3 Ways to Succeed in a Startup Accelerator

The startup craze is far from over. Just take a look at Y Combinator’s Summer 2019 class, which welcomed 197 startups into its ranks. Participants gained access to $150,000 in capital in exchange for around 7 percent of equity, as well as the opportunity to pitch prominent venture capital firms and investors on Demo Day.

While Y Combinator is perhaps the world’s most storied accelerator — with household names such as Airbnb, Dropbox and Instacart among its list of graduates — smaller accelerator programs have emerged in cities around the world. Research from the Brookings Institution indicates that there were 172 U.S.-based accelerator programs in 2016, and the International Business Innovation Association has reported that there may be as many as 7,000 accelerators and incubators worldwide.

Accelerators are designed to remove barriers to startup financing and success. In addition to the seed funding and high-profile pitching opportunities, accelerator resources typically include co-working space, educational workshops, mentorship programs and networking events with accelerator alumni. More time-limited and mentor-focused than incubators, accelerator programs usually last only three to six months.

Getting accepted into an accelerator can be challenging; the top programs only take between 1 percent and 3 percent of applicants. They can offer your startup a major boost, but that doesn’t mean you can coast your way to startup stardom once you’ve arrived. Focus on these strategies to hit the ground running and make the most of the opportunity.

1. Align your vision with the program.

All accelerators aim to help startups get off the ground, but they often have a more specific motivation for selecting the startups they do. An accelerator’s focus might center on renewable energy, banking, tech or solving a specific problem in one of those industries. Some programs seek to co-develop products with the startups involved.

Making sure your startup fits the mold is a great way to improve your chances of acceptance, but it also enables you to make the most of the opportunity upon arrival. If the rest of the program is working toward a certain goal and your team is focused on an unrelated project, you’re not going to be doing your future company any favors. Align your project focus with the program’s mission, and consistently report on your progress toward that mission.

2. Make your managing director your mentor.

Relationships are one of the biggest value creators in any accelerator program, but that doesn’t mean they happen by default. “Most programs will have 10-plus partners, mentors or advisors whom you can regularly access for help,” notes Ash Rust, founder and managing partner at Sterling Road, in an article for Hackernoon. “Building good relationships with a few of them can result in more help and more opportunities.”

Don’t try to monopolize the managing director’s time, but always make it clear that you value his or her opinion. Despite the well-known benefits of mentorship for startups, financial-technology company Kabbage found that only 22 percent of small businesses had mentors at the outset. This makes the managing director relationship one of the most meaningful advantages of an accelerator program.

3. Collaborate on scalability problems.

You’ve probably heard that you should network with the intention of delivering value to the people you meet instead of seeking out people who can offer value to you. The same is true in accelerator programs, where your co-participants are smart, driven people who want to succeed just as much as you do. If everyone is working to help remove roadblocks for the cohort, your own company will benefit as well.

“For startups looking to enter the global market, there is often a lack of opportunity to test their solutions and measure their ability to scale,” observes Tammy Redpath, the president of Target India, an extension of the U.S. retailer that runs its own accelerator program. “Being able to do so is crucial to helping develop products in a way that can add value to a global business.” Offer peer companies access to your own products when you think it can help, and they’ll likely do the same for you.

Startup accelerators are becoming more and more popular, particularly as large corporations look for ways to tap into the agile and disruptive nature of the startup ecosystem. Joining an accelerator is an exciting opportunity, but it’s not a guarantee of future financing. Instead, founders must double down on their efforts to see success beyond Demo Day.

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