Are you considering joining an accelerator in hopes of propelling your startup into the ranks of Airbnb and Dropbox? As accelerators proliferate, your options may seem endless and confusing. How do you choose the right accelerator for you and your venture? Once you are part of the cohort, how do you ensure you get the most out of the experience?
At Impact Engine, a 16-week accelerator that supports for-profit businesses tackling today's societal and environmental challenges, we've seen how entrepreneurs make the most out of their accelerator experience. Based on our observations, we suggest the following considerations to maximize what you and your business get from participating in an accelerator:
1. Choose the "Right" Accelerator
The value of an accelerator isn't fully captured by the dollars per share of equity your company gains; rather, the true value is in the mentorship and access to a network. Accelerator programs may be designed to serve different purposes, so know what you want out of the experience - access to capital, access to a new market, education in business development - and choose accordingly. Do your due diligence on the accelerator. Ask them to connect you to other founders who have been through the program. Find a few people they didn't mention and ask them if they would share their experiences. You should ask yourself and others the following questions: Does the accelerator you are considering have access to a mentor network that understands the type of business you are launching? Can they offer industry expertise? What progress have other companies made during and after participating in the accelerator? Does the accelerator have a network of investors that can act as seed and series A funders for your venture? What is their track record of helping their portfolio companies access post-accelerator funding? Remember, the startup/accelerator relationship is bidirectional; you are selecting their program as much as they are selecting your company.
2. Know What You Don't Know
While you will not be able to identify all the unknowns of starting your company (e.g. the "unknown unknowns"), it is important to spend time in advance of the accelerator developing a list of known unknowns. Have your list of questions, key assumptions and unknowns prepared before any mentor meetings so the time is used most effectively and efficiently. Be ready to ask thoughtful questions and really use the opportunity to solicit advice from experienced mentors.
3. Have a Compass But Be Willing to Listen
By definition, as an entrepreneur, you must have a great deal of confidence in your vision and your ability to execute on that vision. Those entrepreneurs that are open to considering new ideas and are listening for insights and wisdom from every conversation -- and looking for ways to integrate these ideas into their vision -- will thrive and continuously improve. In contrast, those that bullishly approach every conversation assuming they already have the answers or are resistant to learning from others will not fully reap the benefits of the mentorship that an accelerator offers.
That being said, throughout your accelerator program you will receive lots of advice and opinions, and often times those opinions will conflict. It is important that you and your team listen carefully and then evaluate the applicability of the advice. In addition, it will be essential for you to understand the perspective from which the advice comes. Why does the person you are meeting with have the views they have? What has their experience been? From there, assess the relevance to your own company. Does their suggestion make sense for your business?
4. Find a Trusted Advisor
Most accelerators flood their entrepreneurs with access to mentors. While this provides a plethora of opinions on your business model, it often results in conflicting information and ideas. Having one or two advisors that are a consistent voice will be important as you evaluate numerous suggestions for your venture and strive to make sense of all the feedback and signals from the market. Find someone you trust, and be frank with them about the challenges you are facing and the progress you are (or aren't) making.
5. Be Ready to Iterate Quickly
Entrepreneurs that can quickly test new ideas that come out of mentor meetings will be able to validate these suggestions and pivot as required. In order to accomplish this, it's critical to have a strong team and process established for initiating feedback loops. If your target customer is in another city or another country, it is important to have a team member with boots on the ground in those communities so you aren't forced to wait until the conclusion of the accelerator to test new ideas. Also, the breadth of the team participating in the accelerator plays a role in your ability to be effective. Having multiple team members, not just a single founder participating, will allow you to divide and conquer; one team member can meet with mentors while the other iterates on the product or meets with customers. And don't wait until the product is perfect - getting a minimum viable product in front of customers quickly means you'll get feedback faster and be able to iterate more rapidly.
6. Engage With Your Cohort
Entrepreneurship can feel lonely at times. Remember, you are surrounded by passionate, interesting people that are experiencing many of the same struggles you are. While their companies and business models may be very different than yours, it's likely that you can still learn from their experiences. If nothing else, you at least have an empathetic support network--use it!
7. But, It's Not Summer Camp!
Your time in an accelerator is not summer camp where you expect to have fun, pick up some neat ideas, and then return again next year. An accelerator should be a one-time event that propels your growth and ends with giving you exactly what you need to succeed (or sometimes know when to walk away). Yes everyone around you is interesting and fun, but they'll be just as fun after the formal programming is over, especially if you all have traction with your respective businesses.
As an entrepreneur, you will devote time, energy and equity to an accelerator in exchange for mentorship, access to a network, and some investment dollars. Make sure the fit is right, and be prepared to get the most out of the experience - the road to building a valuable and impactful company is long and hard, but accelerators exist to get you off to a fast start!