Inside Expa Labs, Uber co-founder’s take on the startup accelerator

There’s no shortage of startup incubators and accelerators, but there’s always room for improvement and iterations on an old operating model. Expa Labs, a six-month program for startups that spun out of Uber co-founder Garrett Camp’s Expa Studios, has a different take on the startup accelerator/incubator model. Last week, it wrapped up its first batch of startups.

Launched in 2013, Expa Studios aims to test new ideas and build new startups. The idea is that Expa partners (Camp, AddThis founder Hooman Radfar, Foursquare co-founder Naveen Selvadurai, Metrolyrics founder Milun Tesovic, former Twitter designer Vitor Lourenço and former Google search lead Roberto Sanabria) team up with founders to explore those ideas and launch them.

“Over the last couple of years we’ve built a system — a network,” Selvadurai told me. “We’ve built a lot of shared learnings, we’ve built a process behind the scenes for trying these different studio-level companies out, getting them out to market and user testing. So, we thought, at the genesis of Labs, why don’t we take a lot of that infrastructure and process and bring it to other founders that are not us as partners. Let’s bring it to people that have equally good ideas. Maybe they don’t have the experience that we do — people who are also looking for a vehicle through which they can get their ideas into the world.”

What makes Expa Labs different from other Silicon Valley startup programs is the amount of money it invests, the length of the program, and the overall intimate nature of it, which is a result of the small number of startups it chooses to work with at any given time.

“The end result is to put more great ideas in the world — change peoples lives,” Selvadurai told me at Expa’s offices in San Francisco. “So you could take a lot of bets or put more time behind fewer bets. That’s kind of what we’re doing. We’re trying to help more people realize their potential vision and so that’s why we’re at six. Five years from now, we still might be under 100.”

Thanks to a $100 million injection of funding in March from investors like Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson and HP CEO Meg Whitman, Expa was able to deploy that money across Studio companies as well as outside companies through Labs. Expa Labs, which its General Manager Eric Friedman told me has a founder-first approach, invests $500,000 in each company and provides six months worth of office space in either San Francisco or New York in exchange for a 20 percent equity stake.

“We took a totally different approach and said, ‘what do founders need to be successful?’ I call it founder-first principles,” Friedman said. “What do founders need and what can Expa provide of that list that founders need? How much do you actually need to get from idea to MVP to market?”

Expa Labs selected six startups as part of its first batch: property management startup Chalet, in-feed advertising platform Promote, digital marketplace for agriculture in Tanzania Ninayo, brand-creator platform Dovetale, smarter phone number app Listen and developer toolkit for location tracking Radar. Two that jumped out at me were Listen, co-founded by Lauren Leto and Cam Hunt, and Ninayo, founded by former Peace Corps volunteer Jack Langworthy. Both Leto and Langworthy told me they’ve gotten a lot out of participating in Expa Labs.

“It’s hard to raise on a pre-revenue African startup,” Langworthy told me. “Finally, I got to pitch the guys at Expa and they could see the vision, the impact. This was a giant, fragmented marketplace just like, say, the taxi industry used to be in America. Massively inefficient and the pieces were not in place.”

In retrospect, Langworthy thought he was much further along than he was before joining Expa. He’s admittedly not a tech person, given that he’s mostly worked in African agriculture.

“Expa’s been really useful for helping me hire the right engineer, helping to learn how to do product development and to A/B test,” he said. “Getting to talk product strategy with Garrett Camp is like goofing around on math problems with Einstein or something.”

Expa Labs also decided against the traditional Silicon Valley demo day. Ultimately, the team concluded that demo days — which are long and “cattle call in nature” — do more harm than good.

“We didn’t do a lot of pitch practices,” Leto told me. “It wasn’t the type of program where it was like, ‘you’re going to learn how to make a great pitch at demo day,’ which I so appreciated. I probably could’ve come in and done such a better pitch to you but I would probably have a lot less work done on this.”

Instead of a demo day, all of Expa’s investors receive an email that highlights each of the companies’ milestones, progress and status.

“For investors, they love getting a synopsis of progress via email,” Friedman said. “We’re far enough in the future where it’s an efficient means of communicating.”

As this batch of Expa Labs is coming to an end, the team is looking forward to the next round of startups and beyond. Expa Labs will open applications for its 2017 program, which will run from June to November, in early January. The next batch will enable startups to be based in Vancouver, and down the road, the plan is to expand the geographic reach of Labs much farther.

“The idea of a distributed program and having people who aren’t based in one of those cities is actually really interesting to us,” Friedman said. “With a global network of entrepreneurs, you have to start somewhere. We started with New York and San Francisco. Next year will include Vancouver. I think also about where else in the U.S. we can support people. From there, where else can we go outside of the U.S. That’s part of the plan. We’re figuring out that right now. The idea is how can we support these people everywhere.”