LEVELS 1 through 4: What are we really asking of teams?

This is the part of a multi-part series authored by The Startup Collaborative cofounding team: The Death (or Evolution) of Startup Accelerators and Incubators as We Know Them! Recently, we have tried to shed more light on why elements of The Startup Collaborative’s methodology has taken form in the manner it has. Stories about launching…


This is the part of a multi-part series authored by The Startup Collaborative cofounding team: The Death (or Evolution) of Startup Accelerators and Incubators as We Know Them!

Recently, we have tried to shed more light on why elements of The Startup Collaborative’s methodology has taken form in the manner it has. Stories about launching with at least 20 customers in mind, the importance of early messaging and the need for more prototypes before products have sought to lift the veil even more on what we’re doing.

We’ve been gunshy to share the exact expectations for teams within our fellowship program with non-fellows and non-venture only because we expected minor tweaks and improvements to the program early on. That’s in fact happened. We’ve honed outcomes and reset some of our initial core assumptions as we improve the model. Today, new fellows are executing against version 1.3 of the fellowship program. Other enhancements and upgrades will surely follow.

Our formula isn’t complicated or nuanced or exactly novel. It’s pretty basic stuff. Completely intended to show early signals of product-market fit. Here’s what we’re striving for – and what we expect TSC founders to deliver. Just the essentials – core foundations that every startup should have. No wonky, fake, or unnecessary tasks to complete.

We’re now ready to pull back the curtain and give more visibility into what fellows can expect within The Startup Collaborative. This is a dual commitment. We guarantee to radically improve a team’s odds of startup success. But a concept won’t succeed if the TSC team is working just as hard (or harder) on the idea than the founders are.

Why we’re sharing these expected outcomes?

  • We bet on founders that do the work to validate their market. There is a ton of talk and theory around why to bet on founders. Founders make all the difference in their companies. Here’s the other dirty truth. Founders that don’t do the work to validate their market are just wantrepreneurs. Sometimes, it is easy to confuse confidence with competence. Make no mistake, we expect our founders to be confident, visionary, a real “jockey” worth betting on. We also expect that founders are willing to the do the work to find product-market fit.
  • We must be insanely inclusive. We commonly say,  “I love any concept until the market tells me not to.” Why? Because we don’t want to turn away any entrepreneur willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work. Because, more often than not, we’re not the intended customer. We need to eliminate our bias in the early days. This approach has yielded a portfolio of various age demographics, genders and backgrounds. Still working on finding much more diversity in the mix, but we are absolutely committed to making this a level playing field. If you do the work, and your market validates, we will back you through and through!
  • We want shared expectations of early-stage growth. While the span of “early stage” for startups varies from concept all the way to the first few million in revenue, we want to make sure there is more clarity in what the starting point looks like and how to expedite finding product-market-fit through LEVELS 1-4. And, we are expected to have proven this due diligence to our venture network and amongst the fellows within our program.

So, what you may ask, are you expecting to see from teams in LEVELS 1-4. So glad you asked!

LEVEL 1 // Initiation

  • Problem Statement defined
  • Customer Segments defined
  • List of 20 potential customers

LEVEL 2 // Lean Canvas + Lean Methods, led by Brian Ardinger and Josh Berry of Econic

  • Problem validation survey and in-person customer discovery interviews complete; aiming to hit a minimum of 40 percent market validation against the stated problem and motivations to solve. There’s no magic number here in terms of quantity, but we benchmark against no less than 20 completed surveys/interviews for B2B companies and 100 for B2C. The more, the better!
  • Lean Canvas updated based on findings from the problem validation survey. Zeroing in on a solution that meets the pain points.

LEVEL 3 // Messaging

  • Value Prop Canvas completed, clearing drawing the lines between the customer’s pain points and pain killers along with their gains and gain creators. Our goal is to use those insights gathered in LEVEL 2 to inform how we message the value propositions in the future product.
  • Message Grid complete with a clearly articulated vision for where this concept will go, a tried-and-tested elevator pitch and notable industry and market segment trends that further validate the problem and need for a solution.
  • Solution validation survey complete, helping refine and measure value proposition effectiveness against the previously surveyed respondents.
  • Lean Canvas updated based on the findings from the solution validation survey. Further refining the initial solution set and the earliest version of a product roadmap.

LEVEL 4 // MVP, led by Sumeet Jain of Omaha Code School

  • Initial MVP completed, with a heavy emphasis on P-R-O-T-O-T-Y-P-E. A simple, lo-fi version of the product that visually conveys the solution.
  • Prototype validation survey complete, helping to ensure the functions, features and value propositions we intend to create with the prototype actually resonate with the customers. And that they are prioritized based on customer motivations.
  • Lean Canvas updated and ready to declare a “go/no-go decision” in the forthcoming LEVEL 5.

LEVEL 1 through LEVEL 4 is meant to establish a rock-solid foundation. This isn’t the most enjoyable or glamorous phase of starting up. But startups that fail to test their assumptions in the market run the inevitable risk of building something that isn’t wanted or needed. A solution absent a problem is a tough sell.


No strangers to the venture space, this cofounding pair has both dealt with divvying out funds and receiving venture capital. Having what they would describe as extremely good role coverage, they have aligned the broader community to their ambitious goals for the startup region. Enjoy their radical vision for our region’s innovation economy!


A serial entrepreneur in every way, Nathan can’t help but concept new companies. Thankfully, he has become quite attuned to taking a concept through validation and eventually into scale. His experience in creating more than half a dozen companies led to the creation of The Startup Collaborative’s unique approach to company building.

Prior to The Startup Collaborative, Nathan is best known for cofounding MindMixer, a civic engagement startup that quickly scaled from 0 customers to nearly 1,000 in just two years. Eventually employing more than 75 employees across the midwest.

Ironically, Nathan brought maturity and structure to wild-west style startups across the Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach and now back at Silicon Prairie. A San Francisco expat, Creighton and UNO graduate and now midwest community leader, Nathan is a fixture on the startup scene.



Before launching The Startup Collaborative, Erica cofounded Omaha Startup Collaborative.

Best known for creating the elusive sense of density within the Omaha startup market, OSC quickly became home to more than 70 area startups and tech companies. Within just 18 months, OSC had been connected to the creation of a few hundred jobs, millions in venture funding and the inspiration of thousands of current and potential entrepreneurs.

Erica’s entrepreneurial insights have been quoted in publications like Forbes, Inc. Magazine and even on NPR.

Boomeranging back to Nebraska from Dallas where she worked with top civic leaders on pivotal public-private partnerships to change the trajectory of the city. Previously, Erica worked with a handpicked group of growth-seeking clients spanning the marketing, technology and startup companies.





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