Techstars’ Jon Zanoff: Today’s Startups are Disrupting What I Built

By Jordan French Jordan French has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on December 5, 2018

Odysseus bested Mentor. Caesar bested Pompey. Churchill bested Chamberlain. Who will best Techstars’ Jon Zanoff?

Techstars, easily a top-three startup accelerator known for incubating Sphero, Digital Ocean, SendGrid, and ClassPass among others, held its semi-annual startup demo day at its Barclay’s accelerator in New York December 5. We caught up with Techstars’ managing director, Jon Zanoff, to get the latest on the current start up environment, funding, and why talented developers increasingly want transparency in the workplace.

  1. You’ve had your own interesting entrepreneurial journey from a young age. Share that.

    Jon Zanoff’s earlier work could get disrupted. And he’s ok with that.

The first 15 yrs of my career I was tasked with building innovative FinTech products for some of the largest financial institutions, including asset managers, investment banks, and brokerages on wall street.  I like to joke that today’s startups are attempting to disrupt what I built.

Before joining Techstars, I wanted to do whatever I could to track new trends in FinTech and I founded a company called Empire Startups. Empire Startups has grown into the largest community of Fintech entrepreneurs in the world at over 16,000 members.

  1. What makes this 2018 Techstars class different?

When sourcing the top FinTech companies for the program we saw even more globalization in entrepreneurship with applications coming in from 68 countries. Artificial intelligence is increasingly prevalent across every company in the class from capital markets to diversity & inclusion.

  1. Let’s talk numbers. How many applications for spots do you receive? How many “acceptances”?

My job is to uncover the very best early-stage FinTech companies from around the world, help unlock their potential, and ensure they maximize on amazing opportunities within the Techstars and Barclays’ networks. This means I’ll meet over 1000 entrepreneurs each year for the 10 investments we make!

I think applications risk being a glamour stat as they are easily gamed. Instead I like to talk about results like the fact that 90% of Techstars companies are still operating or have been acquired. That Techstars portfolio companies have gone on to raise a total of 5.8B and have a market cap over 16B.  

  1. Why have we witnessed such an “entrepreneurial boom? Is it really just a myth that we have more entrepreneurs than ever before?

Some of the recent irrational valuations and unicorns certainly do grab the media’s attention. But the entrepreneurial boom is no myth. For starters, the barriers are much lower and it’s never been easier to start a company. These days you can have your companies legal docs signed, a web presence launched, and digital ads running around the world in an hour and all from the comfort of your couch! Not to mention worldwide networks like Techstars, that help entrepreneurs succeed, simply weren’t around 20 years ago.

Today young developers are also demanding more than just a strong base salary and the bragging rights of a bulge-bracket firm. They want transparency into the company’s overall strategy, the ability to influence the product roadmap, and a modern software framework to move quickly. And while this is doable for even the largest institutions, it’s a lot easier with the second mover advantage of a startup.

  1. Throughout your experiences have you observed traits that suggest one should certainly not be an entrepreneur?

There’s a common myth about the “startup culture” as visions of modern coworking spaces and foosball tables confuse many into thinking entrepreneurship is the easier path. But make no mistake, entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. If you want comfort, safety, and consistency, than a 9-5 corporate job may be right for you.

On the other hand if you are a maniacal problem solver and relentlessly pursue feedback and diverse opinions, than entrepreneurship is the way to change the world. There are only two types of people in the world, entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs.

  1. There’s not much attention paid to intellectual property at startups these days (in mainstream media). Is there anything new on the horizon?

As an investor I will continue to evaluate the defensibility of any given new technology. It is as essential as ever to create a moat in order to ensure first mover advantage. This said, I’m not surprised that the media has focused less on intellectual property. IP is table stakes. This is especially the case in FinTech, where even the greatest hustlers can fail to acquire customers and secure distribution partnerships. The challenge of getting a product in the hand of customers is why programs like the Barclays Accelerator are so powerful.

  1. Most startup accelerators avoid single-person startups. Why? Is that wrong?

As a mentorship-driven accelerator the reality is that single-person startups will have a harder time keeping up with feedback from 100+ mentors in a very short amount of time. Above all, a great team of diverse founders is paramount. Can a single founder or a team without a technical co-founder get in our program? It’s not unheard of, but as investors, we’ll always place our bets on diverse thought.

By Jordan French Jordan French has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Journalist verified by Muck Rack verified

Jordan French is the Founder and Executive Editor of Grit Daily Group, encompassing Financial Tech Times, Smartech Daily, Transit Tomorrow, BlockTelegraph, Meditech Today, and flagship outlet, Grit Daily. The champion of live journalism, Grit Daily's team hails from ABC, CBS, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Forbes, Fox, PopSugar, SF Chronicle, VentureBeat, Verge, Vice, and Vox. An award-winning journalist, he was on the editorial staff at and a Fast 50 and Inc. 500-ranked entrepreneur with one sale. Formerly an engineer and intellectual-property attorney, his third company, BeeHex, rose to fame for its "3D printed pizza for astronauts" and is now a military contractor. A prolific investor, he's invested in 50+ early stage startups with 10+ exits through 2023.

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