Recently, my co-founder Paolo released an article on the 50 best startup accelerators in the US.
In it, he shared an in-depth process of how to apply for the top 10 on that list and included reviews of each.
One of those reviews came from 500 Startups Alumni, Bethany Stachenfeld.
She’s the co-founder and CEO of Sendspark, a startup that’s revolutionising how companies connect with their customers using video communication.
In just three years, her and her co-founders have raised over $1 million in funding, and Sendspark has quickly grown to over 10,000 users.
So I reached out to Bethany, to see if she would mind sitting down with me to discuss her time at 500 Startups, and how it helped her find success,
Luckily, she was able to take some time out of her busy schedule to do just that.
The result is an interview that takes a peek behind the curtain at what it’s like to be part of 500 Startups. Bethany also shared some great tips for applying to an accelerator as well as valuable startup advice any founder can benefit from.
About Bethany Stachenfeld & Sendspark
Rui: Bethany, thanks for sitting down with me today to share your story of working with 500 Startups. To start, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company, Senspark?
Bethany: My background is in email marketing. I was the Head of Marketing at two other startups before starting Sendspark. I was trying to do a lot of email outreach at my previous company and found that the more I tried to make emails sound more personalised the more generic they became.
It’s really hard to show that there’s a human behind the email. I was working with my now co-founder at the time, who’s a designer. I was complaining to him saying “What can I do? How can I make these emails look better?” He said, “Why don’t you put a video in the email? Like a talking head”.
So we experimented with using video but found the tools that existed at the time just weren’t built for customer communication. There are loads of video recorders like Loom for internal communication but when it comes to creating more of a marketing strategy around it, you need something that (1) looks really nice and integrates with the other tools you’re using, and (2) has to have all this data analytics that’s feeding into the CRMs and providing better insights. It’s not just a video tool; it’s a revenue tool.
This was all happening about three years ago, pre-covid. We were trying this out while working at our previous company and decided, we need to go all-in on this and try it properly.
That was the end of 2018. In 2019 we officially launched Sendspark with a focus on video emails to connect with customers.
Since then the whole world has changed thanks to COVID. We’re still really big on video but we’ve expanded from email marketing to all kinds of sales and customer communication. With Sendspark, you can easily create personalized videos at scale, which is especially helpful for sales prospecting and customer success.
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Why Did You Apply for a Startup Accelerator?
R: Why did you decide to apply to a startup accelerator?
B: My co-founder and I were first-time founders – we’d both worked at startups for a long time so we were familiar with the startup ecosystem. But it’s vastly different when it’s your own company. There’s so much you don’t know.
I liken it to how teenagers think they know it all. We went in thinking “We worked at startups, we know everything!” But, every day we were learning more and more that we didn’t know.
So one, we wanted the accelerator program but, more importantly, we wanted a community of founders. We felt it was important to broaden our network and connect with Silicon Valley – without having to move from our home in Santo Antonio.
R: My company works mostly with startup founders, and I know that being part of a community that can help you enhance your product is invaluable. But I often see founders that are very overprotective of their idea – and are reluctant to share it.
What’s your take on that?
B: An idea is great, but the value is in the execution. Even since our original idea three years ago, our product has evolved so much. If you share your idea and learn from feedback on the product before you build it and try and sell it you’re gonna save yourself a ton of hurt.
For the most part, when it comes to an idea, you’re still trying to figure it out, so share it. Even now, I’ll go to happy hours and talk about features we’re considering and ask people if they would use them. Normally after a beer or two, people are more than happy to share their thoughts and tell the truth.
So I’m not scared to share ideas.
Why Did You Choose 500 Startups?
R: And that’s something we see in successful teams. If you get out there and talk to people, investors, early adopters, etc. you’re more likely to succeed.
It’s different when there’s IP around it, of course, but in most cases, it’s just a matter of being more open and benefitting from the ecosystem.
The reason I asked is that it seems to be one of the reasons you chose to work with an incubator – to share your idea and get help making it better.
But why 500 Startups specifically?
B: I’ll start by saying that there are a lot of options out there, and it comes down to who you mesh with – for us that was 500 startups.
One thing that we really liked about them is that when we talked with them about our ideas and our focus on product-led growth, which is where our background is.
They completely understood that.
They loved it and they had great ideas to create and evolve the product.
Other accelerators were more focused on us getting a sales team and a sales strategy, but we were committed to focusing on the product.
We just didn’t align on the vision for the startups’ growth. Even if the milestone is the same, you have to align on that growth strategy for it to really work.
We really liked the people and we completely aligned with them. They also have a huge global founders network which, as a remote team especially, makes you feel like part of a global community, not just a Silicon Valley bubble.
It comes down to the people, at the end of the day and we just aligned with them the best.
How Long Did the Application Process Take?
R: How Long Did the Application Process take? From filling out the initial application to acceptance into 500 Startups.
B: We didn’t get in the first time we applied – we were “too early”.
We just kept sending them (video) emails., To be honest I think I was emailing them every month just asking “How about now?”
It’s so funny because founders get so annoyed when they get told “it’s too early” but in hindsight, we joined 500 at just the right time. If we had done it any earlier we would’ve still been building out the core features and we wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the networking, the advice, etc.
So when we first applied we were too early and we just kept sending a lot of video emails using our product which I think helped.
In fact, when they told us we were in, they told us by recording a Sendspark video and emailing it to us.
How Was Your Experience at 500 Startups?
R: Can you describe a typical week at 500 Startups?
B: So you meet with your investment lead once a week. Then you meet with your EIR (Executive in Residence) twice a week.
The EIR is someone you get to pick to work with you. It’s not one size fits all and we told them up front that we wanted an EIR with experience in the video industry who’s all about product growth.
They somehow found two people who fit the bill – both of which were amazing. We chose who we thought was best and it was a match made in heaven.
There was also a weekly standup with founders and then there was a long list of optional events.
R: What was the best thing about your experience at 500 Startups?
B: The people. Not just the people we worked with there, but the people we’ve stayed in touch with and continued to work with as we’ve grown Sendspark.
R: What was the worst thing (or what didn’t work) about your experience at 500 Startups?
B: I wish there was more in-person stuff. When we went it was the most pandemic-ey part of the pandemic so we were fully remote – there was nothing in person.
Although – they are adding that now! They have regular founder retreats and in-person mixers that are open to both current founders and alums.
I think being fully remote, you lose that ability to make informal relationships. When we were there they made tons of introductions for advisors, investors, mentors, etc. which was really helpful.
But it wasn’t like, here’s a happy hour and we have these people here, mingle and talk to everyone.
I do think there’s a benefit to being in person and letting serendipity happen. That’s why the hybrid model is great.
It’s what we do at Sendspark. We’re never going to have an office but we try to have at least two offsites a year. Like in a few weeks we’re going to Columbia to stay in one huge Airbnb together for like a week.
That way we still get to meet and be together – I feel like 500 is going that way as well.
R: What would you say are the main benefits of working with 500 Startups?
B: Community. By that, I mean a group of advisors that can help you find more customers and avoid making common startup mistakes. One of the best things I got from 500 Startups was a “buddy” who helped me a lot and who I still keep in touch with regularly.
His company is doing phenomenally, but it’s at a later stage than ours. Every time we speak he’ll tell me what he did wrong and give me tips on how to avoid making the same mistake.
I’ll bring him an idea and he’ll say “Well, we tried that and burnt $8M in the process so please don’t do that.” So it’s a big help.
All in all 500 startups helped us make sales, get funding and avoid many mistakes on our journey.
Also meeting other founders and having the ability to bounce ideas off each other.
It also helps you access the startup community without having to live somewhere like Silicon Valley or New York City.
R: What are the downsides of working with 500 Startups?
B: Well, they take some of your company. Around 6%.
But that’s a real champagne problem in the long run – if they take a lot of money from the company, we’ll be so successful it won’t matter.
I know other people have wanted to do 500 Startups but didn’t want to give up equity or were just at a much later stage.
For them, 500 Startups has a fund that they use to invest in companies, so there is a way for you to access the community without doing the accelerator.
R: Are you still in contact with 500 Startups and/or their Alumni? What support do you still get from the accelerator and its community?
B: I’m still in contact with the team from my batch, despite the fact they’ve moved on to other funds or startups themselves. We still talk to a lot of the founders – for example, I met with an investor the other day who invested in a different startup in my batch.
It meant that we were able to ask the founder of that startup for advice about the investor. He’s been working with this investor for a few months so I could ask about the relationship and how it’s been going, which is really beneficial.
500 Startups has also started doing founder retreats and happy hours in New York, so I’m able to go to them and network with even more people. It’s hard to give a specific answer to that because it’s a day-by-day kind of thing. If I need something, I can reach out and get answers. The channels are very much open.
What Advice Do You Have for Entrepreneurs Applying to Startup Accelerators?
R: Finally, what advice do you have for an entrepreneur/founding team who’s about to fill out applications for accelerators or incubators?
B: One, persistence is key. We applied twice, which I think is pretty normal. Then we kept bothering them regularly.
But I’d say that’s also good startup advice. Take “no” as a “no right now.”
Everything you do as an early-stage startup can change on a weekly basis. Nothing is permanent in your startup so don’t take a “no” as permanent either.
My other piece of advice is to remember that the people you’re involved with in the application process have a lot of decision-making power. More than that, if you get in, they’re people you’re going to be working with the entire time.
It’s really worth investing the time to build good relationships with them and make sure you like them.
Especially early on. Because if you’re going to apply multiple times, which you most likely are, you’re going to keep coming back to the same people. It’s not a one-way interview process where you’re trying to simply impress them.
It’s much more of a business relationship. You should be challenging them as well and see if there’s a click between you.
Thank You, Bethany…
… For taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to me.
Bethany touched on a lot of things in this interview. But, for me, one of the most important takeaways is her emphasis on “community” in the startup ecosystem.
For a long time now, I’ve said that people are the most important aspect of your startup. And every time I sit down with a successful entrepreneur, like Bethany, it reinforces that opinion.
So, whether you decide to apply for an accelerator or go it alone, just remember to build good relationships with the people you meet along the way.
You never know how much it may benefit your business.
Good luck and thanks for reading.