Last week, we attended “Accelerator Options in NY: What’s Right for Your Startup,” a panel discussion hosted by WeWork Labs. The panelists—Murat Aktihanoglu of ERA; Nina Stepanov of Accelerprise; and Mina Salib of WeWork Labs—shared their thoughts on startups and accelerators.
Before we share our takeaways though, what is an accelerator? Think of it as a cram-course for startup founders. Most are relatively brief in duration—three to six months—and feature mentorship from professionals, investors, and experts to help founders develop their ideas and their companies. Participants enter with a cohort of other founders and so along with learning by doing, peer mentorship and networking are a big part of the scheme. The typical accelerator program closes with a demo day, during which founders present their companies and their products to a roomful of investors. Some of the most familiar names in tech are accelerator graduates: Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe, among others.
While each of the panelists offered their own perspectives, they generally agreed on key issues. Here are some of our takeaways.
What Accelerators Look For in a Startup
Perhaps this is unsurprising: accelerators are looking for the same things investors are. And they’ll have a lot of questions before offering an invite:
- Do you have a product?
- If there’s a product, is there a market?
- Will it scale?
- What’s your founder’s story? Or, in other words, how did you get to this point with your product and your company?
- What kind of funding do you already have and how much more will your company need?
In addition to those common investor concerns, the accelerator wants to know if you’re a good fit for their organization and the program:
- Who’s on your team and are they committed to the company and the product. Does the team have the expertise to solve the problem? Do they have the motivation?
- Will your company be able to translate the skills and knowledge offered by the accelerator’s coaches and experts into solutions for your company?
- Are you and your team coachable?
- Will your team be able to work in a peer-to-peer environment with other founders and firms invited to participate?
What Startups Should Look for in an Accelerator
At root, all businesses are relationship businesses. Just as the accelerator needs to know something about you before inviting you to participate, you should learn as much as you can about the accelerator. You’re going to be in close quarters for several months, after all.
The panelists agreed that founders should seek out program graduates, successful and otherwise, and ask about their experience. Reach out to founders with products and businesses similar to yours. Did the program help them succeed? Did it help them find investors? Find out what the day-to-day support was like. What did program managers do when things got tough? How well did the program prepare accelerator graduates for demo day—and beyond?
Finally, look at who’s on the mentorship team. The roster should include a broad range of expertise, but it should absolutely include experienced venture capitalists. Investor relationships take time to develop and a VC who has been active over several years will be able to offer deeper insights—and access to a wider range of potential investors later on.
You’re in! Now What?
You and the accelerator have agreed you’re a good match. The panelists had lots of advice about what it takes to succeed once you’ve gotten in.
- Be positive and have reasonable expectations. You’ll be working with both mentors and peers. Everyone likes to work with enthusiastic, positive people.
- Have a goal: If you’ve gotten this far you know how to set goals and reach them. What does success at the end of the accelerator look like for your company? Is it building a team? Getting the next round of funding? Settling on an MVP?
- Show up and participate. The program is a big opportunity for you and your company—take advantage of it. Murat Aktihanoglu of ERA commented that in his experience, the founders who were the most engaged found the most success afterward—they raised the most money and their companies were more likely to reach profitability.
- Be open-minded and ready to accept feedback. You’re going to be exposed to a lot of different people, with different experiences and perspectives. You will receive feedback from your peers—other founders— and from mentors. Don’t discard any of it, good or bad. Review it with your team. Does it resonate? Is it helpful for your business? Whatever the answer, be able to show that you’ve listened and considered. When you are asked what you’ve ultimately decided to do, be able to answer why.
Soon enough the program will be over. What can you do to continue to succeed?
- Become an expert in your market. When someone—an investor, another startup, a potential customer—has a question about the market you serve, be the person they go to for answers. You never know who may come looking for you.
- Be yourself. Part of your success is due to how you are perceived by others, and you should be aware of that perception; ultimately that perception affects your business. In some contexts, you may need to be formal and serious, or hard-charging and driven. In others, you may need to be “cool and chill,” as Nina Stepanov of Accelerprise put it. “Like I am here on this panel.”
- As a founder, you are a brand. This is related to the advice above about becoming an expert. Take advantage of every opportunity to discuss your market and your industry and when you do, be sure your message is consistent and useful. People, including potential investors and customers, absolutely will find you online. When they do, they should find the version of you that best promotes your brand, your company, and your product.