Justin: I am co-founder of PurposeMatch.com, formerly known as SPARXlife. At PurposeMatch we create web and mobile based software that helps people discover a sense of purpose in their lives and matches with real opportunities to live that purpose – colleges, online classes, jobs, books, events, etc.
What kinds of challenges was your company facing when you decided to apply to the accelerator?
Justin: Like most startups we lacked the capital to build a business. But, I think the big reason why we lacked the capital is that we were really unclear on what our business model was going to be. We had all of these different ideas about directions that we could go. Directions that we thought might work, but we were really struggling with a bit of analysis paralysis in terms of trying to figure out what our business model should be.
We were really looking for the opportunity to really drill into the best way to monetize this vision that we had. We were really looking for feedback that could help us make a decision and move forward with that.
How did the accelerator help you overcome those challenges?
Justin: We loved every minute of the accelerator. There were moments that were challenging, but I think one of the best aspects of the program was the mentorship that we received. We had a variety of mentors that were available to us. They really pushed and challenged us on the best way to build our business and drive it forward.
I wouldn’t say that we completely changed our model. By working with the mentors we were really able to refine our model and be more specific about what we were going to do and in what order. Equally important is that we learned to defend that model. We learned how to tell our story in a better way so that we could get started in the right direction and speak to investors, partners, and customers in a way that really made sense.
How did your business strategy change during the accelerator?
Justin: It was really a refinement of how we thought about what we were doing from a business model perspective. We knew that we wanted to match our users with the opportunities to live this sense of purpose that they discovered through our products. We had in mind colleges, jobs, etc. But, we started to think about the value of our business, not just around those matches, but in terms of the data that we had and the value of that data.
We walk these users through a discovery process that helps them learn a lot more about themselves and, in doing that, generates a lot of really useful data. That data can not only allow us to match them with colleges or jobs but, all kinds of things. We can find products and services that really fit them. I think that helped us to tell the story of our value in a more cohesive way to potential investors.
Who was your favorite person that you met through the accelerator and what impact did they have on you?
Justin: That is almost impossible to answer because there were so many people that really benefitted us. One person is Mike Whitaker, who really pushed and challenged us. He brought a lot of great ideas to the table as did our other mentors, Michael Sitarzewski and Mike Yonker. We had quite a few Mikes that attributed a lot.
Ken Parker was a source of inspiration and really brought us a lot of confidence. He’s a really successful guy who believes in what we are doing. That means a lot to us. And Kraettli Epperson, although he wasn’t one of our official mentors, he supported us along the way and really believed in us.
There were dozens of people who had a huge impact on us, including our colleagues in the accelerator program. They really inspired and challenged us as well and I think we built potentially life-long friendships with everyone in the program.
One of the things that I appreciated about the program that I hadn’t anticipated was the relationships that we built with the other startup companies. We weren’t dealing with a situation where any of us were competitors. We had synergies and we really enjoyed getting to know and learn from each-other. Ultimately, I think we kind of became each-others best cheerleaders as we went through the program and prepared for Pitch Day. That is a value that we are going to take with us as we move forward that we didn’t anticipate coming in. I’m really excited to see the success of the other companies as we all go forward.
What was your favorite part of the mentoring experience?
Justin: I’ve heard it said by other people from other accelerator programs that there is this thing called mentor whiplash that you get. Basically, what happens is you come in and you have all of these mentors and you get all of this great advice from them and, often, it points you in different directions. Then you are weighing all of that against what you already believe and know about your business. At some point it becomes overwhelming.
What we realized as we moved through the program is that there is an opportunity in every mentor engagement to learn something valuable.
I think we started out going into those meetings trying to defend our business to our mentors. Finally, what we learned is, if we can just sit back, listen, and just absorb, we can learn something useful from every mentor. At the end of the day it was still our responsibility to take all of that, weight it, keep that pieces that were valuable and throw out the one that we ultimately couldn’t make work to build the business the way we wanted to.
It was a great way of checking our assumptions and values. We learned something every time, but we also learned to stick to our guns when we knew that we had it.
During the accelerator, what workshop was your favorite?
Justin: The workshops, like the mentor meetings, always offered something. There were several that I wen t into thinking, “this is going to be huge for me,” and others that I thought: “Well, I kind of already know this stuff, but I’m going to learn at least one valuable thing in this workshop.” That never failed to happen.
One in particular that stands out now in retrospect is the workshop by Dunlap Codding on IP Law. That one proved to be very valuable for us. It is nice to be able to ask legal questions for free from smart people who know what they are talking about. There was a lot of value there. Ultimately, we ended up working with Dunlap Codding after that workshop and out of that came our name change! So, that was a really important one for us.
What did you like most about Pitch Day?
Justin: Both of the Pitch Days were awesome. I really enjoyed being done at the end of the day and the conversations that we had with investors afterward. If I had to pick, I would say that my favorite part of the day was being on stage. There was a lot of stress and anxiety that went into planning that out and putting the presentation together. But, by the time we got on stage, we were ready. As people that have really been working on this for a long time, really trying to build this vision that we believe in so much, to have the chance to be on stage and really share that vision with a room full of people and getting to tell our story was a really powerful thing.
What would you tell other startups about how to get the most out of the accelerator experience?
Justin: Treat every mentor work session and workshop as an opportunity to learn. Allow yourself to be challenge. We as entrepreneurs come into these programs believing so much in what we are doing, that it is sometimes hard to take a step back.
We say that it is hard to see the picture when you are standing in the frame. So, you have to allow yourself to be challenged by people who are looking at your business from the outside and really learn from them. Incorporating what they say is a hugely valuable opportunity.
That being said, there is also the opportunity to learn how to draw the line when it comes to that; to really stand your ground when you really believe that you’ve got it. Then move forward with confidence. Both sides of that coin are available through this experience.
Another thing I would say is that I think we had really high expectations for the amount of product that we expected to complete before Pitch Day. I think that is a good thing. It is great to challenge yourself to get as much done as possible. The more that you have done, the more valuable your business will be on Pitch Day.
At the same time, it is important to balance the amount of time that you are really cranking with the opportunity to network. What you are learning and doing is really only half of the value of the program. We met a lot of really great, smart, and really well connected people through the program. Had we not taken the time to step away from the product and engage with those people, we wouldn’t have built those relationships that have ultimately proven so valuable in the fundraising process.
So challenge yourself with your product, but know that it is okay to not get quite as far into development as you’d like to if that means having the time to network and build relationships that could be valuable to you down the road.
Why did you choose to apply to VentureSpur?
Justin: We were based in Los Angeles and there is a lot of noise in the startup world in California, both on the accelerator side and the entrepreneurial side. There are a lot of startup businesses in California fighting for attention and a lot of really established accelerators.
Frankly, I was kind of excited about the fact that we would only be in the second class. I knew that the VentureSpur team would be working especially hard to bring value to the companies. There is something to be said for that. There is something to be said for being in a market that isn’t as saturated in terms of building a tech business and being part of an accelerator program.
I think we got more attention from our mentors and maybe more attention from the investment community and partners in Oklahoma City and Dallas. Ultimately that has been a good thing for us and our business.
How has the post-Pitch Day transition gone?
Justin: We have continued to engage with some of our mentors since the program. That has continued to be valuable. We’ve continued to find value in the challenges that they offer us. The most exciting thing since the end of the program is that we are having success in our Angel round fundraise. We are getting close to closing our round. In fact, we may raise more than we initially set out to raise!
I think a big part of that is the fuel that we got based on VentureSpur having believed in us. VentureSpur invested in us financially as well as in terms of time and energy. I think that has done a lot in convincing other investors that we are a worthwhile investment.
For more information on PurposeMatch, visit www.purposematch.com!