Hang around the entrepreneurship community for some time, and one thing that becomes apparent is how different individual entrepreneurs and startup founders are from each other. From comics enthusiasts to technical school students, no two entrepreneurs are alike whether in terms of skills, background, and experience.

This was the challenge iAxil faced when it wanted to start an accelerator in Singapore. An incubation arm of Ascendas, iAxil approached 16-year-old US-based Garage Technology Ventures, which has a track record of investing in successful startups such as Pandora and Tripwire.

From the collaboration, iStartup was born. A three-month-long biannual mentorship and accelerator programme that includes intensive three-day coaching sessions, iStartup aims to provide entrepreneurs as well as intrapreneurs with the know-how to build innovative and sustainable ventures.

One interesting feature about iStartup is that it is open to tech entre- and intra-preneurs of all sorts, whether they are a university research lab spin-off, a company with an established product, or even a group of friends still in the midst of forming an idea. This raises a question: How does iStartups cater to the varying needs and capabilities of all these people? In an exclusive interview with e27, Garage MDs Bill Reichert and Henry Wong, as well iAxil’s Senior VP Jimmy Wong, attempt to answer the question.

Identify the challenge
The first step to overcoming a challenge is to recognise it. Wong acknowledges that iStartup participants are a diverse bunch; for instance, although all startups they coach are Singapore-based, their founders are a mix between Singaporeans and foreigners.

“We get people with different skills and strengths, from those good in finance to hardcore geeks and programmers. Many of them have day jobs and cannot spare the time time to do a full-time accelerator programme, like that in 500 Startups and Y Combinator,” he said, “Hence, we designed iStartup to be flexible, only requiring three-day intensive sessions over the three month duration of the programme.”

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Large pool of experts
Nobody is an expert in all fields. Reichert agrees, and adding that this goes double for iStartup’s need for mentors, who need to be able to advise different entrepreneurs on different areas, those which they are weak in and could use some help.

“We have brought together a large team of mentors and coaches from diverse backgrounds and specialisations,” he noted, “They include seasoned entrepreneurs like Red Dot MD Leslie Loh, lawyers like Joshua Tan from Legal Solutions LLC, and finance/accounting professionals like Komal Sahu. They help our participants with questions they may have on their businesses’ legal and financial issues.”

Have a common framework
That said, even as diverse entrepreneurs require different coaching and guidance, the main tenets of business are common to all of them. Wong mentioned that iStartup imparts a set of processes to each entrepreneur, covering different dimensions of business such as product and marketing.

“For instance, we help entrepreneurs build their own roadmap to improve their products, and show them that value proposition is the intersection between what customers want and what they provide,” he said, “Because the businesses they are in are so diverse, we focus more on helping them work out a plan based on our framework, rather than teach them a fixed process suited for only a few special cases.”

Don’t just impart knowledge, teach how to learn
Indeed, iStartup’s main thrust is to empower entrepreneurs to gain the required skills needed to plan and grow their own businesses, rather than teaching specific competencies. “Don’t call this training,” Wong stated, “Instead, we give our entrepreneurs frameworks for them to acquire skills relevant to them, and not to teach them skills directly.”

Reichert added that learning how to learn is vital in the ever-changing entrepreneurship world. “While globalisation offers startups access to a great number of customers around the world, at the same time it opens startups to worldwide competition,” he said. “Currently Singapore may have a tech-savvy population and good support for entrepreneurship, but the situation can change any time. Hence, it is critically important for entrepreneurs in Singapore to acquire the skills to learn, to adapt to changes happening all around the world,” he added.

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