Making the Most of a Startup Accelerator
Accelerators: they’re everywhere.
In the greater Boston area alone, there are more than 50 accelerators, incubators, and support programs that offer startups co-working space, education, capital, mentorship, networking, and other support.
Generally, these accelerators are structured the same: a cohort of startups participate for a set period of time and cap off the experience with a demo day. Yet, not all accelerators are created equal. Some offer cash and in-kind prizes. Some take equity in exchange for admission, others are free. Some have cohorts of fewer than 10 startups, others include more than 100.
With so many options—and so many differences among them—how should a founder decide which accelerator to apply to? And, more importantly, what can be done in the program to ensure growth actually is accelerated at the end?
To find out, we talked with four seasoned accelerator pros and asked them to share their wisdom, experiences, and advice with fellow founders considering applying for a program.
Meet the Accelerator Alumni
Hanson Grant, Founder and CEO of Think Board
Accelerators: Butler Venture Accelerator at Babson College; MassChallenge; Summer Venture Program at Babson College
Yuanyuan Yin, CEO, and Kathryn Jones, Chief Product Officer, of SuperHealos
Accelerators: Summer Venture Program at Babson College; MassChallenge; InnoLoft
Bernette Dawson, Founder, Made Organics
Accelerators: Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab® at Babson College; MassChallenge Boot Camp
First things first: Do your research.
BD: “Make sure the accelerator is the right fit for you. I wanted to gain business knowledge and become a well-rounded founder—I was missing some business savvy—but I also wanted to be supported as a female entrepreneur. That’s why the WIN Lab® at Babson was right for me.”
KJ: “You need to know what areas your company is struggling in, then find an accelerator that will help to address those issues. Have a few bulleted ideas of exactly what you need to figure out to make your company great, then objectively review the accelerator and find out if that one will help you achieve the specific goals you’ve set.”
Don’t shy away from accelerators affiliated with a college or university, even if you’re not affiliated with the institution.
KJ: “Because Yuan was getting her MBA from Babson, it was a natural choice for us to apply for their Summer Venture Program. It gave us the potential to be in a structured environment where we could soak up even more wisdom and advice from so many knowledgeable people.”
BD: “I pride myself on going through an accelerator affiliated with Babson. Outside of the small business world, if I say I’ve gone through an accelerator program, many people don’t understand. But, the College’s name comes with credibility, recognition, and resources.”
Know what area of your business to focus on during the program.
HG: “During MassChallenge, we knew we wanted to focus on our brand, so we picked a mentor that had branding expertise. There’s a lot that mentors can bring to the table—connections, expertise—so choose your mentors based on what you’re hoping to gain during the accelerator.”
YY: “Don’t expect an accelerator to fix your problem. If you prepare, do your homework, and are proactive, you’ll be much more successful. Otherwise, an accelerator is just office space.”
HG: “You can be in an accelerator and sit on Facebook the whole time, but nothing will get done. You don’t just go into the program and have everything work out for you—you have to really work at it.”
Take advantage of your accelerator’s network.
YY: “Every single accelerator we’ve been in has had a collaborative and supportive cohort. Even if you’re in a different industry or space, companies can share knowledge and how they’ve tackled similar issues. That support is critical.”
HG: “During one of the Butler Venture Accelerator pitch sessions, I said I wanted to partner with Microsoft. I didn’t know this beforehand, but someone from Microsoft was there. After my pitch, he came over, gave me his card, and we started chatting. He’s connected me to a number of people, who have, in turn, connected me to people—it’s incredible.”
Setbacks happen. Use them to make your business better.
BD: “When I first started in WIN Lab, I had a product, a brand name, and a story. But, during our second pitch session, one of the judges said, ‘I hate your brand’ in front of the whole crowd. I couldn’t hear anything else she or any of the judges said after that.
“At the end of the night, I pulled her aside and asked her what she didn’t like. From her feedback, Made Organics was born. And, since we rebranded, we’ve seen an increase in sales. So, when you fail, fail fast, and learn from your mistakes. Then move forward.”
Posted in Preparing Entrepreneurial Leaders