Q&A with Acceleprise's Nina Stepanov

Updated: Dec 1, 2018

Nina Stepanov is an Associate and NYC Program Manager at Acceleprise. Prior to Acceleprise, she was an associate at Techstars and worked in marketing roles at Hubspot, Intuit, and Embedly.

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startup?

I wrote a blog post about this when I first started in venture because it’s not a formula, it’s more of a process.

Looking back, my entire life thus far has revolved around startups and entrepreneurship. My parents are immigrants - my mother a refugee - and they started their own businesses in the US, so I’ve seen the difficulties and joys that come with running your own company. More importantly, I saw the value of access and how much of a difference it makes to have connections.

In college, I got obsessively involved with the entrepreneurship and venture scene at Northeastern University. I was involved in the Entrepreneur's Club in multiple capacities and soon joined Northeastern’s venture accelerator, IDEA, thanks to a good friend, Chris Wolfel, who pulled me from an internship my Freshman summer. Meanwhile, I picked up co-ops working at a few different startups and large corporates in a marketing and program management capacity, including Embedly (acquired by Medium), Intuit, and HubSpot.

Although I had been immersed in the startup ecosystem, it wasn’t until I attended Northeastern’s alternative investment summit the year after I graduated that I learned how venture capital actually worked. Around the same time I’d decided to move to New York City and pursue the venture path, so I started interviewing VCs for VentureFizz as a way to get my foot in the door.

I was already toying with venture but had to be realistic given the odds, so I started looking into a few different careers, from strategy and consulting to sales and real estate. Venture was always in the back of my mind but I felt underqualified. As most people know, it’s a hard space to break into. Timing and access is everything.

Luck and a good resume landed me a role in NYC at Techstars IoT - and it changed everything for me. I fell in love with the community and the work we were doing. Getting the role and immersing myself in the NYC startup ecosystem, I was inspired all over again to stay in the industry. I doubled-down on interviews for analyst and associate roles at different funds in Boston and NYC and dabbled with a few funds in SF. While striking out or losing interest quickly in these roles, I was eyeing Platform roles because I was such a great fit for them. The overwhelming thought in the back of my mind was that I was giving up on being a “real” investor by pursuing a platform role. Soon after that thought crossed my mind, my then boss, Angie Muller, bluntly told me, “stop trying to impress a bunch of people by getting a job that you don’t want. They don’t care, so just do what you love”.

I loved Techstars but I wanted to help create something new, and then Acceleprise fell into my lap. It was a three-person team seeking an associate and program manager to kick off their first program outside of HQ in SF. The opportunity felt like an absurd amalgamation of serendipity, thanks in large part to my then mentor, now friend, Lisa Cuesta. Acceleprise was a perfect mix of what I wanted in a VC role. I would be evaluating and helping make investment decisions and understanding diligence whilst managing a carefully curated program for our accelerator. Today, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m doing what I love. I wake up every single day excited to come to work and support my founders, other investors, and the ecosystem as a whole.

What do you think are the most important skills you brought to venture from your time in enterprise tech?

As an investor, I can say that the most difficult part is having genuine empathy. It’s something VCs take for granted. I get it, there’s so much noise that you navigate on a daily basis. Your emotional capacity is finite and investing in people is exhausting. I learned this from working at a few early stage startups where I saw the companies in times of major challenges. Good customers would walk away or threaten to leave. Investors would pull out. People would depart or need to take time off to raise kids. These companies were often regarded as successes, but internally, they had to make all these competing factors work. I can sit across from a founder now and tell how hard they’re willing to work.

The hardest part of my job is sending rejection emails. That sucks. But we all have to do it. My brother is also a founder and as an advisor to his work, I have to be unbiased with the hard truth sometimes. So empathy is the biggest thing for me in how I approach investing and managing the portfolio.

Alongside knowing how to conduct good research, I’d say the ability to convince others of something is a key part of programming and platform. That’s always been second nature to me. At Intuit, I took it upon myself to build an asset management application for their marketing team so they could increase their capacity for promotions. I drove an initiative at HubSpot, creating an advocacy platform called HubStars that empowered and activated their happiest customers. All of these projects took a lot of buy in from people all the way up to the CEO. That’s challenging when you’re younger, but if you can communicate clearly, you can convince the right people that an idea is beneficial for the business. There’s so much to do at Acceleprise, and it’s my job to be strategic in what we choose to do and how we prioritize that work.

What should a startup founder consider before joining an accelerator over other options like bootstrapping or directly raising?

Accelerators get a bad rep for ineptitude, which is hilarious because people fawn over YC and Techstars. It’s the smaller accelerators that get the short end of the stick when people complain about oversaturation. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely an abundance of cash floating around and an insane number of accelerators cropping up, but we’re not all created equal.

We’re seeing tons of new micro funds take off, which means founders can get money almost anywhere these days. There’s also incredible amounts of information accessibility - people can be more discerning and find the advice they might receive at an accelerator by reading endless blog posts and books on various topics on starting up. It goes without saying, but you can always cold email someone at Sequoia or a16z. Not all founders need accelerators, I’ll be the first to admit it, but the difference is that most people simply don’t do all that stuff. We’re here for the founders who don’t do that for the right reasons. Whatever the reason, excluding laziness, accelerators provide meaningful access to mentors, customers, and partners who will actually be helpful.

If you want a true shot at building something but you don’t know what you’re doing, an accelerator is the place to go. But be conscious about the equity you’re giving away because it’s not just about getting funding. We see some founders who’ve gone through 2 or even 3 accelerators before they pitch us and I want to shake them because it’s such a waste of time and energy. If you’re serious, join an accelerator, work your ass off, and ask for more from your program. You get out what you put in.

I’ll speak for Acceleprise specifically: our job is to connect you. It’s not to run your sales process or seal the deal on your partnerships, but we give you the tools and resources to get there and teach you how to win in those scenarios. We’re looking to fund the founder from Minnesota who has an amazing idea about how to fix 3rd party logistics but who has no idea how to reach her 2nd, 3rd and 4th customer all while closing a funding round.

What are some challenges that you faced at Techstars and how did that help you think about programming for Acceleprise?

There’s no question that Techstars will continue to be successful. They are building a machine where startups are like mathematical proofs; if they provide you with the right inputs, there’s a good chance you’ll solve the riddle of starting up. But there were things I knew I wanted to do differently at Acceleprise. Part of that effort was giving my founders an incredible amount of attention. Because Acceleprise NYC only selects 6-8 companies per program, we have the capacity to build incredibly meaningful relationships and really focus on all of our teams for the duration of the 4 months. Speaking of program length, we’ve found that B2B companies need more than 3 months, so our program is slightly longer to accommodate their sales cycles.

Techstars does this thing where they have you set a “boulder” for the program, which was an incredible motivator for many founders, but I found it to be a bit distracting. We don’t typically ask founders to set that sort of goal. We focus on smaller KPIs and want to make sure all of our startups improve week over week. We want to see them get in front of customers. If they close Stripe or Amazon in the process, that’s great but it’s not the goal. Product-market-fit is the goal. Monthly recurring revenue is the goal.

Another area I was excited to approach differently was mentorship. Techstars manages to bring in over 100 mentors to meet with each founder for a short amount of time. The founders then pick their favorites and move ahead working with them. It’s honestly really impressive, but for some founders it can be really overwhelming for not a lot of pay off. Acceleprise specifically matches startups with strategic mentors because we know our network better than anyone else. We get to know the founding teams and understand their strengths and weaknesses to then make introductions based on that information. It often means a bit more work on our part, but the matches are solid.

The last bit has to do with how we collaborate our programs across locations. We have one fund and one team. We don’t create a divide or work in silos on that front and rather opt for sharing resources across all programs. This means mentors can engage across SF and NYC, founders can access the team across both programs and uniquely, they can pitch at both demo days. This effort brings our entire portfolio and internal community closer together, improves their odds at success, and takes quite a bit of pressure off any one person on the team for being solely responsible for any single company. It also allows us to share deals across programs, so founders who are too late or early for one program get picked up for the other because we stagger them. Often founders don’t have a preference when it comes to one or the other city and it means our programs can share deals constantly. Suffice to say, it takes a lot of unnecessary stress out of the process for us and our founders while adding massive value to everyone involved.

All that being said, Techstars has been so good to New York and countless other cities. We had an incredible value add in people like Alex Iskold, who used to run Techstars NYC. I looked up to him way before I got into venture because you could feel his compassion for his founders in his words. He was respected throughout the community for caring about every company and every Techstars founder. I strive to be more like him both for my founders and for the community.

Acceleprise has built its program over the last four years in the US, and now you’re expanding abroad. Why launch in Melbourne, Australia?

Global expansion is something we’re genuinely excited about. There’s so much opportunity outside of the US to build what we’ve built here. Interestingly, we didn’t pursue Australia but rather Australia pursued us. Thanks to a few key supporters, we’ve been able to kick off work on a program that will hopefully serve the ecosystem in the midst of the Atlassian and Canva exits and its growing VC community.

We agreed to Melbourne because we think it’s one of the next frontiers for startups and tech talent. Launching a program on the other side of world has taught us a lot about brand preservation and team collaboration. We choose to work really closely between programs rather than keeping them separated, so that adds to our value proposition but takes a lot more thought and energy to execute as compared to a standalone program.

Have you faced major challenges as a woman in venture?

I don’t think I’ve had any issues as a woman. I have a unique, outgoing personality, so maybe I just haven’t encountered certain challenges that others might face because of that. However I have dealt with feeling like an outsider. Venture is this unique community of people who don’t often realize the insular, microcosm that we occupy. It’s easy to get bogged down in what you think the whole world already knows.

We need to be more reflective as a community. I come from a family of refugees and immigrants, who to start their own business, had to put themselves in a position of precarity. I grew quite modestly and have had to figure everything out on my own when it came to my professional career. Many people in venture, who’ve come from affluent backgrounds and have gone to Ivy league schools don’t often know the struggle enough to empathize. More VCs should take a step back and really understand what it means for us to be in this position of privilege and reflect that back to the community. They should also recognize how important diversity is in this process and both hire more diverse teams while investing in diverse founders.

What advice do you have for young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?

If you are intent on VC, make yourself known with your own company, working at a great company, or a project of your own. Start a podcast or a blog like this one. Get vocal on Twitter. Diligence companies and send memos to investors you know. Start a soccer league with founders. Make it clear that this is your world. People say dress for the job you want and VC is just like that: you need to demonstrate that you can do the things that make an investor successful.