There’s been some great discussions recently about the Lightspeed Summer Program (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2380567) and at several of the sessions over the weekend at the Stanford E-Boot Camp (http://bases.stanford.edu/e-bootcamp/ so I thought I’d do a quick post to help answer some of the recurring questions.
Background. I started the program at Lightspeed 6 years ago because as an undergraduate and graduate student I, as well as many of my entrepreneurial classmates, took on “real” internships during the summers in order to pay the bills (rent, gas, beer…). We worked on our startup ideas on nights and weekends out of necessity. When I joined Lightspeed in 2006 and realized that we had the resources to facilitate some number of idea-stage projects, we put together the Summer Program and opened it up to student led teams. Why did a student need to be involved? We had to draw the line somewhere. The program could not be just another entryway for entrepreneurs to pitch Lightspeed. We wanted to target young, entrepreneurial minded people and give them a viable summer alternative to taking that traditional internship.
I know from personal experience just how hard starting a company can be. It’s a BIG DECISION to tackle early in your professional career. Pieces of the program have changed over time, but the GOAL has remained constant since inception and that is simply to give young entrepreneurs the time and resources to fully experience what it is like to start a company.
Purpose. The Lightspeed Summer Program is NOT an incubator, nor was it ever intended to be. We are not looking to fund companies out of the program. Really. I promise. We want people to experience startup life fulltime and have the opportunity to learn if it is something they truly want to do. Is there benefit to Lightspeed? Yes, of course. We hope to build relationships with young, talented entrepreneurs at this stage in their careers. We are in the business of fostering entrepreneurship. We also have a very long term view on what this means. The opportunity to work with bright, energetic people who have ideas about how to change the world is exactly why we do this job in the first place.
Why don’t you ask for equity or a right to invest? It’s funny, people have asked me “What’s the catch?” Or, “It sounds too good to be true, so what am I missing?” I appreciate the genuine skepticism so I want to be as clear as I can on this one. The reasons we don’t require an obligation from the entrepreneurs we accept are simple:
First, we don’t have expectations that the teams we accept will be ready for venture capital during or after completing the program. In fact, I’ve been surprised by the number (12+) that have gone on to receive venture or angel funding.
Second, we look at the program as a way to engage with people at this stage in their careers. If we do a good job and they like working with us, they should want to come back and work together down the road if they want to pursue entrepreneurship. If we don’t do a good job, and they don’t like working with us, well, shame on us(!), but the entrepreneur shouldn’t be obligated to work with Lightspeed.
Evolution. I’ve changed the “rules” of the program over the years to try and make it a better experience. For example: I learned in Year 1 that teams without engineers didn’t accomplish much in the 10 week time frame. Without fulltime “doers” teams ended up with a lot of ideas and power point slides but very few actual results. So we adapted and started requiring that every team have at least one CS or EE major as a way to push teams to have members that could actually build stuff over the summer. Example 2: I learned that what is most helpful to the Fellowship winners in terms of guest speakers and introductions is other young founders who have successfully raised money and angel investors. So I changed our guest speaker lineup and invited fewer attorneys, CFO’s, and recruiters and went with a healthy dose of entrepreneurs, CEO’s and investors. Example 3: Entrepreneurs like lots of free food, so we added more snacks.
If I participate in the program and Lightspeed doesn’t invest, isn’t that a bad signal? This is something I didn’t think about when we first started the program. It’s a very valid concern. The LAST thing I want to do is have a program that creates friction for any entrepreneurs who want to continue to pursue their company after the program. So we made a change. Starting last year, we made a commitment to every team we accept. Lightspeed will invest a minimum of $50k in any Summer Program winner that continues on with a company and is able to pull together a round of at least $500k from other investors. It’s very important to understand that the Lightspeed investment is completely at the entrepreneur’s option. If you don’t want it, don’t take it. But this way, if any investor ever asks, “Is Lightspeed investing?” the answer is “Yes, if we want them to.”
Competition. People often ask or comment about other programs (YC, Angel Pad, etc). I’m thrilled these programs exist and are flourishing. I think the more opportunities out there for young entrepreneurs to try the startup life, the better. We’ve had teams in multiple summer programs in the past and its been great. The one requirement we ask is that teams dont participate in more than one program at the same time.
Resources. The program gives Fellows office space, some funding, VC mentorship (each winning team has a Partner from Lightspeed as a mentor), introductions to founders and angels, and a chance to work on your idea fulltime. I’ve learned that our Fellows also benefit greatly from the camaraderie that emerges from working with other entrepreneurs in a close environment and that these lasting relationships mean a great deal to people.
This program is NOT for people who want a lot of hand holding. As an entrepreneur, I learned you need to be scrappy. The program is designed to give you all the resources you need but ultimately it is best suited for entrepreneurs who just need the chance to make things happen.
Application. We one round for 2012. The deadline for is March 2, 2012 so get them in! Find the app here: http://www.lightspeedvp.com/summerfellowships/