Ep. 225 – Erin Stadler, Managing Director of Boomtown Accelerators on Evolution of Accelerators, Corporate Partnerships, and COVID’s Impact

Ep. 225 – Erin Stadler, Managing Director of Boomtown Accelerators on Evolution of Accelerators, Corporate Partnerships, and COVID’s Impact

On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Erin Stadler. She’s the managing partner at Boomtown Accelerators. Erin and Brian Ardinger, Inside Outside Innovation, talk about the evolution of accelerators, how corporations are tackling the space, and how the impact of COVID is impacting innovation.

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, founder of insideoutside.io, a provider of research, events, and consulting services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption. Each week we’ll give you a front row seat to the latest thinking, tools, tactics, and trends, in collaborative innovation. Let’s get started.

Interview with Erin Stadler, Boomtown

Erin Stadler, BoomtownBrian Ardinger:  Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Erin Stadler. She is the managing partner at Boomtown accelerators. Welcome Erin.

Erin Stadler: Thank you.

Brian Ardinger: Hey, I’m excited to have you on the show. You and I have crossed paths a couple different times in the accelerator space. Let’s talk a little bit about what is Boomtown accelerators.

Erin Stadler: That is a great question, because we’re actually going through a phase where we’re just seeing so many things shift out in the industry. There’s a lot of questions about what is an accelerator and where do we want to go with the industry. But right now, Boomtown at its core, we’re a company that’s been focusing on entrepreneurship and how to elevate the entrepreneur to get their idea out there. And right now, we’re doing that by partnering with some really amazing corporate partners. The main one right now being Comcast and the sports tech accelerator that we’re about to create.

Brian Ardinger: I wanted to have you on the show, because again, you’ve been in the space of accelerators. You and I both started early days, eight plus years ago, I guess, in this space and accelerators have changed quite a bit. And so, I wanted to have you on the show, partly to talk about that evolution of accelerators and what have you seen that’s been good, bad, and indifferent, and where you see it going. Let’s start with the history of how Boomtown accelerators got started and what you’ve seen over the last decade or so of how accelerators have changed.

Erin Stadler: Boomtown got started like a lot of companies in a new emerging marketplace, so we’re actually almost eight years old now. So, we were one of the first accelerators in Colorado. We actually did start in the backyard of some other famous accelerators. But at the time, it was definitely during that stage where a lot of people were starting accelerators. There was a bit of a me too, if you could build a mentor community, and you could get some investors, and could attract some startups., Tada! You had your accelerator. But what we’ve learned over the last few years and many iterations, one of my founders will say we are probably the biggest skeptics when it comes to accelerators, which makes us want to just continually to evolve and adapt.

And we’ve gone through a lot of different stages with the help of some amazing partners. Along that journey, we realized that it has a lot more to do with helping the founder be prepared in launching that startup. While connections are important and they’re great. What can you do that is really impactful? And frankly, that is a much, much harder job than setting up a demo day and setting up some mentor meetings. I hope we see other accelerators do that, but it’s the thing we’ve tried to do is challenge what truly is impactful for a company at its early stage. And we found that there’s just a very different model to make that successful.

Brian Ardinger: Let’s unpack that a little bit. I think back in the days when accelerators got started, it was more of a deal flow thing for VCs or the community to kind of see what was out there and invest at early stages at a low valuation and kind of see what happens from that perspective. And like you said, it probably wasn’t always, or at least depending on the accelerator, wasn’t always set up to support the founder. What did you learn in that early stage that made you think, okay, well, we can do this differently or support founders in a different way?

Erin Stadler: You know, it was the founders themselves. So, a little bit of like the customer doesn’t know what they want. So, and this is still true today, you know, when we’re talking to startups, you know, startups are attracted by the names of the partners. They’re attracted by the names of people in your mentor pool. Right? It’s all about if I can just meet that right person, right?  Unfortunately, it’s a little bit how the social construct or the myths around what basis successful startup has been formed, but what’s really happened is at the end of working with us, we’ll go back to the startups and say, Hey, what was actually the most impactful?

And that’s actually where we got most of our learnings and our insights from, and the sort of things we heard, it was sitting down with someone, working through them with the strategy, helping them understand if they have the right mindset. As a friend of ours would say, how to unlearn some bad habits. And set them up for success. And while that included great connections, it was less about the star power we’ll say, and a lot more about how, and that continues to evolve into, like I said, for the sports tech accelerator, instead of just having a name stamped on there, you know, Hey, you know, you’ll get an intro to the CTO at XYZ company.

We’ve worked very closely with each of the partners and each of the people involved in our accelerator to go, Hey, if you’re involved in this, this isn’t just for fun. Like this is about making an impact and let’s get serious about caring and honest about the time that we have and be transparent about whether we’re on board to make an impact, and then let’s actually do that. So, everyone leaves feeling like, Oh, people were authentic and honest, and we’re here to do great businesses, you know, not just make an investment and make a bet.

Brian Ardinger: Let’s talk a little bit about that pivot from, and we’ve saw the evolution of accelerators being primarily designed to help create early stage companies. And then you saw this wave of corporations kind of raising their hand and saying, Hey, this is interesting. We want to get involved in this. And I think he saw a lot of bad habits in that stage, too. A lot of corporations seem to look at it more as innovation theater, as a way to pretend they are involved in the startup scene and that, but not necessarily really understanding how to impact both the founders as well as the company themselves with this. So, talk about that evolution to the corporate accelerator side of the world. And what have you seen there?

Erin Stadler: The first evolution, like you said, it was a bit of me too, again, I think it was fashionable, may still be in some places to have your own health tech accelerator or your own financial one or something powered by this group. The problem with that is one, the corporation only has so much time to work and partner with a startup. It’s like how many FinTech companies can you really help, or can you really impact? And so then what we saw and why we actually never had an accelerator that was a full accelerator, like only focused on one, we’ll say narrow vertical, sports tech is huge, but in a narrow vertical, because then even within that set of companies, they’re competing against each other.

And so then even in that sense, right, you start getting the favorites, you start getting some negative repercussions. When those startups should be helping each other, and the corporation should be helping each other. It goes back to again, what’s the better deal. Who’s the better founder. And so now it’s kind of a rat race again. Then also again, the corporations still have their own business to run and they have stuff to do. And while this is a part of a wider strategy, you are getting the 20% time from people inside those corporations. All of a sudden, it sounds fun and shiny to help a bunch of startups. But again, if you’re not honest about how you can help it’s going to fall away and you’re going to go actually, maybe we’ll only help those two that looked like the best bets.

It doesn’t feel great to everyone. And then honestly, the other thing we’ve seen is a corporation, because if it’s only that kind of surface level, like deal flow aspect of it, the corporation ends up spinning that work inside anyway, and cutting off that external operations of it, which means, again, they’ve missed that ultimate opportunity to partner with an entity that is focused on a very different type of partnership and different support of that entrepreneur. They’ve let it fall back into the VC mindset.

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Brian Ardinger: Have you seen an evolution in that thinking from the corporate perspective of how they want to engage with startups in general? Is it still thought of as those transformational things that we’re not going to be able to do inside? Or is it more close to the core stuff that they’re looking for?

Erin Stadler: It should be yes to all of those things. When we’re working with a corporation that really looks at their larger strategy. Again, it’s not just, we need an accelerator too. It’s a larger strategy, right? If you think about it, an accelerator incubator studio, any of that work can apply at any idea stage, right. At any of those kinds of exploration stages.

And so, we’ve seen is the really smart folks will have an idea stage accelerator, right? How do we really help early entrepreneurs, earlier founders? We actually did that in Atlanta with a program called The Farm. Where it was about people with an idea, how do we help them get to a stage? But there was never an expectation that all of a sudden at the end, they were going to go out and raise a million dollars or raise their Series A. If anything, if there was a company at that stage, they weren’t prepared for that.

But what we loved is when Comcast decided to actually power up, they powered it in their space as a part of an offering to the community. Obviously, that created a huge number of synergies just within the entrepreneurial community, you know, with support. And even for the organization to go, Hey, we’re doing this to help just the whole industry and the ecosystem to kind of thrive and no later down the road that’ll help us.

What we’re seeing now is a lot of those companies, while Comcast is not like a primary customer, that’s the other thing they did is like, Hey, we just want to support entrepreneurs and ideas, those companies, because they’ve been a part of the guidance of those groups, they’re now impacting business units are part of what’s going on.

So like we had a company that came through that was helping diversify grants that were going into an organization. You know, they found that most grants weren’t as diversified as they should be. And so that was their mission to help with that. That group was just picked as like a great idea, but then all of a sudden, it’s like, wow, there’s actually an opportunity to have us. You know, we have an effort like that inside of our organization. But the other key thing there is Comcast wasn’t just like, well, we only want to invest in companies that help us. It was great, you can help us.

But what success also means is you’re set up to help a bunch of other organizations because that company is not going to thrive with one key customer. They’re going to thrive because they maybe have a key pilot customer. That helps them out and gives them a chance, but that they also have a customer in a market that’s beyond that single corporate client. Though it’s a little bit of kind of that corporate responsibility. Maybe when they look at how are we accelerating companies and what are we looking at it?

And then the second part of your question, yes. Then there’s always a strategy to bring in an accelerator that’s focused in on innovation challenges. So, like I mentioned before, the sports tech accelerator that we’re looking at is it’s a wide thesis of eight innovation areas, but each of the partners go well when it comes to sports tech where currently our innovation challenges, it’s no surprise with COVID. They’re looking at when we bring the sports, what do we do around our venue security? What do we do around fan engagement? Where do we do so? Right. A lot of the startups we’re looking at are focused in on those innovation priorities, but again, they have an opportunity to work with more than just the original corporate partner.

Brian Ardinger: I like that approach. And I’ve seen similar approaches, even in our own backyard. We used to run these Jumpstart Challenges where we’d go to the local community and find a corporation that would be willing to support it. And we found the best ones that were a good match for that type of environment were the ones that thought broader about their own industry and broader about hey, this may be great for us.

And yeah, we’ll have a inside track to having some inside information and maybe we’ll get to use this before our competitors, but having that more global mindset around it seemed to both energize the founder because they knew they weren’t going to be just developing a custom solution for XYZ corporation. But also, that it was that first proving ground first beta tester things along those lines that could allow them to then gain traction and learnings as they built out something that could impact the entire industry.

Erin Stadler: So, I’d say our newest adaptation is building out this consortium. So instead of it just being NBC Sports saying, let’s go invest in sports tech. They said, well, heck we work with all these other groups. We work with Olympic groups. We work with NASCAR and we work with Sky Sports and soccer teams like e-sports groups. How do we do this together? But also cross pollinate the challenges we’re having across that. So, we’re seeing, even through this process of like selecting startups to work with, you’re getting all of a sudden NASCAR talking to cycling, going, Oh, the way you’re approaching this, that’s actually very similar to how we’re approaching it.

And you wouldn’t think that. We’re just at the forefront of this, but we’re just seeing some really interesting opportunities. Even within that consortium, again, that myopic view of like, okay, let’s go and change, you know, this sport. They’re like, well, what are innovations that could cross over?

Brian Ardinger: So, let’s talk a little bit more about the sports tech accelerator you’ve got going on. I think, applications are open right now. Walk a person through what that program looks like. Maybe how did it start? And then what’s going to happen once you actually pick companies and move them forward.

Erin Stadler: First of all, with COVID, it’s always a bummer. We want to see people in person, our program is in February, but we don’t know right now. Actually, we’re in the selections process at this point, we’re getting down to the last few companies. So that’s getting very exciting, but a part of that process for those folks that went through it, and we’ll be doing this again next year. Is first, right, we look at all the innovation areas, the challenges, the things that all of our consortium partners are facing. So far, the startups that have come through, they’ve gone through our normal kind of vetting process.

They get to speak with us. We get to explore what they’re doing with their company and where they want to go. But then each of them they’ve already had the opportunity to actually pitch their company to a set of partners that we knew matched up. And we actually specifically look at what is the opportunity for them to impact one or more actually, we like to look for two or more of those partners. Because again, instead of just going, Oh, well you have a fit for one and you might get one, right. We want to maximize that opportunity to maximize that impact for everybody. And just the learning for that startup and for the partners.

Once a company joins the accelerator, we do a lot of early strategy work with them. That’s where we’re about to go through. Cause right, we’re about to pick companies. Now we have four months to the beginning of our accelerator, but we like to roll up our sleeves and get to know them as much as possible. We don’t wait for day one. It’s like, what could we do now? What are meetings? Right? Our partners are already like chomping at like how do we get things started with them? And there’s a lot of expectations about spinning up pilots and POCs with those potential startups too.

Once our program starts, we really focus on shifting the approach and the mindset that the founder is using to build that company. So, our goal specifically with the program is to design something where it’s not about building the perfect plan or building the perfect pitch deck or building a one-off thing. It’s about actually testing and adapting their own entrepreneurial skills or business building skills, finding the gaps, tearing some stuff down, building it back up again. So, by the time they leave, our hope is they have multiple opportunities with partners. We’ve been guiding them through those pilots and POCs as well as helping them approach the learning in a really effective way.

So that’s something, I think that’s a little different. It’s not just, Hey, here’s your introduction to NASCAR. Good luck with that POC. You know, we’re going to be hands-on partners to help these startups, because if they’ve never worked with a corporation that size, or maybe they have, it’s a different industry. We get to be that coach on both sides actually. So we’ll also be coaching our partners on how to work with the startups and vice versa.

We really get to sit in the middle and be that we’ll say trusted partner for both the startups and the partners. So that by the end of this, hopefully we’ve again impacted the industry, the partners, the startups, and we see really cool stuff happening.

Brian Ardinger: I think it’s a very important piece of the puzzle that Sherpa in the middle, really, because corporations don’t necessarily know how to impact or work with startups. If they’re not doing it on a regular basis. Startups don’t necessarily know how to work and navigate a big corporate giant and the politics and everything else that goes along with that. So having somebody who both knows both sides of the table, so to speak is a huge opportunity for folks that are looking at accelerators. And why would I want to go to a corporate accelerator type of program versus trying to do it on my own?

Erin Stadler: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, here’s the thing we know this is our first round with this awesome kind of consortium model. And we know we get to do it a couple more times at the very least and we always adapt. We listen to our startups, right, listen to our partners like any good organization. We focus on what’s the experience of all of our stakeholders and we should be making a huge impact on that startup. A positive way to make sure that it increases the likelihood that they’re going to make the impact that they want to have.

Brian Ardinger: So, the last core topic we’re living in a COVID world that changes pretty much everything. Every business model has to be reevaluated or looked at. What are you seeing both from your business, from an accelerator perspective, what are you seeing from founders? How are they approaching the new COVID world and what are you seeing from the corporate world? What are some of the things that are really, changing the way we’re thinking about these things?

Erin Stadler: You know, it’s interesting because one of the things we like to do with our consortium is we actually do these things called Spark Sessions, where we try to look at timely topics and how things are shifting. And so COVID continues to come up. The reason I’m hesitating answering this question is because I think there’s still so much unknown. And actually, when I listen to people talk about COVID, I’m like, how do you know that? Like, how do you know that’s how people are going to react? I think everyone’s on their edge of their seat to see how things will continue to progress and how will things continue to adapt.

So, I’ll speak for us. From a Boomtown perspective it challenged our model of we’ve always preferred to have people in person. We want to work side by side. We believe in the water cooler moments. You know, I always had an open desk policy where I never had an office. I just sit at a desk. If I was at my desk, you could interrupt me.

Those things aren’t possible in the COVID world. And so, we’re going to spend a lot of time of how do we design in those micro moments and micro interactions that actually build the relationships we need to have. And that’s true with our partners too. I’d say that while we see the relationships building, it’s just not quite the same.

So, we hope, and we’re crossing our fingers that we’ll have an opportunity to bring everyone together in these cohorts are partners, togethers with startups. As soon as we’re allowed to, we’ll be the first ones going, who’s willing to buy a plane ticket and we’ll try to make those things happen. But we know that there’s unfortunately, in my opinion, probably a low likelihood that we’ll get to do that.

Other than that, interestingly, I’m actually surprised how much work hasn’t changed when it comes to just, you know, sports continue. I mean, that’s kind of where our focus obviously. And, you know, and the Olympics are going to now happen next summer, obviously that got pushed out and that’ll be a big component for us. So, people still have timelines in mind and deadlines that they need to meet. And startups are still trying to create technologies and they still believe in the impact they’re going to make. We see that continue forward.

The thing that surprises us is we thought when COVID started that people’s innovation strategies would just shut down. We thought that people would go, right? Cause what’s the first thing people think, we don’t have the budget. Right. You think, Oh, everyone’s going to cut the innovation budget. We’ve actually seen interest in the work we’re doing go up.

And here’s the reason is at least for Boomtown, I wouldn’t say up in accelerators. That’s why, when you asked me like, what is Boomtown, it has a lot more to do with. Who can our trusted partners be to help us shift our innovation strategies that are out there, adapting their models that are out there looking and bringing in the research and bringing me the information I need and being a trusted partner in adopting that strategy, which always includes our external world.

How do you continue to bring those external things to me, especially now that there’s not Collision Conference to go to or South by Southwest to go to? Right. How do I get the opportunity to see all the innovations going out there? That was a surprise to us that there’s actually uncertainty with how do I continue innovation and continue discovering new innovations, when I can’t just go to the event anymore?

Brian Ardinger: Yeah, absolutely.

Erin Stadler: And I think that’s true for the startups too, right? It used to be, you go to a pitch competition. You would go to something locally. So how do we find each other? So, I’d say more than ever having people that act like Sherpas.

Brian Ardinger: Yeah. The curators. Yeah. The folks that can bring those different, the ties and the t-shirts together.

Erin Stadler: Yeah. But I think it’s less around curating events. It’s curating the relationships and being a matchmaker. It’s doing some of the early due diligence to go. I think there’s something here. I think this is worth your time. That’s more specialized than it’s ever been before.

Brian Ardinger: Erin Stadler, I appreciate you being on Inside Outside Innovation to give your insights. And I’d love to have you back on, as we talk about the world and how it is evolving and thanks again for being part of this.

Erin Stadler: No, I really enjoyed it. And yes, as I said, we always have experiments running as you heard from some of my answers and would be happy to do a part two to let you know how it actually ends up.

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


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Episode 225

Ep. 225 – Erin Stadler, ...