Candid Advice for Founders as Kinect Accelerator Deadline Hits

2/7/12Follow @curtwoodward

Long hours, breakneck deadlines, high stakes, and conflicting advice—it’s all part of the package when entrepreneurs submit a few months of their life to an incubator program in hopes of creating the next big thing. Not surprisingly, some groups crumble under the pressure, says TechStars Seattle director Andy Sack.

“The number one risk facing your company—whatever your business is—is internal combustion. That means team breakdown,” Sack said last night at a preview of the Mirosoft Kinect Accelerator program in Seattle.

Microsoft is partnering with TechStars for the three-month accelerator, which will be housed in Microsoft offices in the South Lake Union neighborhood—right next to Amazon headquarters.

Teams that qualify for the program will be developing businesses that use the Kinect on the Xbox 360 video game console and the Windows operating system. They’ll get access to a star-studded cast of mentors, including people inside Microsoft who are pushing some of the boundaries of the Kinect device, and a $20,000 investment from TechStars in exchange for 6 percent of the company.

Applications are due by tomorrow (Feb. 8), and hundreds have already poured in, with ideas ranging from advertising and entertainment to healthcare, education, and even manufacturing. The final 10 proto-companies to make the accelerator will begin their work in Seattle on April 2.

Sack and 2011 TechStars Seattle alum Russell Benaroya, co-founder and CEO of EveryMove, were on hand to give possible accelerator applicants an idea of what’s required to thrive in a TechStars-style program. They didn’t pull any punches, describing an intense experience that doesn’t always end well.

“There is nowhere to hide when you are surrounded by nine other teams that are, while collaborateive, also competitive,” Benaroya said.

One unnamed team in the last TechStars Seattle group “blew up” on the first day, Benaroya said. Another, LikeBright, broke apart shortly after the program’s Demo Day in November and has regrouped with one of the original founders taking on a new technical partner, Sack said.

Even groups without significant internal conflicts can run through huge changes to their idea or approach at a dizzying pace, and face what Sack called “mentor whiplash” from getting opposing advice from seasoned entrepreneurs and investors helping out with the program.

It’s the entrepreneurs’ job, Sack said, to take all the criticism and advice, but make their own decision about the best path for their startup. That instantly reminded me of this recent story about TechStars Seattle 2011 grad Romotive, which said a lot of mentors didn’t think their concept for a smartphone-driven toy robot would fly until a campaign on Kickstarter showed significant support for the idea.

But I don’t want to give the impression that their advice was all a huge buzzkill. It was candid advice for people considering taking the plunge into an intense experience that can hone their ideas into viable businesses. Seven of the 10 TechStars Seattle companies from last year have already raised financing, Sack said, with another apparently on its way. That includes Benaroya’s company EveryMove, an online platform where workers can earn rewards for healthy behavior—it’s raised $1.5 million so far, and is on track to make about $500,000 in revenue this year, he said.

“I guarantee you will put in more energy and effort—I don’t know if I’ll say more than you ever have in your life … but we are going to have fun while we work hard,” said Dave Malcolm, a former Microsoftie and TechStars mentor who is directing the Kinect Accelerator.

Here’s a short video of Microsoft’s JP Wollersheim showing off the Kinect hardware with Windows via the iClone 3D animation software from a company called Reallusion.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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