Brooke Yoakam's Experience at Techstars Boulder

An interview with Brooke Yoakam, the Co-Founder & CEO of AvidAI, regarding her experience participating in Techstars Boulder.
February 24, 2024
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Background

Brooke is the Co-Founder & CEO of AvidAI, which helps brands acquire customers through AI-generated pop-ups and promotional gift cards. Brooke participated in the Techstars Boulder fintech program in 2022. I talked with Brooke regarding how Techstars helped her company evolve and what advice she would give to founders considering Techstars.

Highlights

  • Getting a referral to the Managing Director of a Techstars program or someone else on the team significantly increases your chances of getting in.

  • Techstars indexes on the caliber of your team when selecting startups.

  • The second week of Techstars, they run “Mentor Madness,” where you meet with 60 mentors before narrowing it down to 5 people who will be your mentor for the duration of the program.

Interview Transcription

Kieran: Hey, Brooke, thanks again for joining me today. Can you introduce yourself?

Brooke: Hi, I’m Brooke. I’m the Founder and CEO of AvidAI, which is formally GiftPocket. We are simplifying the complicated things about marketing through AI-generated pop-ups and promotional gift cards. So, we’re taking the guesswork of how brands can acquire their customers, and we’re first starting with Shopify brands, and are launching in September.

Kieran: You participated in Techstars Boulder in 2022, is that correct?

Brooke: Correct, I went through the Techstars Boulder fintech program in July - October 2022.

Kieran: Why did you want to participate in Techstars?

Brooke: I think most founders will say they probably just applied. I applied to Techstars, YC, and all those programs. I think there’s always that thing that you need to do an accelerator program to transform your company, but you don’t know what that means until you go through it. I knew I needed that validation that we were building something unique and different, but also that confidence as a first-time founder. So, I was looking for accelerator programs to help me build a company as a first-time founder. Techstars was one of the accelerators I pursued, and I’m so glad I could get in and be a part of it.

Kieran: I know Techstars has different programs around the world. Did you also consider Techstar programs in other cities or just Techstars Boulder?

Brooke: Because we’re building a company within the gift card space, we are a fintech platform, and we face a ton of fraud. So, we’re looking to be validated as a fintech company, which was why we looked into the fintech program. Boulder is the flagship program; the nostalgia there is super unique, so it was nice going to that program. But, I definitely think you can get value from other programs as well.

Kieran: After accepting you into Techstars Boulder, it became an option. You can decide whether you want to go to that program or you don’t want to go. What factors did you consider before you said yes to Techstars Boulder?

Brooke: To give up 6% equity of your company is not a decision you should take lightly. One of the main things you should consider before doing Techstars or any accelerator program is the Managing Director. They are the key person in that decision process. We were very fortunate that the Managing Director worked for a ton of retail companies. She worked at Trump Club, which Nordstrom acquired. So, her background, expertise, and the network she promised to us were one of the main reasons. Ultimately, I think it’s a gut thing. That moment when you get into Techstars, your gut will tell you what feels right. So, I think the balance of what the Managing Director is pitching to you versus what you believe is right will guide your decision process.

Kieran: That’s awesome. It seems like the Managing Director’s background aligned with what you were doing, so it was probably a pretty easy choice for you guys.

Kieran: I’m curious to hear more about the interview process leading up to that acceptance. What were some types of questions that you were asked during the interview process about your company or team?

Brooke: So, I’ll be honest with you, it’s been over a year. But I think one of the things that Techstars is all about is the team. Obviously, they must believe somewhat in the industry you’re building within and the products you could be building. But, if they don’t believe in your team, then they’ll never have you be a part of their cohort. So they definitely push you on the team questions before digging in on TAM and revenue and all of that stuff.

Kieran: We were talking a little bit before we started recording about how Techstars helped your company evolve. Can you talk more about how that actually happened? You mentioned you applied under GiftPocket, and you’re transitioning to this new company AvidAI. How did that change happen? What advice did you receive? Tell us more about that.

Brooke: We’re GiftPocket Inc., but now DBA (doing business as) Avid AI. One of the most important things as a founder you should constantly think about is zero to one. How can you get to product market fit, and how can you reach profitability? I think we realized that we were solving an awesome problem. Brands were finding tons of success acquiring customers with gift cards, but we weren’t going to reach product-market fit with the solution we were building or profitability. So, we’re solving a really good problem, but how can we do it in a more scalable way that could reach profitability and find product market fit? So, we confirmed the problem was right but figured out the solution wasn’t right. Techstars helped us figure out that problem in 13 weeks versus probably 12 months. They always say Techstars is 13 weeks condensed in 2 years. We learned so much about ourselves, building a company, and what we did and didn’t do right in 13 weeks. I got no sleep, but it was definitely worth it.

Kieran: What was the driving factor that caused you to switch to a different solution?

Brooke: There were a couple of different factors. To give you context on GiftPocket, it was an app that connected brands to their gift card holders. We launched a partnership in Massachusetts on six different college campuses, giving out free $5 gift cards to 20,000 college students. To get that gift card, they had to download the app. We realized it was a huge success. The people who downloaded the app got that gift card, and the spending potential was huge. But, to get that gift card onto the app, there was this huge friction point. So, we needed to get it done faster. During the 13 weeks, we tested it out with ASOS, Nasty Gal, and Chipotle. So, we went live and tested the product. On top of that, after Techstars, unfortunately, we got thrown into a horrible VC market, and brands’ budgets got slashed. We were trying to think about how we could lower the barrier of entry for brands. I think the timing of market was another indicator, and just launching and talking to customers. Ultimately, we learned the most through talking to customers. 

Kieran: I remember seeing your Demo Day was on the Stonks platform. What else happens on Demo Day?

Brooke: Stonks was great. We had the most amount of VC interest. I think the thing we struggled with was that we weren’t building a recurring revenue model. Since Techstars, we’ve pivoted to a subscription-based recurring revenue model. We see the demand for building a new acquisition tool to help brands stand out. We saw that confirmation on the VC side as well.

Kieran: It seems like the Techstars program was very valuable in helping get your company from point A to point B. What do you think is the most valuable aspect of the Techstars program?

Brooke: I think the most valuable aspect of Techstars is on the first day, you’re probably walking in there, and you’re thinking they are going to destroy your product and tell you what needs to change. They first ask you, “How do you really feel.” They ask you all those questions to really talk about how to build a team, how to build a culture, and how to be a leader. I think that’s what sets Techstars apart from any other accelerator program. At the end of the day, you can solve a problem, but if you aren’t building a company or building a culture that people want to be a part of, you’re not going to build a successful company. Techstars helps you build awesome products but also helps you build an awesome company.

Kieran: What advice would you give to someone applying to Techstars?

Brooke: I’m very fortunate that when I applied to Techstars, my application got read, and I got in. Every other company in my cohort had a referral to the MD, the program manager, or the VC on staff. So, if you can get a referral, that will go so much further than just applying. So you need to apply, but getting a referral will incredibly boost your chances.

Kieran: You alluded to the Managing Director’s background as a big factor in why you were interested in this program. Can you talk about some of the other people on the Techstars team or the mentors they set you up with and how they were helpful to you during the program?

Brooke: The cool thing about Techstars is the give-first mindset. No matter what, even if their background isn’t helpful, they’ll always try to connect you and help you. The cool thing about Techstars is Mentor Madness, which is the second week of Techstars. For five days straight, you meet with 60 people, which will be eventually narrowed down to 5 people who are your mentors. They have a vast network and will find you the right mentor. It is the craziest week cause imagine 60 people giving you honest, real feedback about your business. But, obviously, the Managing Director is the key indicator. The older the program, the bigger the network is, the more mentors there are. So, I would suggest an older program has an advantage over a newer program.

Kieran: Now that you’re finished with the program, how do you stay engaged with the Techstars community?

Brooke: My cohort still meets monthly. The companies with more overlap in the industries they are working in probably stay a lot more connected and talk more. I know the CTOs of my cohort do quarterly check-ins. Sadly, we’re all building business, but we’re probably the most busy people you’ll find. I think if you really connect with someone, they’ll definitely continue chatting. I text one of my friends in Techstars every other day. It just depends.

Kieran: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you think is important for someone considering Techstars to know?

Brooke: One thing is that it’s a hybrid program. I know some programs are all in-person or all virtual. I think hybrid is the best because you get that in-person feel of building that relationship with the cohort, but it’s not realistic for 13 weeks to build your company somewhere else and then get thrown back into real life. The three weeks that I was in Boulder, I was heads down, didn’t talk to my family or friends, and was working from 7 am to midnight every night. I think it’s good that you go into the office and build those relationships but also learn how to build your business at home. So, I’m a big believer in a hybrid program because I don’t think it’s realistic for 80% of companies to go 13 weeks there and then get thrown back into real life.

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