StepFWD is a pre-accelerator program designed for early-stage tech startups with diverse teams. We strongly believe in helping founders to achieve their potential and we do so through several activities and mentorship sessions that take place during the 8-week program. 

If you’re a startup who is considering applying to StepFWD 2020, we hope this article will help shed light not only on what goes on during the program but also what to expect when joining a (pre-)accelerator.

Let’s begin with a story

When my first startup was accepted at the Startupbootcamp accelerator in 2010, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. As an outsourcing company, our team had developed hundreds of projects for clients from both Europe and the U.S. and we thought it would be great to build a product of our own. We were pushed by the desire to create an “independent” revenue stream (meaning not relying on outsourcing contracts earned through referrals and word-of-mouth) and by the idea that “if others can do it, so can we”.

We were deep into the “built it and customers will come” mindset and had no idea on how to monetize a product or create a business around it. We tried monetization through ads and we wasted our energy on developing features instead of coming up with a go-to-market strategy. We felt that something was off and we didn’t know how to fix it, so we blamed it on the local market and moved on to the next project. Finally, we were selected into the first batch of the Startupbootcamp business accelerator.

You may think that luck struck and you would be partially correct – but the reality was that Startupbootcamp was a wake-up call and we all know wake up calls are rarely nice. The flood of mentors, pitching rounds and feedback was overwhelming, up to the point where it made us question our idea. Yes, we did have a lot of technical skills, but no-one was handling marketing and sales, not to mention fundraising. 

We had so many blind spots that we didn’t even know how to count them. So we had to adapt. We quickly figured out that customers only care about you if your product solves a problem. We learned that negative feedback hits you a hundred times harder when it’s related to something you believe in. We realized that strength is in numbers and that beta customers are important even though they don’t pay. We learned how to present on stage, develop marketing strategies and implement a platform that can scale with the number of customers.

And this process didn’t end with the program. The accelerator was the catalyst that started my journey as a tech founder. 

Why StepFWD?

At StepFWD, we understand how difficult it is to build your dream start-up. And we designed the program with first-time founders in mind – as an educational experience that takes you through different areas of expertise which are absolutely required in a start-up.

Diverse teams

We also believe in role models and that we can’t be what we can’t see. Diversity is different for everyone. Our perspective can be easily shifted, and the balance feels altered based on our belief system. 

Our core mission at StepFWD is growing and contributing to an entrepreneurship ecosystem accessible to all aspiring entrepreneurs regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, age, gender identity, LGBTQ, or ability.

From zero to one

Compared to Startupbootcamp and other accelerator programs out there where everything is centered around mentorship, StepFWD gives you the basic tools you need for going from zero to one. In 8 weeks, you will be pushed out of your comfort zone through several activities such as:

  • Workshops
  • Hands-on feedback sessions
  • Office hours
  • Speed mentoring
  • Pitch practice

Workshops and hands-on feedback sessions

One of our core activities are workshops which provide a 360-degree view on topics related to building a startup:

  1. Avoiding common legal pitfalls –  “Startup legal mechanics” with Tudor Stanciu (Co-founder & Independent Lawyer at Digital 2 Law) 
  2. Developing a relationship with your customers – “Customer development” with Raluca Apostol (Co-founder & CPO at Nestor) and Letiția Ștefan (Co-founder & CEO at Nifty Learning)
  3. Monetizing your product – “Business models” with Mircea Vadan (Managing Partner at Activize)
  4. Handling the ever-growing list of product features on your roadmap – “Product development” with Monica Obogeanu (Startup Programs Manager at Orange) and me 🙂
  5. Creating a go-to-market strategy – “Product marketing” with Irina Scarlat (Head of Growth – CEE at Revolut) and Andra Zaharia (Freelance Content Marketer)
  6. Selling to the first customers – Sales & growth hacking” workshop with Gv Freeman (Startup Coach, author, speaker, facilitator) and Ciprian Borodescu (Co-founder and CEO at MorphL)
  7. Presenting your startup – “How to pitch” with Bogdan Apostol (Co-founder & CEO at Nestor) and Liviu Cadariu (Program Manager at StepFWD, Event Manager of TechHub Bucharest).
  8. Managing relationships with investors and raising funds – “Fundraising” with Ciprian Borodescu (Co-founder and CEO at MorphL) and Daniel Dragomir (Co-founder of TechHub Bucharest, Managing Partner at StepFWD).

Each workshop will be followed by a hands-on session, where each start-up will receive 1-on-1 feedback from the mentors on a chosen assignment.

Mentoring

We reached out to experienced entrepreneurs, industry professionals and investors and asked them to become StepFWD mentors. Our mentors volunteer their time for the program and they offer their help generously throughout the activities. Mentors are what make this program unique.

During StepFWD, you will:

  • Work closely with lead mentors, who are people who went through the same difficulties and have the expertise to advise you. Each startup will have a designated lead mentor who they will meet on weekly 1-on-1 calls during Office Hours. Lead mentors will try to assist with whatever problem the startup has at that moment and also help us, the StepFWD team, understand how we can further improve the program.
  • Engage with a lot of mentors through speed mentoring sessions, in a back-to-back meetings format. These meetings are designed to be short and to the point, so you’ll have to speak up and show your startup’s potential in a time-effective manner, while also receiving feedback and gaining relevant intros.

    Just think about speed mentoring as networking on steroids :). It can be overwhelming to meet so many people in so little time, but this is where you can create valuable connections that could help you months or even years in the future.

Pitching

During the second half of the program, we organize a lot of pitch practice sessions. Their purpose is to expand on the “How to Pitch” workshop and help you polish your startup’s pitch in preparation for the final presentation on Demo Day. During these sessions, you’ll receive feedback from mentors who have either pitched their startup hundreds of times or have been part of juries and selection committees where they have seen hundreds of pitches. Either way, they will have something to say, so brace yourself :).

Demo Day

The program wraps up with Demo Day. Mentors, investors, community partners, corporates, press attendees are invited together with the broader community to the event. Each startup will showcase its products and businesses in a 5-minute pitch – hence the many pitch practice sessions before the big event :).  In between where you’ll get the chance to connect with some of them during the event in networking sessions. 

In conclusion

The StepFWD program is designed as a challenge and will take you out of your comfort zone. They don’t call them “accelerators” for nothing :). In a nutshell, you will get:

  • Actionable knowledge
  • Super cool and dedicated mentorship
  • Connections to 40+ investors, entrepreneurs and industry experts from the ecosystem

Still not sure if it’s worth it? You don’t have to take my word for it, you can listen to what our alumni have to say.

Let’s do this together: StepFWD today!