Failure and Other Life Lessons from Techstars CEO Jenny Lawton
By Veena McCoole
Techstars Chief Operating Officer Jenny Lawton recently spoke at a Yale Women Innovators event where she discussed her career trajectory, emphasizing the importance of failure. She spoke, too, of the worldwide startup community Techstars which offers a variety of entrepreneurship initiatives, corporate collaborations and accelerator programs.
Lawton graduated from Union College in 1985, where she was an Applied Math major. Her first job was as a secretary at a small consulting engineering company, where she found ways to implement more efficient and streamlined systems in the company’s operations, and made suggestions to management. After a negative experience as a computer network manager at another firm, she moved to a role in real-time systems at MIT. After that, she landed her first role in an entrepreneurial company, and relished the collaborative energy. “That was when I knew that I enjoyed the atmosphere of entrepreneurship,” she said.
Lawton then launched her own information technology consulting company, Net Daemon Associates, which provided companies with systems administrators. “It is a high turnover role,” she said, “and in small companies the CEOs often function as systems administrators, which is an inefficient use of resources.” Net Daemon drew clients like MIT, Apple and OSF. The company began with two people, and when Lawton sold it to Sage Networks a decade later in in 1999 its multiple offices employed 55 people. The company went public a month later as Interliant Inc.
Lawton then became entrepreneur-in-residence for Brad Feld — now a cofounder of Techstars — at Softbank. After exploring the independent bookstore scene in Greenwich, CT for a few years, she returned to work in technology. Feld suggested that Lawton explore a role in 3D printing at MakerBot, where Lawton took the company from 40 to 650 people and supported the executive team.
Lawton re-joined Feld and has been involved since the beginning of Techstars in multiple roles. “At almost every point along the way, I took a job that I didn’t know how to do, but that I just thought was cool,” she said. “I like people to know that you can go work at a lot of different places and there doesn’t need to be a direct path.”
Today, Techstars is a global entrepreneurship and innovation community. The company hosts large events and startup weekends in 150 countries, and thousands of startup programs each year designed to encourage team and startup formation. Techstars Ventures funds Seed and Series A rounds for members of their network, which participants in their accelerator programs are automatically admitted to. Techstars has 34 accelerators in 12 countries, with its newest one opening in Hartford, CT, forming a truly international network of expertise and funding. “
There is a lot of opportunity in Connecticut that is not being leveraged, and Connecticut needs this,” Lawton said of the new Techstars Hartford. Their accelerator programs run for 14 weeks, where they admit a cohort of 10 founders. “You come in with specific goals of where you want your company to go, and accelerate your business towards those goals,” Lawton said, emphasizing that the company focuses chiefly on team and potential. “Techstars is a massive worldwide network for life, with thousands of founders and ambassadors. The larger the network, the higher the value.”
Techstars takes 6% equity stake in the companies in its accelerator program, provides funding of $20,000 and the option of a $100,000 convertible note. Lawton explained that there are fewer early stage ideas within the accelerator, and that most companies have an minimum viable product or are at least at the Series A stage.
“It’s all about team, and we’re not terribly married to what people are coming in and saying that they will do,” she said. “We’re asking ‘What is the better go-to-market strategy for that’?” Lawton also said Techstars strongly prefers cofounders to solo entrepreneurs. “We’re not big on people who don’t have cofounders,” she said. “Awesome ideas are great but if you don’t have people to do them with, it isn’t great.”
Lawton concluded by speaking passionately about the importance of failure and figuring things out along the way. “Adaptability was really important in my lifestyle [as a traveling member of a military family],” she said. “There was no safety net for me, I wasn’t going to have money if I failed or didn’t do something, so I just had to do it. There wasn’t anything to lose.”
She added that society has done a disservice to today’s youth by not letting them fail, and that failure is not something that young people today are used to or experience. She pointed to this as an issue that varies across cultures. “We have an accelerator in the UAE, and failure is going to be a hard part of that culture,” she said. “Failure is not one of the words that they have.”
Veena McCoole (YC ’19) is the YaleWomen Innovation Fellow at Tsai CITY.