Inside the VentureSpur Experience: An Interview with SIVI’s Ashok Kamal
What was your favorite part of the VentureSpur Accelerator experience?
Ashok: My favorite part of the Venture Accelerator was definitely the relationship-building with mentors. When you look at all of the variables for an early-stage company’s success, there’s product and finance. But ultimately, the extent that you can surround yourself with a great support network of advisors who have been there and done that before, is the most enjoyable experience. These people are entrepreneurs that understand your challenges and successes. The piece that I look back on most fondly was being in an accelerator that is mentor-driven, where we were able to network with new people.
What kinds of challenges was your company facing when you decided to enter the accelerator?
Ashok: Well, we were dealing with one of the hardest parts: Getting started. My co-founder, Nik, and I had really just come up with the idea for SIVI a few months before the accelerator began. When we started the program, we were trying to get off of the ground, working on our customer development process and beginning our product. For us, it was just all of the moving parts that you really have to get synchronized to launch your company. That was really the stage we were at when we began the accelerator. Looking back over the course of those three months, as the name implies, it really did accelerate the process for us. It helped us get our prototype out the door faster than we would have on our own.
Ashok: One of the great things about being in an accelerator, for SIVI, is that we are looking to partner with other accelerators to reach the shared target user we have in common, aspiring entrepreneurs. Being part of an accelerator program gave us a lot of insights into what the real needs and pain points were for these kinds of organizations. We could build our product to solve some of those problems and we had firsthand insights into how an accelerator operates. So, we weren’t guessing on what kind of features and benefits we should develop to help accelerators, and their end market of aspiring entrepreneurs, succeed.
How did the business model for SIVI change during the accelerator program?
Ashok: Anytime you decide to start a business, you have a lot of assumptions. You think that the customer wants “X”, but in fact they may want “Y.” You assume that the organization has a specific purchasing process, but you could be completely wrong. I think one of the things we learned while talking to a number of different accelerators, during our market research, is that there is not a lot of spare marketing budget to spend. Accelerators are very lean organizations. We had to change our business model to make it so we weren’t taking a slice of the budgetary pie, but rather expanding the pie for the accelerator by recruiting more users and applicants for them. That was something that we didn’t realize going in. We learned it through the accelerator experience.
What was the most dramatic change in your startup during the accelerator?
Ashok: For us, it was going from paper to product; going zero to sixty miles per hour over the course of a couple of months.
What was your favorite part of the mentoring experience?
Ashok: We were fortunate to have mentors that actually run an accelerator program. For us, that was really crucial. We received direction from people that have hands on experience in these kinds of programs and as entrepreneurs. It really boosted our learning curve a lot. In addition, they’re all just really fun, nice, really great people to have as mentors.
What was your favorite VentureSpur workshop?
Ashok: The workshops covered a diverse range of topics. For me personally, Piyush Patel’s workshop, “Awesome Business Models: How to Find Your Startup” – really spoke to my experience because he ultimately built a really successful e-learning platform in Oklahoma City. We look to him as a role model for what we’re trying to do with SIVI today. His workshop shared his story, which was not only informative, but really inspirational.
What was your favorite part of Pitch Day?
Ashok: I think the great thing about Pitch Day is having your entire three month experience come to a head and getting the opportunity to share what you’ve built with an audience. That’s very gratifying. As entrepreneurs, we often spend a lot of time in our own silos with our heads buried in work. So, when we do get those moments to share what we’ve been building with other people, people that care what you are doing, that is the most gratifying.
What would you recommend to other startups about getting the most out of the acceleration experience?
Ashok: Well, twelve weeks is a short period of time, so to optimize your accelerator experience you have to stretch it out. The best way that you can do that is by conducting research on your own before the program begins. From the time that you get admitted, and even from the time that you choose to apply, you should be doing your own research: Who the mentors are; What your goals are for the program itself. So, that way when you begin the program you can really hit the ground running. It’s really about being prepared coming in. That’s how you get the most coming out of the program.
You were originally based out of New York. What made you choose the VentureSpur Acceleration Program, based in Dallas and Oklahoma City?
Ashok: It seemed like a great fit. My partner, Nik, and I met the director of VentureSpur at a Rice University event and we were really impressed, as a successful entrepreneur, with his commitment to helping other entrepreneurs. Also, the focus of VentureSpur on EdTech also really fit our business concept. We also were really intrigued by the opportunity to build a company in the growing startup community of Oklahoma City as opposed to the saturated communities that we come from in California and New York. As entrepreneurs we always relish the challenge of building. Of course, we’re building a company, but we hope to make contributions to the growing community here in Oklahoma City.
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