How to best prepare for a tech accelerator

My cofounders and I graduated from a tech accelerator last year. We learned a lot! But not what we expected. In all truth, our expectations of crucial introductions, secret growth hacks, insightful input into our strategies and gateways to success did not unfold. Don’t get me wrong — it was a life changing experience; however, to pay it forward, I feel the veil must be lifted if I am to explain the essence of what I personally got out of the process and better prepare you for the roller coaster that is a tech accelerator. And while you prepare to apply, or perhaps if you have already experienced the ride, what other options you should try to help to remain focused, accountable and continue to grow your startup.

In this article I will provide you with insights, debunk common myths, and equip you with thought provoking information when contemplating your motivation in deciding if a tech accelerator is right for you. I will also introduce you to the altAccelerator — a group I created exclusively for founders aiming to join a tech accelerator but also for graduates who seek to develop and maintain their growth trajectory. A virtual accelerator can have benefits over traditional accelerators but before I explain, let’s look at what benefits a traditional tech accelerator offers.

What are the benefits of a tech accelerator?

Let’s face it — there is a lot of hype around the magic of accelerators. Putting all misconceptions aside; as a graduate, I can say that these are the unquestionable benefits of an accelerator:

Benefit #1: Accountability

“Accountability breeds response-ability” — Stephen Covey

In my opinion, the crucial benefit of an accelerator is ACCOUNTABILITY. When you are part of a tech accelerator you participate in a “stand-up” each week. Generally, in a scrum circle, 5mins per team — each team states:

  • What was the “No fail goal” from last week
  • Did the team achieve the goal? Yes/No
  • What is the new “No fail goal” for this week?
  • “A call for help” from the cohort.

This format ensures you are growth focused and accountable, while benefiting from the assistance of the cohort. Note that all founders are hustling like mad men, so “calls for help” are intended to be not too obliging on the others in the cohort. However, because of the bond you form with other founders there is a natural and reciprocal willingness to help.

Benefit #2: The realisation that we are all capable of greatness

“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” — Steve Jobs.

After spending time behind the scenes at Techstars, 500 Startups, listening to Dave McClure critique pitches (and bring founders to tears 😳!), what is truely enlightening is to discover that NO ONE IN THE ROOM IS SMARTER THAN YOU! Yes, there can be a depth of knowledge on a topic or one blog post or article that someone has read and you haven’t. However, great startup founders are not rocket scientists — all the required information is freely available if you look in the right places, surround yourself with the right people and constantly ask better questions of yourself and others. If you want to become a successful startup founder — know and listen to your niche better than anyone else, understand their pain, build what your customers need and grow at a phenomenal rate!

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” — Jim Rohn. (so better choose wisely! — I say)

Benefit #3: Learning that metrics are your greatest advocate, most potent introduction and how to use them to this end

“Instincts are experiments. Data is proof.” — Alistair Croll

What about contacts and access to funding? Don’t Accelerators offer this? Let me tell you: NOTHING SPEAKS LOUDER THAN GREAT METRICS. If your startup is growing at 10% month-on-month in a profitable niche, then I can guarantee you will have no problem with funding or reaching out to people. From my experience, the highly connected people that could make an introduction are not going to give you the time of day unless you offer a stand out stat; they are simply not going to risk their reputation. Marc Andreesen once stated, “Markets that don’t exist don’t care how smart you are.” So, don’t think that being part of an accelerator cohort implies an open rolodex. Instead, focus on growth metrics and doors will open.

So in summary…. why join an accelerator?

For me the answer is:

  • Accountability — a group to keep you on track with your targets and raise your expectations of yourself
  • The support of a community of fellow founders. Your “masterminds” to share your journey and sometimes offer a hand or healthy advice
  • A realisation that there is nothing in the way of your success — so set your excused and fears aside and get on with it
  • The focus on growth metrics — the key to all doors opening
  • Most powerfully — for the change that is internal — it is who you become; the air of confidence you have to embrace any challenge or situation. The journey you have been through that puts you years ahead of your former peers. I believe a large part of this can be attributed to the insight gained from observing other founders and companies intimately; theirs and your own successes and failures — that is what transforms you.

How can you achieve these benefits without a traditional accelerator?

While commencing my new startup (and this time as a solo founder), I looked to accelerators again. But what would I gain? After all, I had been through one and already equiped with the framework and knowledge. I realised that what I was in fact searching for was the endless access to the benefits I had previously experienced: accountability, feedback, community and focus.

At the end of last year I started a free Facebook community to do just this — I called it the “altAccelerator” (yes, paying homage to Seth Godin’s “altMBA”). The response was extraordinary! and the caliber of those joining was much higher than I could have imagined. Many were veteran founders on on their second or third venture. I quickly came to appreciate that I was not the only one with this need.

Although there were some challenges:

  • Some members would fade off after a few weeks (They got “busy” or uncomfortable if they were failing their goals so they failed to show up)
  • Despite the attempts to screen new members. “Lurkers” that were not actively participating on their startup or in the group were able to join
  • A small number of founders felt uncomfortable sharing their intimate stats to a group (a group that was effectively open to anyone I let in)
  • I had far too many requests to spend the time to carefully assess each application, so unfortunately, some people were rejected (purely because there was not enough online evidence of their startup activity).

As a result, despite the growing interest and join requests over the holiday break, I pondered closing down the group. I felt my wish to provide this service to the startup community and benefit those committed and active founders was being compromised by the lack of motivation of a few. As a solution, I decided to introduce a new application process and a small membership fee.

Why the virtual accelerator works

The altAccelerator provides the key benefits of accountability, a focus on growth and metrics in an online community of supportive and equally committed fellow founders to learning from each other and sharing their journeys through success and failure. This is the same framework, with the same benefits I had from a physical accelerator.

Can a virtual accelerator be better than a traditional accelerator?

No. I am still a believer that there are valuable benefits in traditional accelerators for most people. However, a virtual accelerator is a powerful and compelling path to better prepare for a traditional accelerator, and to continue the growth trajectory after graduating.

What can a virtual accelerator do better?

Traditional accelerator cohorts are typically very small. The altAccelerator will intentionally stay small; however, even at 10x bigger — that is a lot more minds supporting you! More chances that someone can lend you a hand, more up votes on Product Hunt ;) more sharing and consensus on quality sources of knowledge and tools you can use to grow your startup.

Brian Balfour VP of Growth at HubSpot in his presentation to 500 Startups talks about the importance of having a growth hacker network that you can listen to, bounce ideas off and be inspired by. The altAccelerator offers you that growth focused, trusted community to draw from and contribute to.

Are you ready to apply to a tech accelerator?

You cannot fully prepare yourself for what comes after that commencement day; however, be assured: your life will be turned upside down. It takes a few weeks to get used to how an accelerator works: the stand-ups, the no fail goals, how to be using these and the accelerator to best spearhead your growth. This is valuable time lost in an intensive limited week program! Had our startup already been operating in this format then we would have had a jump start and maximised our experience.

Think hard. Are you, your cofounders and your startup ready for the challenge? Are you confident of the reasons why and what you hope to gain? I hope this article has helped debunk some of the mystery around accelerators.

So, what are accelerators looking for?

  • Commitment to your startup — if your application is rejected, would you continue to work on your startup? Do you have the determination and belief in the value you are bringing to your market?
  • Demonstrated product and market traction — people want what you have built and you know how to get it out to your market
  • Strong co-founding relationships — and if you don’t have co-founders, the ability to identify your weaknesses and find a cofounder rapidly or hire the right skills to compensate
  • Coachability — openness to learn and take on feedback.

The above list forms the basis of any good startup founder regardless of whether you intend to apply to an accelerator or not. The altAccelerator fosters all of the above attributes in it’s cohort. Therefore, it is logical that joining the altAccelerator will help your application as you will have focus on your market, demonstrated traction, support of fellow founders and have evolved knowledge through feedback from your cohort. You will be at a distinct advantage over other applications.

Ready to move the needle?

Is the altAccelerator for you?

Application criteria:

  • Are you a technology related startup?
  • Are you committed to growth?
  • Are you committed to your niche and growing your startup (20+ hrs a week)?
  • Is your product (or at least your MVP) ready to launch in the next month?

Can you meet the community’s expectations?

  • Post your weekly standup (a video or written post any time in a 24hr window)
  • Engage with fellow participants about their progress — comment on posts, give encouragement.
  • Post your learnings on a topic or assist with a deep dive chat with a fellow founder from time to time.

If so we would love to hear from you, apply here.

The altAccelerator application process is not as strict and competitive as traditional accelerators. The criteria and expectations can be boiled down to just one question “Are you a genuine startup founder focused on growth?” This eliminates any comparisons and levels the playing field. By this I mean some founders will be starting out and others will be veterans but we all have that one thing in common — a focus on growth.

Whether you are a graduate of a traditional accelerator or looking to better prepare apply here.

PS: I am on the startup journey with you. I am growing an app plus launching a SaaS platform in 2017. I’ll be participating in weekly stand-ups along side — I look forward to getting to know you in the group.

Follow me on Medium for more updates about my next startup.