Stephen Forte is the Chief Strategy Officer of the venture backed company Telerik, a leading vendor of developer and team productivity tools. He is the co-founder and executive director of AcceleratorHK, Hong Kong's first start-up accelerator.
Involved in several start-ups, he was the co-founder of Triton Works, which was acquired by UBM (London: UBM.L) in 2010 and was the Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Corzen, Inc., which was acquired by Wanted Technologies (TXV: WAN) in 2007. Prior to Corzen, Stephen served as the CTO of Zagat Survey in New York City (acquired by Google in 2011), and also was co-founder of the New York-based software consulting firm The Aurora Development Group.
Stephen is also a Certified Scrum Master, Certified Scrum Professional, PMP and also speaks regularly at industry conferences around the world. He has written several books on application and database development. Stephen has an MBA from the City University of New York. Stephen is also a board member of the Scrum Alliance.
An avid mountain climber, Stephen leads a trek in the Mt. Everest region every fall to raise money for charity. Stephen lives in Hong Kong with his wife. @worksonmypc
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Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
What particularly useful job roles, career milestones and valuable lessons can you share since the last time we talked?
"....Since the last time we spoke I've had a great experience working on the AcceleratorHK project, which is a start-up accelerator focused extensively on hybrid mobile development or cross platform development...."
You mentioned the cross platform or hybrid development, are there some recommended tools that you would like to spotlight?
What should developers focus on?
"....They've built out several platforms for consumers, but I think for the next number of years developers will start looking at the enterprise again, both with mobility and non-mobility...."
Can you share tips about the global entrepreneurship environment?
"....I think there's been a bit of a renaissance in the global entrepreneurship environment. More people are jumping in and starting businesses and this is due to two reasons. First is that the cost (and risk) of starting a business today has been drastically reduced over the past decade. Second is that the global economy is still very weak....You are seeing more people who would have gone into all these other sectors that have been hit really hard by the global recession now going into start-ups or starting them up themselves...."
Stephen describes the ecosystem/environment for start-ups in Hong Kong.
"....The culture in Hong Kong and most of Asia is a little risk-adverse and think start-ups are a little bit risky and once that starts changing (and it is changing), the Hong Kong ecosystems will grow even further...."
What are your tips for forming an accelerator?
"....If you are starting an accelerator, the mentors make the program. That would be my tip, go out and find the best mentors you can...."
Are there other key members that should be part of an accelerator team, for example accountants, lawyers, technical people, etc.?
"....Our cohort was small; we started out with six teams so Paul and I were able to make sure that all the meetings were scheduled and the mentor relationships were scheduled. Once you get larger than six or seven you are going to need some administrative help in that regard....The important thing if you are starting an accelerator, the accountants and lawyers are really only needed at the beginning and at the end....I think the perfect accelerator would have a few developers on staff who are senior developers who can train and almost work for hire for the team during that three month period...."
You mentioned customer development so in your training program or in some of the courses, seminars or workshops you provided you must have been following some gurus out there?
"....When it comes to customer development and the process of building a new start-up from scratch there are two gurus that everyone needs to follow. The first is Steve Blank, he's written a very influential book called The Four Steps to the Epiphany....Another individual who is extremely influential and has to be followed as well is Eric Ries and he's written the book called The Lean Startup...."
You have this start-up and people submit their business proposals, but once they are in the accelerator program that you have, do you use these business plans or do you have some other kind of technique?
"....We have another technique instead of a business plan that we prefer to use (we are gaining a lot of traction in the global start-up eco-system), and this is called the Business Model Canvas which was developed in a book, The Business Model Generation by Alex Osterwalder....The Business Model Canvas is a great tool and it gives you the ability to look at your business holistically in nine different categories...."
You mentioned you did accept a cohort and they went into your AcceleratorHK program, how many of them pivoted?
"....Every one of them pivoted in a small capacity and probably 5 out of the 6 pivoted in a major capacity...."
What are your best practices for operating an accelerator?
"....The number one issue was space, it took us a while to find space for an accelerator....In addition to that the other avenues of operating a cohort are your regularly scheduled meetings (as I mentioned before your administration is key here)....Operating the cohort really is a logistical process once it gets started. Before it gets started there's a lot of legal and accounting things which need to take place...."
Stephen describes in a nutshell what their accelerator looks like.
"....When the program is over it's not really over. We'll check in with the teams every 30 days and we'll pretty much keep doing that until we're not needed anymore...."
How do you choose a cohort? What are you looking for? What are some of the attributes that you think will make for success?
"....If you have a great team: they are coachable, adaptable and work well together and they come with a good idea or great idea in a really hot market, those are the attributes that we are really looking for...Most who come into the accelerator (the teams that we accept), haven't even written any code yet. They just have a small prototype and the business model canvas, that's actually the perfect team...."
You already talked about the Demo Day and the whole operational process, the strategy behind it, the customer development, the lean start-up, the business canvas idea — all great foundations for making this thing work. What do you want to accomplish long term?
"....Long term I hope to change the model a little bit where I think the early round of investment will be provided more by accelerators that come with an educational component. I hope to help grow that accelerator ecosystem around the world by being one of the stand-out start-up accelerators...."
How will accelerators change the entrepreneurial ecosystem?
"....Accelerators are easy to set up and they don't cost a lot of money beyond the investment and the lawyers....The hardest part is attracting the right mentors, if you attract great mentors you are going to attract great cohorts because your mentors will also help you to promote your cohort....I think accelerators long-term will increase the amount of innovation in society because they will spread and will make so many investments in all these early stage companies, and a lot of them will fail, but a lot of them will also succeed...."
What do you hope the survival rate will be in 5 years post-acceleration in your accelerator?
"....Realistically the statistics say the following: about 1/3 do well upon graduation, 1/3 struggle along and don't get funding and 1/3 never make it out of the accelerator. That's a pretty consistent statistic....We are lucky, all of our teams graduated and some of them are starting to survive right now so we'll beat the odds in our first build. I assume over time our averages will balance out to the accelerator average...."
What are some truly disruptive technology forces for the next five years and why are these your choices?
"....I think the two things that are going to change drastically over the next 5 years are processing power and energy storage (or more specifically battery life)...."
Do you feel computing should be a recognized profession on par with accounting, medicine and law with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, personal responsibility, public accountability, quality assurance and recognized credentials? [See-www.ipthree.org and the Global Industry Council, -http://www.ipthree.org/about-ip3/global-advisory-council]
"....I think there should be something like a tier-based system. If you are going to be working on a life-critical, mission-critical application, I think there should be some kind of recognizable accreditation or certification. If you are senior developers working on software worth millions of dollars, definitely obtain these certifications and accreditations. That said, if you are working at a small company as a developer or a systems engineer or as a coder at a start-up, I don't think you necessarily need a high level of accreditation, you just need the credentials in so far as you have the experience.....I would like to see that everyone who enters the industry adhere towards a public code of ethics...."
From his extensive speaking, travels and work, Stephen shares some stories (amusing, surprising, unexpected, amazing).
"....I'm still going to Nepal every year on a charity trek where it raises money for schools and I wanted to highlight this year because I brought my 65 year old father with me. I got him to climb up to just over 6000 meters or 18000 feet with a group of about ten of us...."
If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....What is the best advice for applying to a start-up accelerator?....My city or location has no real start-up ecosystem, what do I do?....Why Nepal?...."
Stephen, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.
Music by Sunny Smith Productions and Shaun O'Leary