IVCA Profile: Troy Henikoff, Managing Director of TechStars Chicago, on the Upcoming August 27th Demo Day

IVCA Profile: Troy Henikoff, Managing Director of TechStars Chicago, on the Upcoming August 27th Demo Day

August 20, 2014

Demo Day in Chicago has become one of the most anticipated investor events of the year, thanks to the tenacity and creativity of Troy Henikoff, the founder of the accelerator program and the Managing Director of TechStars Chicago. TechStars is an annual program that allows entrepreneurs, start-ups and companies to participate in a summer program that teaches them how to improve and execute their ideas. Ten companies are in the Class of 2014, and will show off their presentation prowess to a room full of investors on August 27th, 2014, at Chicago’s House of Blues.
 
TechStars is an accelerator based in Boulder, Colorado, and last year merged with the former Demo Day facilitator, Excelerate Labs, to create TechStars Chicago. The second year under the TechStars banner has not only increased the number of applications for participant consideration, but has given it a higher visibility nationally and internationally. Excelerate Labs was the brainchild of Sam Yagan (OK Cupid, Sparknotes) and current Managing Director Troy Henikoff.
 
The IVCA talks to Troy Henikoff every year to gauge the evolution of this essential TechStars program, and also to provide the rundown for the upcoming Demo Day for international, national and Chicago investors.
 
IVCA: This is your second year under the TechStars banner. What has that organization given the program – that began from Excelerate Labs – and what was your input to them that they liked the best?
 
Troy Henikoff: It is great to have the muscle of TechStars behind us. They help with a myriad of things from marketing the program, we get about twice the number of applications that we used to, to accounting and fund management. Our companies get exposure to people like Brad Feld from Foundry Group, who meets with the participant CEOs every week during the program. 
 
I would like to think we have contributed to them as well. Many of the other TechStars locations are now following our ‘Entrepreneur's MBA’ format for the middle month of the program, we have enhanced the communication between locations and many other little things that we have contributed as it has evolved.
 
IVCA: Do you feel the program is running on its own more smoothly, or are you still making adjustments and doing things differently from 2013 to this year?
 
Henikoff: Each year it runs more smoothly as we improve, but at the same time we are always trying new things and testing new ideas. Last year we added ‘Hackstars’ – highly skilled software developers and designers who work with our companies all summer – and it has been a huge benefit to the companies in the program. This summer we added the concept of ‘Lead Mentors’ – with each company having one Lead Mentor who meets with his/her company weekly and helps guide them through the program. This year we are also adding an ‘Investor Day’ after the Demo Day with 100 slots for investors to have one-on-one meetings with the companies that they are interested in.
 
IVCA: In your experience, what do you think distinguishes an idea that eventually works from an idea that has difficulty finding its legs?
 
Henikoff: I am amazed at how many people think that the value is in the idea. I would say that 95% of the value is in the execution. We focus on finding great entrepreneurs who are coachable and know how to execute, execute, execute.
 
IVCA: What characteristics separate the Class of 2014 from previous classes. Were you impressed more with the originality of the ideas, or the work ethic of the participants?
 
Henikoff: We have a few companies that are further along on their lifecycle than in the past – one company will have over two million dollars in revenue this year, and that’s the more than  any other company that has ever participated before. We also have more companies with deep industry knowledge – we have at least four that have been working in their respective industries for five or more years. These are not just ‘innovative new ideas,’ but people that know what the real pains and opportunities are in their industries, and are now delivering solutions to them.
 
IVCA: Regarding Demo Day, what have you learned about investor feedback and reaction to it that allows you to best prepare the ten entrepreneurs for their presentations?
 
Henikoff: That each year the presentations seem to get better. I am not sure how 2014 will outdo the Class of 2013, but I am sure they will.
 
IVCA: Since business is so competitive these days, and great new ideas so rare, what are the best means to protect an idea in today's environment, and how does a budding innovator know the difference between a serious offer and suspicious promises?
 
Henikoff: Since the real value is in execution, it is my firm belief that you should be sharing your idea with lots of people, and you should be getting customer feedback as often as you can. Once you realize that your ‘idea’ is not unique, it becomes obvious that you need to better understand your customer’s needs and provide better execution for delivering a solution. Keeping the idea to yourself – and trying to build a solution in a vacuum – is a sure way to end up with something nobody wants.
 
IVCA: Finally, give us a rundown of the events of August 27th on Demo Day, and what spectators and entrepreneurs can expect from it?
 
Henikoff: We are opening with a Keynote Address from Tom Ricketts – most people
know that he and his family owns the Chicago Cubs, but many do not realize what a great entrepreneur he is – and what his story was before taking over the Cubs. We will have the ten
companies pitch, and then we are trying something new. Our post Demo Day networking and happy hour event will remain at the House of Blues, so nobody has to leave the venue to join in on that event. It should be a great day.
 
Demo Day is August 27th, 2014, at the House of Blues, Chicago. For details regarding the ten companies participating, click here. For more information regarding TechStars Chicago, click here.