of tech startups and connect to leaders from competent businesses. One of is own mentors is Jonathan Dube, the overall manager of CBS Interactive. The other is Gregory Miller, an investment banker, who’s in a position to advise Snow about the world of finance. (Each fellow is assigned two mentors, with some overlap.)
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Although Snow speaks highly of this program, he has ideas for how it may be improved. Since it stands, networking is left up to the fellows’ discretion. There exists a "go forth and connect" attitude following the first week, he says, and it might be nice if get-togethers were more frequent therefore the startup founders had an improved chance to "serendipitously connect" with one another.
The mentors, 44 altogether, are all volunteers, and frequently make their own work place designed for workshops and other program events. Cohen describes his fellow mentors as "prima donna types, but they’re prima donnas with big hearts who sense they have to help the brand new York startup community."
Swaminathan says this program will ultimately be looked at successful if its fellows’ companies grow in revenue and jobs, and if the amount of nominations and applications continues to improve every year.
Lily Liu, a 2013 fellow in the NYC Venture Fellows Program, in the offices of her company PublicStuff, which uses technology to boost communications between city governments and their citizens.
"I’m looking for excellent, unbiased sounding boards," says Lily Liu, another current fellow, when asked what she hopes to escape the fellowship. She actually is the founder and leader of PublicStuff, a company that aims to greatly help city governments better talk to their citizens to resolve problems.
Furthermore, she hopes to tap her mentor Charlie Kim’s "wealth of experience in managing people." PublicStuff is continuing to grow from five visitors to 20 within the last 12 months, and she thinks Kim — the CEO of NextJump, which gives employee rewards for 90,000 companies globally — might help her to establish guidelines for employee management.
"It’s a casino game of who you understand," Snow agrees. "That is the game you play as of this scale."
And as this program becomes more well-known, what’s already a prestigious fellowship could become highly coveted. The connections it provides could be invaluable to high-aiming entrepreneurs — individuals who, as Shane puts it, "’re going after something big and who need big connections to create those ideas happen."
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