Techstars revisited: 3 Charlotte founders reflect on 13 weeks in Austin

They’re back.

The founders of three Charlotte startups — Haley Bohon of SkillPop, Meggie Williams of The Waggle Company and Dina Carey of Milkful — headed to Austin back in January to take part in the 2018 Techstars Austin accelerator program. They spent 13 weeks digging into their business, soaking up the advice of dozens of mentors and reformulating how they operate and where they’re going.

On Friday, they shared the candid, gritty details of their experiences at a panel discussion hosted by StartCharlotte and Hygge, held inside Hygge’s newly opened digital learning lab, The Nest(Photo courtesy of The Littlefield Co. and Hygge).

The conversation touched on everything from how they got into Techstars, what they got out of it, what it was like living together for the 13 weeks of the program, and, most importantly, what’s next. Below are a few highlights from our conversation.

On why they picked Techstars:

Meggie Williams: For us, being part of the Techstars network, the mentorship opportunities, getting the toolset to do more faster was definitely the goal. We didn’t really know what to expect. Mostly it was just, “There seems to be so much value-add here. Let’s go see what that is.”

Dina Carey: The network is really what I was looking for. I say that it was kind of the hug around my business I was looking for. I’ve been on my own in my business, trying to figure things out for a long time. And I still very much am. In this program, I felt like I would have some resources to turn to. That was really the main driver for me.

On being in the program and out of the day-to-day:

Haley Bohon: Ten companies went through Techstars Austin — a variety of industries, a variety of stages. I would say the three of our companies were probably the furthest along there. We had teams [back home]. We had classes that had to happen, dogs that had to be walked.

There were other companies there that were earlier stage. I had moments in the program when I was definitely jealous of the companies where there were just three founders, and they were together all the time, just building the thing and soaking in Techstars. I think there were benefits for sure about being at the stage we were in when we were going through the program, but that was a hard thing. We’d be in these workshops. We’d have a mentor meeting and feel really energized about where we were going, and then trying to communicate that over Slack or over a video call [with our teams], that’s a really hard thing.

It really challenged my communications skills as a leader, really helped us start some conversations about good communications practices as a team. It was one of those things that hopefully made us better.

Williams: One of the best things about having both me and my husband/co-founder away from our team was to witness how empowered they were and how well it went — because we weren’t sure. We were always in the room with them. And we were like, “What’s going to happen? Did we equip them? Did we support them? Is this the right decision for our business?” That went through my mind all the time.

We are a logistics company. We do over 200 visits a day. We have 60 employees. It’s a big operation, and being away from our team and watching them just thrive just made me realize, do I even need to be here? That made me realize how big this could be, that we’d built something that can scale.

On living together — for 13 weeks:

Bohon: I was the hesitant one about living together. There’s this memory that I’ll never forget: It’s December. I’m at Meggie’s birthday party. We’re having a great time, and we were talking about Techstars. And I kept kind of skirting the question about living together. And it’s 11:30 p.m., and we’ve maybe all had a couple of drinks. And I just remember Meggie coming around the corner and saying, “You’re gonna live with me, and you’re gonna love it!”

Williams: And she did!

For me, living together was one of the best parts of the program, hands down. There was something so important and valuable about that. We were not competitive. We supported each other’s successes. We even helped each other through the interview process. From day one, we just really thought this was a good opportunity, and we just wanted everyone to get in and to get the most out of it.

Carey: I knew I wanted to do it because I just did not want to even think about living out there and going through it alone. It was a big transition for me, those 13 weeks. I have two little girls here and a husband, and he really stepped up during this time and was amazing. But I was doing the cha-cha each week, flying back and forth, and it was awesome to have them to return to and not feel like I was alone.

On the takeaways:

Carey: The biggest value that I got out of the program, for sure, was the confidence to think really big about my business and to feel like it could be a billion-dollar business. I did not really give myself permission to think that big before, but it’s totally possible and it’s totally going to happen for us.

I feel like I have a very clear vision now for where I’d like the brand to go, and I am fundraising to build up the team to help get us there.

Williams: We know who we are. We did a little bit going into Techstars. But I think we are very confident now about who we are, and we know where we’re going.

We raised our first round of funding back in February. So we’re taking that and really our plans are to expand in other markets, while still maintaining and enhancing the quality we provide.

In addition to new markets, we’re looking into new verticals. We provide this specific service that has a deep need, and we are exploring other ways we can provide other types of services that really fit into our wheelhouse. And we’re hiring a lot of people. Yeah, it’s a big, pivotal time in our company.

Bohon: I’m having a lot of conversations lately where people are like, “I’m really excited to see what happens.” And I’m like, “Me too, man.” Where we are right now is the not sexy, under-the-hood stuff. It’s all the things we’re going back through and saying, “How can we do this better? How can we do this more efficiently?” We’re restructuring the way our team operates a little bit. So it feels like we are just heads down, knee deep in a lot of weeds — in a really good way.

My hope is that gets us where we need to be to start growing faster. We’ve opened in these other markets in Raleigh and Greenville and Nashville. We’d like to be doing more classes there. We’d like to be doing more classes in Charlotte.

I am constantly getting the question, “How will you build a big company in Charlotte?”

It makes me really excited to get that question all the time because this is an amazing place to start a business. We can build incredible businesses here. So I want to throw that out as a challenge to the room: Let’s make this a really badass city that everyone wants to start a company in.

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