Today’s jobtalk is with James Smits, a brand-new college graduate who works at TigerLabs, downtown Princeton’s first co-working space for emerging start-up companies. Smits joined TigerLabs this past February to help coordinate and oversee its first summer accelerator program for college students, which is housed in the Tiger Inn.
Title: Program Director
B.A. Economics and Certificate in Environmental Studies, Princeton University, 2012
How did you get involved with TigerLabs?
I know a lot of people in the entrepreneurship community at Princeton. I worked for a start-up last summer, and I realized that is where I wanted to be – involved with start-ups. A buddy of mine connected me to Bert, who’s one of the co-founders of TigerLabs. He knew that Bert was looking for someone to fill a program director position at TigerLabs. At that point I was contemplating a couple of job offers, but I was much more interested in working for TigerLabs, so I decided to go for it.
Why take this route over another?
Throughout college, I was studying water. My first two years at college I studied it in a very academic fashion, but I wanted to try studying it in a non-academic light. I come from a very academic background. Both of my parents have been in academia, and I never really had exposure to the private sector. I got connected to Banyan Water, a start-up based in San Francisco, and that’s the company I worked with last summer.
There were 8 of us in the office… I loved the atmosphere I was working in. It was so lighthearted. I wore jeans and a button-down shirt to work everyday. I also felt like I had a much larger impact on the company than I would have working for a financial services firm that employs 20 thousand people working in 17 different countries where you don’t have a connection to the end product.
Princeton University does a lot of things really well. However, I don’t think the university highlights entrepreneurship as a career path as much as it should; it just doesn’t do a great job of connecting you to entrepreneurial opportunities.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be the one starting the company or investing in the company, but I knew that I wanted to be somewhere in that space. When the TigerLabs opportunity came up, I latched onto it. I spurned several much larger offers to come to TigerLabs, and I’m having a great time.
What is your role at TigerLabs?
I coordinate the day-to-day activities of the accelerator. I started in February, so first we conducted the application process. There was a lot of outreach to the universities and connecting to a lot of different entrepreneurship clubs. Once the applications were submitted, we had to select people to interview then figure out who we wanted to admit to the program. We had to work out the details of finding a place to house the program. I was a member of Tiger Inn, so I helped to arrange renting the space here.
Now that we’ve started, we have to keep track of all of the companies and coordinate with mentors, speakers, and advisors; this process involves a lot of email.
How many companies applied to the program?
We had about 200 applications. We interviewed about 50 companies and there are 7 companies in the accelerator.
Wow! It’s quite competitive.
When they applied, everyone was able to answer the academic questions – describe business plans, competition, revenue models. But what was unique about the companies we accepted to our program is that they all had a product. They had something built and product that we could actually critique. On paper, you can twist a lot of different stories, but seeing what teams can build says a lot about their talent – things that aren’t manifested on a paper.
How did you go about promoting the TigerLabs accelerator program?
It’s important to note that our participants come from all over, not just Princeton University. We canvased 15 universities for applicants. We reached out to the entrepreneurship clubs at other universities. The entrepreneurship club at Princeton University also helped to connect us with other entrepreneurship clubs at colleges. Through emails, phone calls, and Skype conversations we were able to establish a base of people who were willing to share information about the summer accelerator program. People really wanted to help build an entrepreneurial community on the East coast.
How does the TigerLabs accelerator help its companies?
In addition to the funding that we are providing every team, they have access to this co-working space here. Each team has been assigned a mentor – someone that they are supposed to stay in touch with on a weekly basis that can help track their progress. The mentors were chosen based on domain experience. That is, we make sure to connect each start-up company with a mentor who really understands what it takes to create the product the company is working on or one in a similar vein. We also have speakers coming in who are entrepreneurs, investors, and operational executives. They all have backgrounds in starting companies, building companies, scaling companies and investing in companies.
Every time that someone comes to our office, it has to be education for the teams. Otherwise it is just wasting their time. They have 11 weeks, which is a very short amount of time to go through the accelerator process. A lot of the teams have been pulling all-nighters.
We’ve also done an NYC tech-trek in which we took the teams to see different entrepreneurs and investors.
Our program culminates with Demo Day, when each company presents its company to an ocean of investors and entrepreneurs.
The goal is for every one of these companies to receive follow on financing. To continue these companies they need more money. If they do receive financing, it’s up to the teams whether or not they want to take a gap year to pursue their start-up or not. We won’t make that decision for them. That’s something that differentiates us from other accelerators. What’s really important to us is that we show students that entrepreneurship is a viable career path for them to take upon graduating from college.
We are using the lean-startup model. The companies don’t have a lot of money. While we are in a luxurious space, the companies realize that they have to get work done. They’re in here with their nose to the grindstone.
They are learning things every day that they’ll never be able to learn in a classroom. Even if they are taking a class where the goal is to make a company. It’s not the same. You’re not pulling all-nighters and working 24-7 on one company. Even in my position, I’m learning more and more.
Who are some of your entrepreneurial idols?
You can’t have this conversation without saying Steve Jobs. The Steve Jobs biography should be mandatory reading for aspiring entrepreneurs. A good friend of mine, Josh Miller, dropped out of Princeton to work on his company, which is doing really well. He took a big leap of faith, and I really admire that. Gregory van der Vink, who is a professor at Princeton, and probably the person who encouraged me most to take the position at TigerLabs, is another person who inspires me. He is a proponent of triple bottom-line entrepreneurship. That means that not only are you profitable, but you are socially and environmentally responsible. I took 2 classes with him in my senior year, and I can say without a doubt that he it one of the smartest and most fascinating people I’ve ever encountered.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
I should preface this by saying that I’ve never started a company. I’m probably the last person that anyone should be asking advice about this from. But I can speak from an investment perspective and how we assess teams. Make sure to have a strong team; don’t do it all alone. Find a market that is large and untapped. Do it at the right time. Have a good idea. And ultimately, have faith in your idea because you’re going to have a lot of people say, “You’re doing this wrong.” But you are the biggest proponent of your company. And at the same time, you have to be willing to accept advice.
What’s one thing on your desk that you can’t live without besides your computer?
Hmm. That’s an interesting question. Sunflower seeds, and they have to be in the shell.