If you’re a startup founder, at some point you’ve considered applying for an accelerator or incubator program. Like Y Combinator, 500 Startups or Techstars, these programs take promising startups, move them to a particular location for a constrained period of time (though some are virtual), and put them through an intense bootcamp of learning, building, and hopefully growing. The output of these programs have been some of the most promising startups of the last decade.
Accelerator programs have dramatically increased in number in recent years, and as such, evaluating when and if you should join one is important. If you’re accepted to one of the above three, you’ll probably want to go – that’s a no brainer. But there are other accelerator programs that may – or may not – add value to your company. My hope is that this post will help you make a more informed decision when evaluating accelerator options.
Who Shouldn’t Join an Accelerator
Timing is a key factor when deciding whether or not to join an accelerator. There’s a goldilocks zone in there, a sweet spot startup stage in which you’re neither too early nor too late.
Too early: you don’t have a cofounder that compliments your weaknesses. If you’re a lone wolf, consider waiting to join an accelerator until you’ve got at least one cofounder that can help you build your company. If you’re weak on technology, get a technical cofounder. If you’re weak on marketing, find a business-oriented cofounder. Doing this first will increase your chances of acceptance.
Too early: you don’t have a clue what to build. You may know you want to do a startup, but haven’t yet figured out your market. Or perhaps you’ve figured out the general area but haven’t fleshed out a clear investment thesis about what to build. To increase your chances of being accepted, figure this out beforehand.
Too late: you have built your product, have product/market fit, and understand your growth channels. In this case, if you’re chasing a big market, you should pour gasoline on your already roaring fire and grow! VC money might be right for you here, as long as every dollar you put to work procures $5, $10, or $20+ dollars in revenue.
Goldilocks Sweet Spot: You have a good founding team in place, a clear investment thesis you’d like to test and an early product built. Ideally, you’d have some traction – perhaps a few users trying out your product – but are still solving your growth channels. You may need to pivot a time or two on your product, market or growth avenues, but you understand that you’re going after a large and underserved market opportunity.
This is where a good accelerator can really help you take off. But all accelerators aren’t created equal, and before you start looking around for one, consider the following tests.
What Makes a Great Accelerator
The key to business success is allocating resources well. A good accelerator can help you with both – providing you with resources and helping you make good decisions. Executing on this is far, far harder than it sounds.
Quality accelerators connect you to real, tangible resources. They “show you the money.” That means cold hard cash, or in the case of fintech, legal advice of the highest quality. Don’t discount legal advice and other services, especially in fintech. Excellent lawyers will help keep you out of jail. If a fintech accelerator offers to help you work through your AML policies and procedures for free with a reputable firm, that is free money you should take if offered. Capital is also important, because it will help you survive while you relentlessly churn out product and growth experiments to find what works.
Resources are more than just cash and services, they are also real, meaningful introductions to suppliers and most importantly, customers. For example, if you are making a new payments solution for the agriculture sector, an accelerator that can put you in the room with technology buyers at large agribusiness operators is a huge value add.
Good accelerators will help you procure not just current but future investments in the form of introductions to other investors in your space. Many have demo days with investors ready to write big checks. Just be sure you do your homework and understand what percentage of companies accepted to the accelerator go on to receive investment as a direct result of demo day or intros made by the accelerator team.
The other value an accelerator can add is guidance, often in the form of mentors. Good mentors help you make good decisions. The best mentors help you find a good process for sorting through product and growth theses. A good mentor doesn’t tell you what to, she helps you figure out a process that results in p/m fit and growth time and time again. Good mentors help you systematically find and mitigate risks.
The number of real accelerators that can provide capital, services, and meaningful introductions are relatively few. To separate the wheat from the chaff, know what to avoid.
What to Avoid
One of my favorite quotes is from Charlie Munger: “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so that I will never go there.” I love this because it points to the fact that so often, success is a matter of avoiding failure. Don’t quit; don’t give away too much equity; don’t go into debt to fund your company; don’t start up with an uncommitted cofounder. Accelerators are no different – there are some big red flags entrepreneurs should consider when evaluating them.
Red Flag 1: You have to pay. If you have to pay a fee to join an accelerator, you should avoid this program. Accelerators should be making money off their investment returns, not founders. Take that money and put it into your product or another marketing experiment.
Red Flag 2: You are individually invited to apply with no guarantee of acceptance. If someone invites you personally to apply to their accelerator – not as part of their general marketing strategy, not because you attended an information session or webinar – but they reach out to you out of the blue and they want you to jump through the hoops of an application process, you should ask yourself why this is happening. Especially if this person is more of an associate, rather than a partner. If they’re convinced you have a promising startup, ask them why they don’t just reserve a spot for you in their next batch? Though rare, it is not unheard of for young accelerators to get a bunch of idealistic founders to apply to their program, and then reject the majority of them so they have their pick of the “best”. This is an unethical waste of a busy founder’s time, including yours. Individual invitations to apply with no guarantee of acceptance should be viewed with suspicion.
Accelerators ≠ Success
Remember that ultimately, you control your own destiny. Build your product, figure out your market, find your growth channel, get revenue and profits. These are the keys to business success, not joining an accelerator or any other group. A good accelerator will help you get there faster by providing capital, resources, introductions, and know-how. But whether accelerated or not, success or failure depends solely on you.