Darya Sesitskaya on Betaworks' AI Camp: Augment Accelerator

An interview with Darya Sesitskaya, the Founder & CEO of Shader, regarding her experience at Betaworks' AI Camp.
February 24, 2024
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Background

Darya Sesitskaya is the Founder & CEO of Shader, an AI-enhanced social camera. Darya participated in Betaworks’ AI Camp from June to September 2023. I talked with Darya about what attracted her to Betaworks, how she utilized the program, what advice she would give to someone applying, and more.

Highlights

  • Betaworks has deep expertise with consumer startups, with investments in Twitter, Venmo, and Giphy.

  • During the admission process, the Betaworks team focuses less on the current iteration of your business and more on the long-term vision of the product, how you will get distribution, and what the startup could become.

  • Betaworks invested alongside Greycroft, Differential VC, and Mozilla Ventures for its AI Camp. These investors engaged as active partners to the companies in the cohort. They provided advice, hosted events, and participated in future rounds in various capacities as a lead and participant.

Interview Transcription

Edited lightly for clarity.

Kieran: Thanks, Darya, for joining me today. To kick us, do you want to introduce yourself?

Darya: Hey, my name is Darya. I’m the Founder & CEO of Shader. We build AI/AR tools to create self-expression. We generate first effects even if you’re not an engineer or 3D artist.

Kieran: You participated in the Betaworks’ AI Camp, which took place in NYC from June to September 2023. Is that correct?

Darya: Yes, that’s correct. Our Demo Day was a couple of weeks ago. So, such early emotions about everything.

Kieran: Why did you apply to Betaworks? What stood out about the program?

Darya: I was first excited about just the (caliber of) investors at Betaworks. They have extensive experience in B2C products, which is what I’m building. It’s hard to find an accelerator who understands (B2C products); how to invite users, start something from scratch, and (validate) the idea. Betaworks really inspired me. After the first interview, they shared their opinion on what I’m working on around the social part. Their experience working with Giphy’s product resonated with what I’m trying to achieve.

Kieran: Were you considering other accelerator programs?

Darya: At that moment, I was already in the On Deck Founder Fellowship, the 17th cohort. It’s not an accelerator but more educational and a way to connect with other founders. During ODF, I understood that I wanted more connections with founders, so I started exploring programs. I applied to Betaworks and a couple of other accelerators. But Betaworks responded faster, and they had conversations with us every week. I was impressed that it was intense, and they responded to all my emails. I was happy to know that there were not a lot of startups. They chose just 12 startups (for the cohort); before, it was just 8. It was a great sign that we would develop close connections with founders, investors, and mentors participating in the program.

Kieran: Can you give an overview of the Betaworks admission process? What questions did they ask you?

Darya: We applied, then had 2-3 calls with the main Partners at Betaworks. (The calls) focused on the mission, team, product (roadmap), future product distribution, and our vision. Shader was not just a demo. We had a working product, first users (~100), and launched on TestFlight. When you have your first version of the product with computer vision and AR, it can be buggy and imperfect. Betaworks cared more about the next steps, not just the next version but what it could be (down the road). I asked them what I could do to explain Shader better. They were open and told me to keep them posted. At the moment, I was trying to find my first investors because we bootstrapped for the first five months. I started updating Betaworks every few days because we were actively (testing things). It was a good sign to them that we were basically non-stop building, testing, and experimenting. Around my vision, I built a more detailed presentation and explanation of what I wanted to see in the future. It was helpful because, in the last call, we mostly chatted about that, which helped me decide. Their team really connected with me on the future of Shader.

Kieran: Did most startups join at a similar stage to you, where they had a working product and a few users?

Darya: A couple of startups already raised money, like a pre-seed round. Some startups were early, just an idea with a vision—some built prototypes during the program. Some were further along and had been through other startup accelerators. For Demo Day, everyone had a product demo and early users.

Kieran: Betaworks’ program incorporates 1:1 mentorship time and tailored programming, events, and activities. Can you describe what happened during the program and how you utilized it?

Darya: Our program was hybrid. You could be in New York or remote. Betaworks inspired us to be in New York for the first two weeks of the program and the last week. But, many startups try to be there more often because the New York office helped us build connections, and many events were happening. I tried to spend most of August with my team in New York. The most helpful thing was working with a mentor. Everyone has one mentor that Betaworks finds for you with the particular experience you need. I had Sam, who worked with the Giphy team, and he helped recommend a lot of experiments. Also, we talked about the distribution of the product and my vision. There were networking events around different topics. Betaworks helps if you want to organize your own events. We did an AI night about AR/VR and invited 70 people who presented their demos with Shader. We created a community around AR creators. It was the first time I could meet my users and an opportunity to show folks who built around VR but have yet to try AR creation.

Kieran: What was the most valuable piece of advice you received during the program?

Darya: I learned how to think bigger. I have a product design background and have worked with engineers. We think about small demos, features, and improvements to test with users. It’s good to think about, but sometimes you must run away from Notion and Figma and look at the big picture. How can you make the long-term vision better? At Betaworks, we did a lot of exercises around that and explored product vision ideas. The other thing was connections and fundraising, especially for a first-time founder like me. A lot of advice was on how to communicate with investors, prepare your updates, and organize your fundraising.

Kieran: I watched the Demo Day videos on Betaworks’ website. It looks like you presented your company live to an audience. What did you think of the format, and did that event help you raise money?

Darya: Yes, we’re still in the process of raising money. The market is hard. I think it’ll take a couple of weeks for us to finish. For me, it was vital that we still have a lot of runway. I want to explore fundraising because I know we can grow, and I want to learn what top VCs think of our product and progress. If we don’t raise right now, it’s not a big problem for where we are at. It was my first time pitching in front of a large audience. There were notable investors at Demo Day. Betaworks helped us practice a lot. I came to New York for this Demo Day two days before. I had rehearsed one time. All of my partners from Betaworks worked with me to explain what was good, what could be fixed, and where my accent was unclear. Knowing that was important because I’m trying to improve my public speaking skills. I feel less stressed now, and it’s an excellent moment to look at how everyone grew after the first three months. It was a happy moment to see everyone in my time made a lot of progress. It’s kind of like boot camp. If you work from home, you sometimes don’t have enough experiences to see that. The everyday push from mentors in the accelerator was really helpful.

Kieran: For AI Camp, Betaworks, alongside Greycroft, Differential VC, and Mozilla Ventures, invests $500K on an uncapped SAFE with a 25% discount, and Betaworks receives 5% of the company’s common stock. I’m curious how Greycroft, Differential VC, and Mozilla Ventures work with the startups they invest in through the Betaworks program. Are they active partners to you or more passive investors?

Darya: They are active partners. Differential VC led the next round of one of the startups in the cohort. Plus, we have sessions with each firm. We could chat with them and follow up and ask questions. While fundraising, I appreciated their help to meet again and discuss our next steps. I hope some of them can lead our next round or participate.

Kieran: Did they say why they take common stock instead of preferred stock? What was the rationale behind that decision?

Darya: I’m not sure how to answer this particular question. I didn’t ask them.

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

Darya: Subscribe to their Twitter and explore the partners’ vision. Neel, Jordan, and John post many podcasts and articles that can help you understand whether you resonate with their vision and are inspired to work with them. I discovered their Twitter and podcast later and was sad that I didn’t watch everything because there are a lot of good materials there that you can use during your founder journey. An accelerator is still a competition. I applied to many programs, but not all the times you can win. It doesn’t mean you should stop. It’s maybe just not right now for this cohort. I liked how Betaworks had specific topics. AI camp was perfect for what we were working on and the best match for us. It’s so cool that the next cohort could be around your topic. (Put yourself out there) and apply.

Kieran: What advice would you give to a founder accepted into Betaworks to make the most out of the program?

Darya: New York is so expensive, but (go there) and try to spend more time offline. Have a chance to organize your own event because even if your product is early, connecting with users and showing the demo in real life is good. Just be present in this moment if you have a chance. It doesn’t mean you should stop building. I spent 80% of my time with my team building and 20% on accelerator sessions and networking. It’s a bit of a balance. Before Betaworks, we built a lot and created, but we didn’t have any sprints because, in the early days, you may not have much structure. I used to work at Snapchat, and the idea of sprints was so formal. When you’re in an accelerator, you’re basically updating their team and your team on the week ahead. It’s a good practice, and we still do that today. We start the week with what we will do and finish with the results and what should be next. 

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