Hitting the Accelerator
by Avery Chenoweth
When we decided to work together last spring, Eva and I could not have said that we would get here. Not that we have a crystal ball, Tarot cards, or tea leaves to help us see into the void. But with great products and grateful clients, we gave it six months to see what we could create of this company, now called Dr. Eva SkinCare.
From our table at Wegmans, we gazed out across the landscape and identified the milestones. First, re-brand the company; second, re-design labels accordingly; third, identify best-sellers and let the myriad other products rest; and others. We hit them all, of course, and happily. Yet the most distant summit in our view that caught the sun was this one: apply to the i.Lab.
The i.Lab is a startup incubator at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School. It’s open to the public and students, and each year as many as forty or fifty companies apply, and somewhat less than half are accepted. The incubator runs intensively for ten weeks of the summer. A number of companies have launched from the lab, though as its director, Jason Brewster, told us, their mission is to train founders to run their companies. After the ten weeks end in August, seminars and mentoring follow over the year to keep your momentum going until you launch on your own.
I have been through the program before. And I know how critical the programs can be. During the summer accelerator you dive into every aspect, from creating a Minimally Viable Product, to identifying your market, finding your niche, and sales, and then, if necessary, finding investors. In 2014, my startup was a history gaming app for Harpers Ferry which is now in the Apple Store; although it’s still running, the company is not. Acceptance into the lab would be a crucial step for us.
The day we pitched two weeks ago, in a Shark Tank style, we were both on a serrated edge of anxiety. A month of work had gone into distilling the application essays, and a few rehearsals only reminded us that we were not performers, to put it mildly. Then, when they called us into the pitch room, our nine months of work came down to the final six minutes, as if we had been working against this clock from the start.
Eva lifted her open palm and started.
We came alive. Eva delivered a lovely and concise pitch, sweet and to the point, and with symbiotic timing, we fielded all their questions.
As we left, several judges asked for samples--our product tray looked like a donut box in a fire station. A good sign, we thought.
Then something weird happened. We didn’t get in, but got an invitation to come back and answer more questions: natural, given the brevity of the interview. Not that we expected to get in automatically, but we did think the presentation was strong. So we went back to talk it through.
The first question Jason asked, reasonably, was whether I was intended to be the CEO. Together and on key, Eva and I belted out, “Hell, no!” She is the CEO and Head Chef, while I handle design/marketing, and sales. We may swap hats, but not that of the CEO which is hers.
But would I benefit from a second time in the Lab? A good question. My answer wasn’t this metaphorical--but imagine attending a sports camp one summer to play baseball, and then five years later to play soccer. Would the same camp benefit you the first time only? Two different sports, or companies, require different skills and strategies. So, we told our story, and went into some detail.
That story is crucial, from the branding deck by my former i.Lab peers, Alex Lumain and Victoria Tran, to the art design by Lauren Braier. Our work has been serious--details beyond the interview’s time constraints.
Eva outlined my role, which was crucial, for while hers is self-evident, mine is not. She credited me with the six months of milestones, as well as my energy and enthusiasm as the catalyst for getting us here.
Jason thanked us and reassured us that we would know something soon.
The next day, we drove around, checking out prospective clients. No emails; no pings. We went home, our heads full of suspense.
The snow fell overnight, and the next morning everything was closed. With no one at work, our snow day turned into a limbo.
Then, 2:11 p.m.--a ping. It was the news. We were in! We’ve been accepted into the 2019 i.Lab cohort. Next steps are already lined up.
A new horizon looms ahead of us now, one dotted with new milestones. A new timer has started. We are beyond excited. When we found out we got in, Eva and I both felt a jolt of traction, that delirious sense of motion that makes you jump and then hold on, as it starts taking you into all the years ahead.