What It’s Really Like To Survive The Founder Institute

The Founder Institute is a pre-seed accelerator that helps early-stage startup founders go from idea to launch. Although the Founder Institute is the largest pre-seed accelerator in the world, it’s surprisingly hard to find an objective review—click through the search results for “Founder Institute review” and you’ll quickly discover that people either really love it, or they really hate it.

As a graduate of the Founder Institute, I wanted to provide a detailed account of what the program is like, from someone who made it all the way to the finish line. So, if you’ve been accepted into the Founder Institute (or are considering applying) and are trying to make sense of these extreme reviews, this article is for you.

How The Program Works

Before we jump into the reviews, let me provide an overview of how the Founder Institute program works. I attended the Silicon Valley program (albeit virtually, thanks to the pandemic), but you can expect the same structure regardless of which program you choose. There are four main components to the Founder Institute program: weekly assignments, meetings, mentor reviews, and epic sprints.

Weekly Assignments

The Founder Institute curriculum consists of 13 weeks of assignments. Each assignment is centered around a different aspect of building a startup—from customer development to building a product to financials and funding. (You can read a detailed description of each week’s theme and assignment here.) We were also required to submit a video of ourselves pitching our startup within a given time limit every week—starting at 1 minute, then moving to 3 minutes, and eventually extending to 5 minutes. 

Meetings

To kick off each week of assignments, the cohort meets with three mentors who have expertise in that week’s topic. Prior to the weekly meeting, a handful of startups are selected at random to deliver their pitches live. During the first half of the meeting, the mentors rate and provide feedback on the pitches. Each mentor scores every pitch on a scale from 1 to 5—5 being the best, 1 being the worst—but they’re not allowed to give any 3s, forcing each rating to be definitively positive or negative. In the second half of the meeting, each mentor gives a presentation on the topic of the upcoming week’s assignment.

Mentor Reviews

In addition to the weekly assignments and meetings, there are two major “mentor reviews” during the program. The week of a mentor review, every startup in the cohort pitches to a panel of mentors for ratings and feedback. The scoring system is the same as the weekly pitches—1 to 5, but no 3s. The ratings you receive during mentor reviews affect the final program component: epic sprints.

Epic Sprints

If you receive a below-average rating from the panel of mentors during a mentor review, you’re given an extra assignment, called an “epic sprint.” Epic sprints consist of an extremely difficult task that’s selected for your company based on what the Founder Institute leaders think your biggest weakness is. You have to pass your epic sprint in order to remain in the program.

Those who pass all of their assignments and epic sprints graduate from the program and give a final pitch at the cohort graduation. After graduation, the Founder Institute gives you access to additional programs and resources exclusive to graduate companies.

My Personal Experience

Now that you have a general understanding of how the Founder Institute program works, let’s talk about what you really came here for—an honest review. I’ll break my review down to address each component of the program that I mentioned above: assignments, meetings, mentor reviews, and epic sprints.

Weekly Assignments: Good Structure, Lots Of Work

One of the main things that attracted me to the Founder Institute was the idea of structure. Although I had worked at a startup for a number of years before starting my company, I had never built one from the ground up—and I had no idea where to start. The weekly assignments walk you through everything you need to do to get your startup up and running—something that I definitely needed at the time.

The downside to the weekly assignments is that they’re a lot of work. The Founder Institute website says that the assignments take 20 hours a week, and that people who join are able to maintain a full-time job while going through the program. The assignments took me a lot longer than 20 hours a week—most weeks, I spent over 40 hours on the assignments.

That being said, the weekly assignments are really what you make of them. You don’t receive grades or written feedback on the weekly assignments—all that really matters is that you submit them. It’s up to you to decide how much work to put in and to seek out feedback from mentors during their office hours. Even so, I don’t think I would’ve been able to work full-time and attend the Founder Institute at the same time.

My biggest takeaway from the weekly assignments was gaining confidence in my leadership skills and my ability to prioritize. The assignments mimic what it’s like to lead a company in the real world—there’s always a ton on your plate and never enough time to get everything done perfectly. So although the weekly assignments were a lot of work, they honed my ability to identify the most impactful use of my time, and helped me shake a perfectionist mentality that otherwise would have held me back as a founder.

Weekly Meetings: Presentations Varied, Office Hours Rocked

The amount you learn on a given topic is really dependent on the mentors who present that week. Some presentations were absolutely amazing, some presentations were less impactful. Not for lack of expertise—the mentors were extremely knowledgeable across the board. Some were just more engaging than others.

The mentors’ real value isn’t in the presentations though, it’s in their office hours. Like the weekly assignments, office hours are what you make of them—you can meet with mentors as much or as little as you please. Personally, I made a point to meet with at least one mentor per week to ask questions and get feedback specific to my company. I would trade those meetings for the weekly presentations a thousand times over.

Mentor Reviews: Tough Feedback, Excellent Experience

I can’t overstate how valuable the weekly pitch practice is. The time limit progression over the course of the program is actually brilliant—it forces you to nail your core value proposition before thinking about any additional details. Because the mentor panel is different each week, you walk away with a wide range of opinions and advice. And the formula the Founder Institute teaches for creating a pitch deck has proved to be a winning strategy—since graduating, I’ve been told on multiple occasions that my deck is top-tier.

The unique scoring system the Founder Institute uses—the scale from 1 to 5, but no 3s—is very effective in drawing out constructive criticism from the mentor panel each week. It’s extremely rare to walk away from a mentor panel without scoring a 2 (or 1) from at least one judge. I imagine this is the source of a lot of the reviews saying the feedback is too harsh—getting a low score isn’t fun, and it happens a lot. But you come out better prepared for the real world, with the resilience to persevere when an investor turns you down.

Epic Sprints: Survive Terror, Gain Traction

I’ll let you in on a little secret: no one makes it out of the Founder Institute without getting an epic sprint, even if you receive above-average scores on all of your mentor reviews. There’s always one week where the entire cohort gets an epic sprint. And with the threat of getting axed from the program looming, getting an epic sprint is terrifying.

As if the high stakes and ticking timer aren’t scary enough, the tasks you receive in epic sprints are extremely difficult. I was tasked with getting at least 5 companies to either pre-purchase my product before it was built, or to sign a contract saying they would buy it when it was ready. One of my fellow cohort members in the B2C space was tasked with getting at least 200 people to sign up for his waitlist. No matter what task they select for you, you can guarantee it’s going to be tough.

The silver lining is that completing an epic sprint like the ones above is guaranteed to demonstrate traction—something that’s not easy to do as an early-stage company. So while the sprint itself was super stressful, it helped to further validate my business, improving my chances of success down the road.

Conclusion

I hope my recollection of my experience helps you get a better feel for what it’s really like to survive the Founder Institute. In summary:

  • It’s a ton of work, but I liked (and needed) the structure at such an early stage.
  • Mentor presentations are hit or miss, but the mentors themselves are outstanding resources if you take advantage of their time one-on-one.
  • The feedback is tough, but the amount of experience you get pitching your startup (and fielding the tough feedback) is invaluable.
  • Putting in effort is up to you, but if you do, you’ll walk out with solid foundations and early-stage traction.