As an Autism Dad, Advocate & Startup Mentor I spend a lot of time speaking with families, service providers and social entrepreneurs looking to make a difference in the lives of the people we love. I am always in awe of their passion, commitment and selflessness to our growing global community.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of engaging a number of startups around the world who are experimenting with innovative technologies, therapeutics & transformational ideas, all of which are sure to be transformative. As I travel in various autism & startup circles, I hear the advice of captains of industry, prospective investors & academic luminaries. There is a recurring theme embedded in all of these voices regarding the secret sauce that young startups should have in order to be successful. I am humbled by these insights and feel compelled to share it in the hopes that if I do nothing else with my life, helping autism startups, will in fact be the best thing I can do with my life.
If you are a busy autism startup and don’t have the time or the patience to read a top 10 list, then the key takeaway from this article is to learn to be a great storyteller. You could also own your story. Tell your story often. Keep it simple. And say it across multiple platforms because if you don’t, someone else will & it may not have the ending you were hoping for. However, if you have learned patience & time management (another top 10 list), then here is my top 10 pieces of advice for autism startups:
1. Learn to be a great story teller.
Like any other startup, people have to know your compelling story before investing or supporting your company. Don’t worry about getting actors because there is nothing more compelling than your unique voice, journey & experiences. If you like and appreciate authenticity, so do investors. Start at the beginning. Why are you doing this? What’s the problem you are trying to solve? What do you hope to change? How can others help? Don’t forget the clear ASK at the end because without it, it’s just a nice story. Lastly, the difference between good to great, is a lot. So aim high. Don’t just get the words out. Tell your story like it’s the greatest story ever told.
2. Be a social media ninja & podcaster.
Every 12 year old kid as a podcast. Why don’t you? Get on TikTok. Ask your kids how! Have a professional Linkedin profile. Upload Youtube videos. All day, every day. Social media shapes our thinking, perceptions & opinions and for better or worst, drives our decisions. This can’t be an inconsequential task that you give to an intern. You have to do it. You have to tell your story on social media, all day long. It’s personal. It’s direct. It’s free. And it’s on, 24/7. What do you have to lose?
3. What’s your value proposition?
As much as autism investors want to support the cause, they are still investors. And if you have to rely solely on their compassion to invest, then you are narrowing your field of potential investors. How is your product, service, technology or innovation distinct from any other competitor and worthy of their hard earned money? When do I get my money back? How is your Intellectual Property protected? Are you using my money efficiently & prudently or wasting it on gimmicks & flashy office space which does not help me get my ROI? You have to answer those questions before they ask it.
4. Build strategic partnerships.
You can’t change the world on your own. I know much of that is contrary to the startup mentality but the reality is that your operating environment is full of experts, people that have failed & recovered many times over. You may be surrounded by groups that are in a strategically better position than you, not necessarily better, just in a better position. So you have to constantly be looking for alignment opportunities where your core competencies complement another entity’s lack thereof. Look to get married without the in-laws.
5. Find a political champion.
Even if your product or service has nothing to do with the government, at some point it may. Your Mayor, Governor or Member of Congress would love to support job creation, technological innovation & economic development opportunities that help the special needs community in their district. That is political gold all day long and you may need a political champion to push, pull or break through a regulatory barrier that will almost certainly come up on your path to success. But more importantly, a political endorsement or even tacit support may go a long way to comfort to weary investors being asked to fund yet another brilliant new startup.
6. Identify government grants.
Government institutions fund a lot of innovation. Every city, state & federal government has multiple grant funding institutions. Start with your local city or county’s economic development or social services office. Look up autism grants on Google. Reach out to foundations. For example, the US Small Business Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research Office (SBIR) programs fund a diverse portfolio of startups and small businesses across technology areas and markets to stimulate technological innovation, meet Federal research and development needs, and increase commercialization to transition R&D into impact.
7. Reach out to mainstream media.
Local media loves local stories and you are one. You’ve been practicing your pitch. You have a compelling story. You’ve been on social media. And maybe you have a political champion or two. Now get on TV & radio and practice what you preach. Local media is always looking for a feel good story that may get picked up by the networks. That can open the floodgates for a broader audience and potential investor pool. Are you catching on how this works now?
8. Make your message simple.
I have sat through lots of pitch fests and at some point, I feel I’m in the wrong room. I realize the passion & innovation is there but it’s not coming across as simply as it should. This is not just about autism innovation. It’s any startup that has their technical ducks in a row but when it comes to crossing the road, all the ducklings are wandering around and unable to follow their mom. Keep your message simple. To the point. Again, don’t try to solve every major challenge facing this market. Focus on a simple ONE TWO THREE approach: Problem. Solution. Ask. And then stop talking.
9. Be flexible enough to change.
I have observed all the great CEO’s are very coachable. That’s not a small quality to have. Of course everyone has a romanticized vision of starting your own company, leading a flock of wide-eyed recruits to millions in riches but that’s not really why we are here, is it? As you put yourself & your ideas out there, be prepared for some constructive feedback or better yet, seek it out. Don’t wrap your decisions with your ego. It never works. Ask what you can do better and then execute that change. George Bernard Shaw once said, “Progress is impossible without change and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
10. Surround yourself with a powerful team.
Seek out a deeply connected group of advisors & investors for your Board of Directors who can speak passionately about your mission, when you are not there. Hire a handful of paid Board Advisors (subject matter experts) cause there are going to be things that you need to get done that fall in between the Board & your staff. And lastly, hire a diverse team of people to execute, not yes men or women but opinionated people that will challenge you. In the end, whatever their titles, no leader has ever done anything of consequence without someone in front of them, next to them and behind them, clearing a path, covering their blind spots and cleaning up the mess they left behind, respectively. That’s what a winning team looks like.
I hope this top 10 list has been helpful and if not, I’m sure someone will let me know. Good luck my friends!
Shahriar Afshar is an Autism Dad, Advocate, Startup Mentor & Podcaster at AutismSpa.com. He can be reached at info@AutismSpa.com.