If I’m asked to provide my input on a topic a number of times, that serves as a signal that it’s probably worth writing about.
I’m continually asked by other founders what my experience with ______ accelerator/incubator, and what my opinion on their value in general.
In case you aren’t familiar with the space – these serve as programs for companies – usually in the very early stages, to gain access to beneficial programming, brand recognition, a network of mentors and advisors, and a smattering of other useful benefits (investor pitches, intros to prospective customers, office space, etc) in return for a small equity stake and/or fee.
Contactually was fortunate enough to have three such experiences – 500 Startups helped us go from three founders and a prototype to a real company, the short-lived Inman Incubator helped us get our initial footing in the real estate industry, and Moderne Ventures poured fuel on the fire post-Series A, accelerating our growth.
While I usually reserve my opinions on any one individual program in lieu of recommending a founder evaluate the opportunities available to them – I do give the same template advice repeatedly. It’s simple.
Be clear about what you are seeking out, and get it.
It’s easy to apply for a program because you see other companies doing it, or they found you. It’s easy to be wooed by the prestige and stamp of approval one might attain by being part of a cohort. It’s easy to just “stick with the program” – show up where you’re told, talk to whomever you’re put in front of, and take advice from whomever may provide it. It’s also, unfortunately, easy to end the session feeling your business gained little – in fact, it was just a distraction and loss of time doing things that, at the end of the day, didn’t yield much, nor had much promise in the first place.
Identify why you should participate in an accelerator, and be crystal clear with all parties involved (your fine self included) on what’s needed to accomplish that outcome.
A particular example: We joined a later stage accelerator to speed up our introductions to prospective enterprise customers and industry partners. We didn’t need product advice. We didn’t need much in the way of marketing or sales advice. We had already built a good track record, but we were looking to unlock that next level of conversations. We were clear about our intent from the beginning, and our partners responded in kind, helping us do exactly what we were looking to do. We tried to be helpful to other companies in the portfolio, and I will still make introductions and be a reference for others – but we were also intentional about what events, calls, or introductions were not the right fit for us, and not worth our time.
If you’re considering an accelerator or incubator (no, after writing this post, I still can’t tell the difference), develop an intention for what you hope to achieve with the program. And go get it.