Singapore’s Startup Accelerator JFDI – Lean Startups, the Right Way

Summary: I just returned from a fantastic and fun week of mentoring at the Joyful Frog Digital Incubator (JFDI) – Singapore’s first startup accelerator. They don’t just talk Lean – Customer Development is the very foundation of their program. I was really impressed with JFDI and had a blast working with Ray Wu & Justin Wilcox.

My First Impressions of JFDI – Excited…but Skeptical

Many People Talk about Lean Startup but Don’t Make the Commitment to Do It

Ray Wu (now also part of JFDI team) pointed me to the JFDI website a few months ago. I was immediately struck by how strongly they promoted Customer Development and other Lean Startup techniques as the foundation of their program.

My experience is that many startups in accelerators are not ready to…well…accelerate. The programs are typically 3 months and much of the energy – misplaced, in my humble opinion – is on “demo day”. While there are good reasons why the accelerators push companies to deliver a good final performance1, most end up focusing on product execution at the expense of engaging the market to figure out if they are solving a real problem.

Customer Development takes a real investment and requires recruiting “mentors” like Justin and I who have spent years trying to apply these tactics to our own products. By “investment” I mean money and management time – two assets in short supply at accelerators.

So while I was excited about JFDI…alas…I confess that I was skeptical. I’ve seen too many instances of “Lean Washing” – using terms like Lean Startup & Customer Development without making the real commitment to do it.

A Week in Singapore with JFDI

Customer Development from Day 1

Being a Lean Startup requires a cultural shift to being a learning organization – a shift that JFDI embraces in word and deed.

JFDI invited Justin Wilcox and I to Singapore to spend time with their newest batch of 9 startups at the start of their 2013 class. A few minutes after Smoochy the Frog (JFDI’s lovable mascot) greeted us, we jumped right into talking with the teams about their Business Model Canvases.

Smoochy the Frog says: "Get Out of the Office!"

Smoochy the Frog says: “Get Out of the Office!”

We then immediately started having 1-1 meetings with each team, reviewing their key assumptions and pushing them to “Get Out of the Office” and talk to customers. As is always the case, some of the teams initially resisted but we with the collective support of management and other teams, everyone I worked with started making rapid progress.

Most of my time was spent:

  • Helping them design experiments
  • Helping them identify their biggest business risks
  • Helping them think of creative ways to reach customers
  • Pushing them to be more aggressive, to talk to more people
  • Trying to guide them to start smaller and do less

But mostly I tried to encourage them, help them understand how much I also struggled, how I’ve found Customer Development to be so tedious and frustrating at times.

A week later several of the teams proved – they had customer data and not just opinions – that their initial ideas were flawed and they were shifting to different models.

Customer Development Means Mitigating Accelerator Risk

Success is NEVER guaranteed – or even probable – but we can increase the odds

Neither I nor anyone else experienced in the Lean Startup community would suggest that we’re going to achieve 50% startup success rate with Customer Development – there is no magic startup pixie dust.

What I can say is that every team I worked with significantly mitigated their risks. Had they continued executing on their original ideas a few would have definitely failed – they proved it in a week.

The best part of startups?  The people. (yes, Justin is as fun as he appears...)

The best part of startups? The people. (yes, Justin is as fun as he appears…)


I predict that every accelerator2 will begin following similar practices in the near future.

Justin Wilcox & Ray Wu

A shout-out for two emerging leaders

I had the chance to spend a good bit of time working with Ray and Justin this past week, two colleagues I respect immensely. Ray is a big reason why JFDI’s program is so impressive – he’s got the experience, passion, and he’s busting his tail. Ray’s Blog.

If you want to understand Justin, just watch his presentation at the 2012 Lean Startup Conference. The guy is both hilarious and insightful – he brought amazing enthusiasm each day to JFDI and poured his heart into helping these teams.  Justin’s Blog.

Micropodcasts

Justin and I reflect on a week at JFDI

Justin on being a “Lifestyle Entrepreneur” – and proud of it

Need some startup help? Just book some time with me and I’m happy to help you.

  1. Although I’ve been hearing from more investors recently that they don’t plan on attending demo days in the future, much like Mark Suster. They’re starting to realize that spending time with a select few teams is more valuable for everyone than sitting through a few hours of presentations
  2. There are other accelerators adopting similar approaches, I just haven’t spend time there working with them. A good example is Paul Orlando’s AccelerateHK. There are no doubt many others I don’t know about, feel free to mention them in the comments below.

One Comment

  1. Ray March 6, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

    Kevin, thanks for the shout out! 🙂

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