IVCA Preview: Troy Henikoff, Managing Director of Techstars in Chicago, on Their Upcoming Demo Day on September 29, 2016

One of the most successful start-up accelerator programs in Chicago is Techstars, an annual mentorship course that allows entrepreneurs, start-ups and companies to participate in a 13 week seminar that teaches them how to improve and execute their business ideas. The program culminates in Demo Day, which takes place at the House of Blues in Chicago on September 29th, 2016. Troy Henikoff and Brian Luerssen are the Managing Directors of the Chicago branch of Techstars.

Techstars is based in Boulder, Colorado, and has a global footprint. The Chicago branch began locally as Excelerate Labs – which was the brainchild of Sandbox Industries, the I2A Fund, Sam Yagan (OK Cupid, Sparknotes) and Troy Henikoff – before it merged with Techstars in 2013. Demo Day has become one of the most anticipated investor events in Chicago, and Troy Henikoff spoke to the IVCA to offer a preview.

IVCA: You are doing the Techstars program to position the Demo Day in early fall, as you did last year. What did you find out about that later Demo Day that had you start the program around the same time in 2016?

Henikoff: The timing just worked better. We used to have Demo Day the last week of August and it turns out that a lot of investors were still on vacation then. By moving it to September, all the summer vacations are over and there is still enough time for investors to get to know the companies, and make investments before the holidays slow things down at year end.

IVCA: As we've asked you the last several years , what did you note in 2015 that you've improved upon before you began the program in 2016?

Henikoff: We have done a number of things to improve the peer-to-peer bonds that are developed. We have a weekly dinner that is just for the CEOs, same thing with the CTOs. Every Friday we have a meeting where all the participants share their KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and goals for the upcoming week with the entire cohort. And every Wednesday we have dinner as a cohort, and bring in a successful founder to tell their story.

The Techstars network, with other founders from the program, other Chicago founders and with the entire network, is one of the most valuable things we can provide for the long term. We had a lot of great feedback on the VIP Investor Sessions last year [private pre-Demo Day presentations with the founders] and will be doing it again this year. That session is only open to investors who have previously invested in our companies, but with six years behind us, there are over 150 people invited!

IVCA: You've been associated with the national Techstars program since 2013. What have they taught you about the local program and what have you taught them that they've incorporated into the national sphere or the other Techstars locations?

Henikoff: The VIP Sessions are something we borrowed from Boulder, and the Founder Stories was something I first saw in San Antonio, We have a program manager this year for the first time, which is something that most of the other locations have had for years. I am sure there are things we have contributed too, like having mentors do the introductions on Demo Day and how we run Mentor Month.  Each of the locations tries variations on the program and we share the things that work best!

IVCA: You have one of the most diverse array of entrepreneurs than in any year that I can recall. What is the Chicago philosophy when picking potential ‘stars’ and why do you think it has resulted in the spectrum of businesses categories such as food, sports, fitness and collectibles?

Henikoff: While they may seem diverse from the outside, with many different types of businesses – a hardware company for the first time, plus B2B and B2C – they all have one important thing in common...they are all focused on growth. We have oriented the entire program to emphasize customer acquisition. In doing so we had to pick companies that needed less time with product-market-fit, underlying technology or positioning, and allows them to focus on growth. The lion’s share of our time is the focus on getting customers!

IVCA: How have entities like Techstars and your Chicago variations on it changed the landscape of incubators and mentoring programs?

Henikoff: I hope, and I believe, that all the Techstars programs are continuing to improve, while setting a higher and higher bar for how organizations can help start ups.

IVCA: What do you want to remind investors of, in regards to their potential interest in the Chicago Techstars Class of 2016, using past success examples?

Henikoff: Well, clearly the frontrunner is SpotHero – they are now parking over one million cars per quarter. There are many other examples that are less mainstream, but still doing great. Orbeus had a very nice exit with its sale to Amazon last year. TradingView over a million users on their platform. And shipping company ‘71 lbs’ continues to grow their revenue in a methodical and profitable way.

The more outside-the-box companies like GameWisp is changing how gamers monetize their presence online, and is growing rapidly. ClutchPrep continues to add courses, universities and students to their platform, which helps college students learn more, and faster. Those are just a few of our success stories, and in 2016 we’ll be adding some more.

Techstars Demo Day is Tuesday, September 29th, at the House of Blues – 329 N. Dearborn in Chicago. Click here for more information. For a list of the participating companies at Demo Day, click here. Follow Troy Henikoff on Twitter @troyhenikoff