The first thing to know as a founder in Tacklebox Accelerator is that you will not “move fast and break things.”
That mantra, once touted by Facebook and other tech companies, is antithetical to the Tacklebox approach to entrepreneurship. At the first of each session’s six workshops, Tacklebox founder Brian Scordato says as much to the founders seated before him.
Instead, Tacklebox is about making slow and steady progress. Case in point: Scordato advises the founders not to quit their day job until they’re (almost) certain their business is viable.
Launched in 2015, Tacklebox is a six-week program during which Scordato guides about eight founders, many of whom still have full-time jobs, in bringing their business ideas to fruition. Tacklebox isn’t an accelerator in the traditional sense: Founders don’t give up equity in their companies; instead, they pay $2,500 to attend what can seem like “startup school.”
The goal, Scordato said, is to show founders that successful entrepreneurship is, above all, “practice-able and teachable and learnable.”
Entrepreneurs who keep their day jobs may be more successful in the long run
Admittedly, the slow-and-steady strategy isn’t the sexiest. A story about an entrepreneur who up and quit her day job to pursue her startup dreams is generally much more compelling than an entrepreneur who waited it out until the time was just right.
But Scordato makes a persuasive case for caution. “You’re always proving that this is worth your time,” he told me.
“A lot of our founders have really, really good jobs and they’ve busted their asses to create a little bit of savings,” he said. “Most of our founders don’t come in and say, ‘I hate my job; I want to leave.’ It’s more like, ‘I really, really like my job. It’s helped me gain this certain insight and I want to start a company based on that. But I want to make sure that it’s worth leaving this awesome job for it.'”
What’s more, he said, having a full-time job means you necessarily have limited time to work on your business. So you have to prioritize, and do only the tasks that are most important. “It’s interesting how it works when you force yourself into the confines to really focus on the 80/20 stuff,” Scordato said, referring to the idea that 20% of your efforts often produce 80% of your results.
Scordato’s observations are backed by some research and anecdotal evidence.
In his 2016 book, “Originals,” Wharton professor Adam Grant wrote that, contrary to popular belief, the most successful entrepreneurs don’t quit their day job to start a company. One University of Wisconsin study found that entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs were 33% less likely to fail than those who don’t.
Grant cites the example of Bill Gates, who was testing his idea for Microsoft on the side before he took a leave of absence from Harvard to go all in.
Similarly, Kathryn Minshew, a cofounder and the CEO of The Muse, didn’t quit her job at McKinsey until she was confident in the strength of her business. And the founders of jewelry company Aurate told Business Insider that starting a business on the side, while they were employed at Marc Jacobs and Goldman Sachs, made them better entrepreneurs.
“Some people think about founders and think about startups as 23-year-olds starting something, and it’s actually a good idea for them to do it even if it fails. It’s a cool life experience,” Scordato said. “That’s for the most part not my founders. My founders have enormous opportunity cost for starting these things.”
Scordato also looks specifically for founders who have developed domain expertise over the course of their career. “You should have been subconsciously preparing to build this company for a long time, in a way such that your skill sets and knowledge bases have already distanced you from any competition,” he said.
Indeed, an MIT study found the average age of a successful startup founder is 45. The study authors found that work experience explains much of the age advantage. They write in the Harvard Business Review,”Relative to founders with no relevant experience, those with at least three years of prior work experience in the same narrow industry as their startup were 85% more likely to launch a highly successful startup.”
If a founder goes through Tacklebox and decides not to pursue their business idea, that’s still considered a success
The most recent cohort of Tacklebox businesses included a dating app, a startup to make travel more comfortable, and a career-management platform.
I sat in on two of the workshops and listened to a recording of a third. At the first workshop, Scordato told the founders that sometimes, people get to the end of the program and realize they don’t want to launch their startup. “That’s OK, too,” he said.
I was skeptical: Who spends six weeks and $2,500 only to realize, oops, their business idea stinks? But the Tacklebox alums I spoke with said they’d rather spend some time and money to realize their business idea isn’t workable than quit their jobs and blow a huge amount of cash, only to reach the same conclusion a year down the line.
Shawn Cheng, a partner at the venture production studio ConsenSys Labs, has been a mentor to Scordato and to Tacklebox founders; he told me that the biggest value of the program is learning “how to learn,” or learning “how to walk away.”
Most startup accelerators take an “all or nothing” approach, Cheng said, in that you either build a company or waste everyone’s time; Tacklebox is geared toward founders thinking that “they have an idea and they want to be testing it, and they want to be talking to more people about it, but they’re not quite sure how they should validate it in order to put everything else in their lives on hold to pursue it.”
Sam Alston, the founder of Big Lives, which identifies up-and-coming fashion designers, was in the eighth cohort of Tacklebox, in 2017. She credits the program with giving her the confidence to leave her job, as a client development director at Louis Vuitton.
Alston said she frequently recommends Tacklebox to aspiring entrepreneurs, noting that Scordato is transparent about the fact that “the skills that you gain should allow you to then test any business idea” — not just the one you’re currently working on. “It’s really selling a framework rather than consulting on a specific business.”
Scordato also told me that a handful of founders have gone through Tacklebox with one business idea, realized they didn’t like it, and waited another year or so before going through Tacklebox again with a better one.
It’s a program Scordato might have benefited from earlier in his career. In the past 11 years, he’s launched three startups, aside from Tacklebox: a recruiting platform for college basketball, a dating app, and a social-networking app. None of them are still in operation.
Scordato’s real talent seems to be spotting other entrepreneurs with potential and giving them the guidance and mentorship they need to develop their nascent businesses. He also brings in a series of outside experts, including successful founders and investors like Cheng. Each cohort of founders gets a chance to pitch their businesses to a group of investors, less to convince them to sign on and more to get feedback about how well they articulate their business’ mission and goals.
Unicorns aren’t the only startups welcome at Tacklebox
Tacklebox has fed a few startups into Y Combinator, such as The Lobby, which gives job candidates a chance to chat with employees at top finance firms. While its founder Deepak Chhugani was in Tacklebox, he and Scordato devised a plan to get him into Y Combinator. Tacklebox also introduced Chuugani to Angela Lee, the founder of the venture-capital firm 37Angels and chief innovation officer at Columbia Business School, who wound up investing in The Lobby later on.
Chuugani is glad he went through Tacklebox before Y Combinator. He told me that, in Y Combinator, after three months, if you don’t think your idea is viable, it’s a much more high-stakes situation. “You’re forced to find any idea that might work,” he said, “because now you’ve raised money from the accelerator.” He added, “YC changed my life,” but “you should be a little bit prepared to know what you’re getting yourself into if you’re going to raise money.”
Despite Chhugani’s success, Scordato said that the majority of Tacklebox startups aren’t suited to Y Combinator. The Lobby “has the potential to be a very high-growth, very huge exit sort of company,” but it’s an exception.
Some founders go onto more niche accelerators, like New York Fashion Tech Lab — but for about half of Tacklebox startups, Scordato said, “maybe they need a little bit of money to build the initial tech platform, or they need to hire someone to do that, but it’s not going to be a big challenge. They can start operating and become profitable quickly.”
Lee, the 37Angels founder, said Scordato and Tacklebox are more open-minded about success than most other startup accelerators. That is to say, getting into the uber-selective Y Combinator isn’t the only measure of success.
Lee mentioned the concept of “lifestyle startups,” a term that’s emerged in the last decade to describe a business that doesn’t need venture capital and won’t necessarily be worth $1 billion, ever. Lee said the term is often perceived negatively; but lifestyle startups, she said, are welcomed at Tacklebox. A lifestyle startup can still bring in $10 million a year, she said — and “since when did making $10 million a year become a failure?”
“We LOVE those,” Scordato wrote in an email, referring to lifestyle startups. “What we really stress is that companies that could be great lifestyle businesses and probably won’t be unicorns shouldn’t try to become unicorns. They should build sound, revenue-generating businesses that can build great products at a high margin for a (relatively) small group of customers.”
In an irony that’s not lost on its founder, Tacklebox itself is one such startup. “I love that Tacklebox is practicing what it’s preaching,” Cheng said. He mentioned that Tacklebox has already gone through several iterations, holding workshops on weekends, mornings, and evenings, and offering higher and lower price points.
“It’s got to be scary for Brian,” Cheng added, “but I commend him for that and for not being afraid of trying new things and experimenting.”