Olivia Li started her career as a Tech Lead at Wefunder. She has since moved on to start a new company and participated in the 1st cohort of the Neo Accelerator in 2022. I talked with Olivia about why she was excited to join the Neo Accelerator, what happens during the program, and how Neo positions its accelerator offering to attract young, technical founders.
- Neo differentiates itself from YC and other startup accelerators by keeping batch sizes small (< 20 teams), only taking young technical founders, and offering founder-friendly terms ($625K for 2.5% plus an uncapped SAFE with a $20 million floor valuation).
- Neo’s Demo Day is centered on hiring since teams receive a lot of money when accepted into the accelerator program.
- The Neo Scholars, a community of college students studying Computer Science at top universities, is a huge part of the Neo Accelerator offering. Many startup teams participating in the Neo Accelerator were able to hire first engineers from the Neo Scholars community.
Edited lightly for clarity.
KR: Thanks again, Olivia, for joining me today. Can you introduce yourself?
OL: I’m Olivia. I studied Computer Science and Cognitive Science in college, but I dropped out of college and moved to Berkeley to build smart glasses for a little bit. That was when COVID happened, so I went back to Canada, where I’m originally from, and started working at this startup called Wefunder, a fintech company. I loved it there. I grew a lot and wanted to do something on my own. So, I quit my job there and am building a startup now.
KR: You participated in Neo’s Accelerator program in 2022. Is that correct?
KR: Why did you want to participate in that accelerator program in the first place?
OL: So they market it as an accelerator for young people who are highly technical. I was really interested in that because it seemed like it was a really small batch for technical founders where they teach you a lot about the business aspect of things. The community aspect is what really sold me. Also, the terms were great.
KR: How did you get a good sense that they’d be able to foster a great community?
OL: They have a Neo Fellow program, and I’ve been to a couple of their events. I met a couple of the fellows, which is different from the accelerator. They were all really nice, smart, and great people. So, I thought that would transfer. I came in kind of blind with the Neo Accelerator because it was the first time they’ve ever done it. So, there was no one to talk to (beforehand about their experience). I also didn’t meet any people within the accelerator before joining the accelerator. But, I thought the Neo Fellow program was done really well.
KR: Neo is structured as a hybrid program. There’s 4 weeks in Oregon, a period where you’re remote, then 1 week in San Diego. What actually happens at each part of the program?
OL: There’s a remote portion where there are lectures online. You get some materials and can ask questions about the lectures. Where I think most of the learning happens is the in-person part in Oregon. So you meet all of the other members in the accelerator. I think learning from each other helps a lot more than listening to lectures. I think that’s where I learned the most. They also fly in a bunch of people to give talks. You can meet them and ask questions.
KR: What were some of the talks on? I saw some of the mentors listed in the blog post. Is it a fireside style where they are just talking about their backgrounds and learnings from their time building companies? Or was it specific topics that they wanted to cover during the program?
OL: It’s both. There is fireside style and very specific topics – “This is how you scale engineering” or “How you hire.” So, it could be super specific or general where they talk about their background.
KR: Did you apply as a solo founder, or did you already have a cofounder?
OL: When I applied, I was a solo founder but found a cofounder right when the program started.
KR: One of the things they mentioned in the blog post was that they would help you build a team. Did you see other people in the cohort looking for cofounders? How did they help you find cofounders or early team members?
OL: Not necessarily helping you find cofounders because I think you really need to know who your cofounder is. For my batch, two solo founders decided to cofound something together because they got really close in Oregon. In terms of finding your early team members, the Neo Fellow community is really good. A lot of the other companies in the cohort managed to hire engineers from the Neo Fellow community.
KR: Do you know if people in your cohort were part of other Neo programs beforehand? Did they pull a lot from the Neo Fellows or the other programs they did and have them join the accelerator, or was it mostly net new people who didn’t have too much exposure to the community?
OL: I think the majority was net new exposure. I think maybe 15% (ballpark estimate) were from the community.
KR: What happens the last week in San Diego? Is that the Demo Day? Or is it another time to hang out with the people in your cohort?
OL: That’s more of a Demo Day. You can present to a crowd of investors or people you’re trying to hire if you want to. The emphasis is not really on raising money because we got such a huge amount from Neo as part of the accelerator. So the emphasis there was to get the word out or if you’re trying to hire because you have all these Neo Fellows -- you have engineers in the crowd. So if you’re trying to hire, then you’re trying to entice them.
KR: Do you have an idea of how big this Demo Day was?
OL: Most of the accelerator people presented. I think there were 300-500 people.
KR: Is this sort of an old YC Demo Day where you get up on stage and pitch for a couple of minutes? Or how is it actually structured?
OL: What happened was you gave a presentation about your company for a couple of minutes while you’re mic’d up on stage.
KR: What was the most valuable piece of advice you received during the program?
OL: To not rush things. There’s so many things to think about, and (building a startup) is a marathon. So, don’t overlook certain important aspects because they might bite you later on. Really (take the time to) understand your business, the entire business.
KR: How did you learn that? Was that a 1:1 with someone in your batch or advice from one of the mentors? When did that click for you?
OL: It was slow and gradual from the members of my batch just chatting as we were all trying to figure out how to build a business for the first time. It’s things that we slowly learned and then propagated throughout.
KR: Neo targets recent technical founders, and you found that very appealing as a reason why you wanted to apply to the accelerator in the first place. In hindsight, do you wish there were more people with different skillsets or further along? Or do you think the structure is good – being around people of a similar age and skillset in a batch like that?
OL: I think the people were great. For my batch, there were a lot of people that came in without an idea. In terms of the business, it was a little too early. But I think they are switching that up now where you have an idea, and you have a little bit of progress. So everybody is at the same stage when you meet up in Oregon. Cause during my batch, there were a lot of people who were at different stages. When we were in Oregon, you couldn’t really learn from certain people in the batch because they were at a different stage. In terms of the people -- young technical founders -- I thought that was great.
KR: Can you talk about the team? Ali and some of the other people on the team you worked with. How did they help you during the program?
OL: I mostly talked with Ali. I talk with Erik Goldman now, sometimes as a mentor. I think they are great. I go to them for any small question. They emotionally calm me down and (help me see) the bigger picture. They also help me see things that I’m blind to. They give me the proper advice of what I should be looking at.
KR: Now that you’re finished with the program, how do you engage with the community?
OL: We still have full access to Slack. There is a channel just for the accelerator batch. So we chat in there, ask for help, or send memes. We also have access to the greater Slack. So, if you need anything from the greater community – this could be for hiring fellows or asking questions for any of the other companies in Neo’s portfolio. So they don’t have to be a part of the accelerator. If Neo invested in them, then they have access to Slack, and you can ask for help.
KR: What advice would you give to someone applying to Neo?
OL: You should definitely apply and just have fun :)