Tag Archives: accelerator program

The one mistake most entrepreneurs make when they are at an accelerator

I have noticed that the biggest mistake most startups make when they are at an accelerator is that they focus on

“Increasing their total surface area” instead of “accelerating their business”.

This results in the “tail wagging the dog”, where the accelerator schedule, mentors and connections determine what the entrepreneur and the startup does each day. It is important to ensure that you get enough value from the accelerator program, but I would recommend entrepreneurs optimize for acceleration.

If you dont have a clear idea on what to expect from an accelerator, you should spend time with alumni of the program to understand the value their provide first.

It is almost as if after the startup got into the accelerator, the entrepreneurs believe they have a new boss – those who run the accelerator. That could not be farther from the truth.

If you get into an accelerator program, the #1, #2 and #3 thing you should be focused on is validating key assumptions, building product and customer development. Most everything else at the accelerator stage of your company is a waste of time, including attending knowledge information sessions on term sheets, understanding the “local” investor scene or going to “startup events” – unless startups are your target market.

There are 3 important things that most accelerators promise:

1. Learning from mentors, other members in your cohort and industry experts.

2. Connections to investors, potential customers and influential early users.

3. Infrastructure, office space, and a little sustenance money to get your team and product ready for seed investment.

If you look at these 3 items in isolation, there are many other entities that do a much better job individually, but a good accelerator “bundles” these items together so you can have a great experience.

Let me explain with 3 specific examples of what increasing your total surface area is versus accelerating your startup.

a) The best learning is via practice and teaching. So if you spend as little time as possible understanding the contours of the topic you want to learn, you can spend more time practicing and refining your learning. 

Instead, I find most startups attending every learning workshop including “how to sell your company” or “the legal ramifications of your series A investments”. While <10% of the startups in any cohort will really be ready for a series A, 100% of them actually “try to increase the surface area” of their learning by attending sessions that they dont need given the stage of their company.

Instead, I would spend more time accelerating the learning of specific topics from your customers – what real problems they face outside of the pain point your company addresses, etc.

b) The best connections are those that are mutually beneficial. So, if you can help your mentor or adviser learn about your business, the market or new updated techniques of engineering, marketing, sales, etc. they can help you learn more about the nuances based on their experiences. If they are unwilling to learn or are not interested, they are not the right mentor.

Increasing the total surface area is trying to network with every mentor from the accelerator and networking with every potential investor, even if they have not invested in any company in your market or domain.

Instead, accelerating your startup is focusing on specific investors by domain, check size, background, connections, and other criteria you need to help your company grow.

c) While the infrastructure is available to have meetings, get the team together and learn from other entrepreneurs in your cohort, increasing your total surface area is trying to spend every evening with other startup entrepreneurs, networking over beer or having a lot of meetings at the space with other startup influencers from the community.

Accelerating your startup, instead is spending enough time with your own team, learning about the challenges they are facing and understanding how to remove the roadblocks. Or, spending time outside the building, trying to meet potential users and customers to refine and validate your assumptions.

If the accelerator focuses you on increasing your total surface area, they are wasting your time.

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Are accelerators failing startups or the curious case of “zombie startups” jumping from one accelerator to another

On Wednesday I had a chance to interact with 31 entrepreneurs in the IoT space at Plug and play technology coworking space in Sunnyvale. There were 10 companies in the Healthcare IoT area, 11 in the connected car and 10 in the home automation (IoT) space. Plug and play has 3 sponsors for their programs including Bosch, Johnson and Johnson and StateFarm, so the companies chosen were deemed a good fit for those sponsors to help them with innovation and startup scouting.

The interesting part that was very obvious to me when I looked at the list and later spoke with many entrepreneurs was that 19 of the 31 had gone to another accelerator program before this one. Of the 10 companies in the connected home space, 3 were from the Microsoft Accelerator itself. Of the 31 companies, 28 were outside the Silicon Valley, which makes sense (that they would want to move to the valley). Two that applied were from YCombinator as well, so, there were not just companies from tier 2 accelerators.

I asked the entrepreneurs why they felt the need to go through another 3-4 month program after they had been to one before.

The not so surprising conclusion is that for many (not all) companies, the 4 month accelerator model is largely insufficient. I did learn that most entrepreneurs did value the support, mentorship and advice provided by the accelerator program they were with before, but many had insufficient “traction” to justify a series A after their “acceleration”.

Of the over 3500 companies funded by venture capitalists in technology last year, less than 150 went through accelerator programs. Of them, nearly 50% were from YCombinator.

At the same time, over 1200 companies went through accelerator programs in the US alone last year. Of the over 1200 companies, 68% have gotten some form of funding (or about 800 companies) is the claim from the accelerators.

Which means about 650 (800 minus the 150 who secured VC funding) companies that “got funded” after an accelerator program, have not secured Institutional funding from a VC, but either from angels or from other accelerators.

If you look at the angel data from the US, of the over 4000 deals funded by angel investors in technology, < 5% or about 200 companies have been through accelerators before.

The result is that 450 companies that were claimed as “funded” after an accelerator program actually went to another accelerator.

Going back to the numbers above, if out of the 1200 companies funded by accelerators, about 450 (or 30%) went to another accelerator and 20% of them (on average) shut down, fail or close, then really about 50% of the startups from the accelerator programs or about 600 companies should be technically “funded” institutionally, but that number is 150. So, there are 450 “zombie” companies.

So the question is – what has happened to the “zombie” companies?

There are only 3 possible answers:

1. More companies have shut down that the numbers reported by accelerators.

2. Many companies end up becoming “cash flow positive” or “break even”, so they chose to not raise funding, but instead grow with “customer financing”.

3. More companies are “zombies” or walking dead – trying to raise funding, not succeeding, but not growing fast enough to justify institutional Venture funding.

I have my hypothesis, that it is #3 that makes up most of the “zombie” companies, but I’d love your thoughts.

If the measure of value that an accelerator provides (as measured by entrepreneurs) is funding, alone we are failing big time.