What do the best founders do in accelerator programs?

A founder I know recently got accepted into an accelerator and asked for my advice. Below is a summary of my advice to this founder. Much of it relies on how I was taught at Y Combinator so credit to them.

Context on my experience with accelerators (I’ll use the word “accelerator” to capture incubator, accelerator, etc.):

  • I went through Y Combinator in the Summer of 2012 with FundersClub, the company that I co-founded
  • FundersClub, through our funds, is a Limited Partner in 500 Startups
  • FundersClub has backed 230+ companies with $50M+ invested; many dozens of these companies went through top programs like Y Combinator, 500 Startups, StartX, AngelPad, and more

Notice: Each program is different. Each startup is different. Advice may not apply in all situations. There are always exceptions. Approach below is not easy. Advice is designed for a 3–4 month program that ends with a Demo Day. Fundamental business quality still applies.

  1. Goals. Set a high goal for Demo Day for where you will be on one key traction metric (e.g. weekly GMV or monthly recurring revenue or # of LOIs signed) and work backwards from that goal on a weekly basis so you know what progress and/or milestones you need to hit each week. Make sure your entire team is oriented towards this goal.

“They force you to focus on one metric — growth — and look at it week over week.”

(Source: One Month, https://learn.onemonth.com/y-combinator-and-the-one-metric-that-matters-24fc0fc56817)

“Lesson 6: Set deadlines for yourself. Always have something to fight towards, even if it’s not concrete. Measure your progress even if the measurements are artificial.”

(Source: Zac Townsend, http://blog.zactownsend.com/going-through-y-combinator-s13-nine-lessons-learned)

“YC will ask you to set goals that seem unachievable. This actually makes sense because most of the founders in the program have never built and sold a company. The YC folks have!”

(Source: Jon Armstrong, Cofactor Genomics, https://cofactorgenomics.com/lessons-learned-from-cofactors-y-combinator-experience-7-months-later/

2. Speed. Your team needs to move super fast. Many people and teams have no idea where the limit is of how fast they can go (they underestimate). Make sure to take one day off per week (after the program ends, you can have a more sustainable work approach).

3. Focus.

[a] Only spend your time building your product/service, talking to potential or existing customers/users, and exercising/eating/sleeping/taking care of yourself and your family. If it’s not one of these items, cut it out. Meeting with the partners/leaders of your accelerator/program is fine.

“During YC, we tell founders they should be building product and talking to users, and not much else besides eating, sleeping, exercising, and spending time with their loved ones.” (Source: Sam Altman, http://playbook.samaltman.com/)

Avoid distractions when starting a new company. Find a way to build and do little else. Go to the wilderness — by which I mean Mountain View — if you have to.” (Source: Zac Townsend, http://blog.zactownsend.com/going-through-y-combinator-s13-nine-lessons-learned)

[b] There are many ways to feel like you’re being productive when you’re not: this includes general advice meetings with successful entrepreneurs, catching up with people in your network, VC meetings, writing blog posts, going to startup launch parties, etc.

[c] Asking other operators how to solve a particular problem is fine. “Hey we are hitting [this specific roadblock], how did you solve this?” is OK. Getting “networking” coffees with another founder to ask vague questions like “Do you have any general advice for us?” Not OK.

[d] For social stuff, tell people that you are currently in a startup program and have some hard milestones to hit and you’re not available to meet until after the program. People will respect your reason.

[e] Companies that don’t stay relentlessly focused and manage their time well generally don’t make nearly as much progress. You can see this in slow motion through the program. You can tell that they are spending time on not important things. Do not be one of these companies.

5. Ownership. For every single task that needs to get done have a clear single owner. Extreme accountability. There should never be a question regarding what item each person is working on. And there should never be a question about who owns each task.

6. Domain. As Garry Tan, Managing Partner of Initialized Capital and former Partner at Y Combinator, writes, “Working out of a coworking space can be hazardous to the health of your startup.” Work out of your apartment, house, or other space where it is just your team. No co-working spaces. Don’t work out of anyone else’s office. If people outside of your team are going slow and you are sharing space with them, it will be harder for you to go fast. You need an environment that you can set up for maximum success and focus.