There are infinite ways to start a business and infinitely more ways to fail. Every decision can feel overwhelming if you think out every last pro and con, so sometimes you need to trust your gut to move forward. No start-up knows everything, and that’s when it’s important to seek help and mentorship. What would the equivalent of training wheels for starting a company be? It sounded like something I needed, coming from an engineering PhD and learning about business on the fly. Back in 2017 I struggled to understand what an accelerator or incubator really was. What did it mean to, “accelerate my business” and why did it need to “incubate”?
What we looked for in an accelerator
Focus. Every time I’ve looked for and applied to an accelerator, I was always judging the program based on its focus. There are accelerators that focus on Fintech, EdTech, food, and applying to something that doesn’t fit our focus, while interesting, may not be all too helpful. When we chose Project Entrepreneur, it was because we wanted to meet other female founders who were starting their ventures. We were generously housed at Samsung NEXT in San Francisco, which helped give us insight to mobile innovation. When we joined Halcyon, it was for the social impact focus. Each of these communities created unique connections and provided novel viewpoints that helped propel our business further, but in the scope of being relevant and helpful for progression.
Community In and Beyond the Cohort. What is the first reason why I rave about my accelerator/incubator experiences? It’s because of the community. People within the cohort are starting companies because they want to change something in the world. They saw a problem that really bothered them and decided to do something about it. We are all doing something new side by side, supporting and cheering one another on. As startups, we have limited resources and while we may be strong in one department, we may be lacking in another. In a cohort, we can share our strengths, experiences and lessons. It’s also beyond the cohort members — it’s the staff who really believe in the fellows/members. They are the ones doing the programming, checking on your mood, responding to requests.
Thoughts From Alumni. Talking to those who were in previous cohorts can tell you a lot about how you will or won’t enjoy the program. The alumni from each of the accelerators I participated in would revisit the incubator sites. With Halcyon, I learned about the program from an alumni who couldn’t stop raving about how great it was. And I see the alumni still coming back and visiting all of the time. This says a lot about the program — that people want to help current fellows, even. It means they had a great experience in the community and its a program that they really believe in. That’s what you should want, because that bodes well for how you will feel and what actions you will take when the program eventually terminates for your cohort as well.
Location, Location, Location. Would the place the accelerator/incubator is located be a place you want to live? How about a place that has relevant customers? Partners? We didn’t realize how perfectly situated our first accelerator was so water and sanitation focused organizations. In retrospect, I would have taken more advantage of where I was. Later on I realized how many organizations in close proximity would have been great to network with. For the second incubator we went to, Washington DC seemed like the perfect place to be. We made connections with the local universities, individuals in global health (working with the WHO, for example), and the World Bank. The second (accelerator) time around, the location choice was more strategic for OmniVis. We did our research and mapped out strategic partners and events to connect with and at.
Equity. Start-ups consider equity in all different ways. Some accelerators may offer you such amazing resources that you would be willing to give up a sizable amount of equity. Some accelerators may be just a few weeks long, but you are cash strapped and need the help. Or, you could not feel comfortable giving out too much equity from your company yet, and just want to gain skills. Each of these accelerators come with their positives and negatives, and it’s up to you. Y-combinator, for instance, is world famous for the companies they have spun out, but that comes at a cost. For example, accelerators could require equity, moving to an expensive city and not providing housing, or in rare occasions upfront cash. Why? Because you’re getting some incredible resources for being there. We stuck to accelerators that did not want to take any equity, but in turn the competition was pretty stiff, and came with the caveat of picking up and moving.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to participate in the Project Entrepreneur accelerator, a joint program between Rent the Runway and UBS, in New York City. At the time I wanted to figure out, (1) what an accelerator was, (2) see how it would help OmniVis, (3) join a program that was focused on female founders, and (4) took 0 equity. Project Entrepreneur fit that bill. I spent 6-weeks between the offices of Samsung NEXT and Rent the Runway, in workshops about branding, search engine optimization, marketing, social media, and so on. With the workshops I was dipping my toes into a whole new topic area that I never was exposed to in my engineering programs. It was a business bootcamp. Coming out of Rent the Runway, Project Entrepreneur was a great place to particularly learn about social media and branding.
Call me a cheeseball here, but it was not the workshops where I learned the most; it was my peers. I was definitely at the earliest stage of my company compared to everyone else in the program, but I loved it. It provided me with ample opportunity to learn from those more experienced than me. I was surrounded by 9 other female founders working in food safety, language learning, beauty, and crafting. They taught me about subscription models, fundraising, and team building. When the program ended after those amazing 6-weeks, it felt like I was now leaving 9 of my very best friends. We text every week to share our ups and downs. I came out of Project Entrepreneur with a group full of friends, a new network, and a glimpse into what I needed to tackle as an entrepreneur.
Even better? I had the confidence to go out and hire my first awesome and talented employee a few months later. At a UBS event I was leading a focus group and someone at my table said, “go out and hire your first employee.” When I asked who I should hire, he said, “hire the person for the job you want to fire yourself from.” That was a pretty easy selling point. Now Lynne is here at OmniVis completely rocking it as the Head of Operations.
Fast forward 5 months later and I am part of the Halcyon Incubator program in Washington DC. So, Lynne and I had to pack up our bags, leave our beloved home of San Francisco, and hop on the next flight across the country. A social impact focused incubator, Halcyon provides housing, a stipend, consulting team, law team, mentors, leadership coaches, skill series workshops, and advisors. And, just like Project Entrepreneur, they take 0 equity! The resources that Halcyon provided were perfect for the stage we were in as a company. Drowning in work, the idea of a law team sounded attractive for putting together contracts. A Deloitte consulting team came along and helped us with branding and market entry strategy. Mentors and advisors helped us reframe our viewpoint and gave us meaningful connections. I believe that if we joined Halcyon any earlier or later, it may not have been as great of a fit. But we got lucky.
Also, to be fair, Halcyon is kind of a dream come true. Besides its incredible resources, Halcyon’s proximity to so many NGOs made it an ideal location for OmniVis. Down the way we have embassies, huge organizations, politically minded individuals, connections to every external organization that we could wish for in the area. When we got to Halcyon our mindset shifted toward our customer, because they were closer to us and people generally could understand the problem more than they could anywhere else in the country.
What we love most, though, is the community. Our cohort is a special group of people, driven to change the world through more impactful measures. I can talk to any other fellow and be warmly received and helped with any question that I have. The alumni enjoy coming back to Halcyon, with new (old) faces appearing every week just to say hello. The staff here is also incredible. A group of individuals who always check on how we are feeling, providing us with candid feedback, listening to our ups and downs. So much so, that the staff here started the tradition of weekly family breakfasts, for people to share their vulnerabilities and create a safe space.
While I can only speak upon our experiences at the programs we participated in, I strongly encourage startups and small teams to consider accelerators and incubators. List what you’re looking for (What do you want to learn? What kind of community do you want to surround yourself with? What is your company focus?) and find a program that fits that profile. They serve as extremely immersive classrooms that can help launch you into the real world with wings. And with every classroom, you learn the fundamentals from your teacher, and practice your knowledge in the real world.