Five Questions With: Melissa Withers

Chief of staff and “nerd whisperer” for Betaspring talks to PBN about the startup accelerators growth in 2012 and what it has to look forward to in 2013. More

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Five Questions With: Melissa Withers

COURTESY BETASPRING
“Startup communities are the lifeblood of the global economy and the most important driver of job creation in our country.”
Posted 12/26/12

Melissa Withers is the chief of staff and “nerd whisperer” for Betaspring, a Providence-based startup accelerator focused on high growth, technology driven companies.

In this role, she works to connect companies in the Betaspring portfolio with resources that support growth and “magnify the magic” of Betaspring’s 12-week mentorship driven program.

Withers, who is also a lead partner in the Founders League, a new platform for building a thriving entrepreneurial environment in the Ocean State, talked to Providence Business News about Betaspring growth in 2012 and what the accelerator has to look forward to most in 2013.

PBN: 2012 has been an exciting year for Betaspring, can you fill is us on some of the highlights?

WITHERS: 2012 was a great year. This year, we scaled-up operations and relocated to our new headquarters, which enabled us to accelerate 29 companies in just the last 12 months. Making the switch from one session to two sessions was hard but incredibly rewarding work.

Also, in 2012, many of our alumni companies, who come to Betaspring from all over the country, have put roots down in Providence, creating a critical mass of exciting, early stage startups and founders here in the capital city.

Our portfolio is performing well and many of our companies are making fast progress, raising funds, pioneering new platforms and getting great traction in their markets. To date, the companies in our portfolio have raised $20M in follow-on funding, and 2012 was good year, investment wise, for many.

It was also a good year for the mentors who work with Betaspring companies, with many of them celebrating big wins within their own organizations. All of that good energy, when it comes together in a startup community, is powerful.

Lastly, in 2012, Betaspring joined a partnership with the Providence Chamber of Commerce, Brown University, and URI to launch the Founders League. This new platform is allowing us to take what we have learned at Betaspring and apply it more broadly to help a larger community of entrepreneurs. That’s awesome.

PBN: What is your favorite part of the Betaspring program?

WITHERS: Working directly with the companies. Nothing is more inspiring--or more terrifying--than a startup. The stakes are high and our founders’ emotional commitment to their ventures is off the charts. It’s an intoxicating mix of passion, intelligence...and insanity. It’s also very rewarding.

Often a very small thing--a connection, an email, an idea--makes a live-or-die difference for a company.

Having the chance to make or facilitate those magic moments is a huge gift and I feel very lucky to be a part of that dynamic. I also work with an incredible team and I have learned more from them and from our startups than I ever imagined possible. And my partners let me keep a wine cellar on-site. Could it get better than that?

PBN: Why do you think it’s important to help build the technology start-up community in the Ocean State?

WITHERS: Startup communities are the lifeblood of the global economy and the most important driver of job creation in our country.

There are so many ways that startups feed the economy: they become larger organizations, they are a channel for innovation, they attract talent, they are bought by larger organizations who, without them, might die. You name it, startups do it.

Even when a startup fails, those founders--and the wisdom they pick up along the way--goes back into the ecosystem where their talent and energy is reabsorbed by companies who need it. But these things don’t happen in isolation.

It’s never about one startup or one entrepreneur. It’s always about a community. You need a lot of material--ideas, people, resources--at the top of the funnel to get to a sustainable and dynamic economic ecosystem. That’s why building a startup community, and not just focusing on single companies, remains a priority for our team.

PBN: What advice do you have to people who are more in the real beginning phases of the entrepreneurial process?

WITHERS: Don’t go it alone. Get out of your basement. Connect with other founders and go to events and places where you can meet other entrepreneurs and potential partners, mentors and investors. Read until your eyes bleed. Know what’s happening in your market, in your technology, in your community. That will help you immensely as you look for support.

Second, “know thyself.” Know what you can really do, and what you can’t. Be as brutally honest and realistic about this as possible. Because you will never find what you need if you don’t know what you are looking for.

PBN: What are you looking forward to most in the upcoming year?

WITHERS: Our next session starts on Feb. 11. It’s always amazing to dive in and get to know the new companies and the people who run them. I am also excited to see the alumni community continue to grow.

Thanks to our continued partnership with the City of Providence (Thank you, Mayor Taveras!) several of the companies who were with us in the Fall session, are taking part in an investment program that keeps them in Providence, another boost in creating a “critical mass” of startups locally.

I am also looking forward to working with the Founders League. It’s a huge opportunity to transform our entrepreneurial ecosystem and experiment with how we help more startups succeed. We’ll be working with a consortium of partners and learning a lot as we go.

It’s going to be a busy, challenging year, but there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

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