How to Win Big from Startup Acceleration Programs
After the article about incubators I wrote the other week, I wanted to follow-up on the last leg (so far) of our formal coaching programs at DUMA.
In July of this year, we participated in the Unreasonable East Africa fellowship program. This means I took 5 weeks off from the company (based in Nairobi) to go to Kampala, Uganda, to get “accelerated.”
At the time, I was pretty nervous, because I wasn’t quite sure what the purpose of being “accelerated” would be.
With DUMA, we are so blessed to have such a wide range of mentors that we can call or email whenever we need to. We met a lot of people at the very early onset of DUMA and didn’t even realize half of the amazing things they brought to the table at the time. When joining Unreasonable, I was concerned that the mentorship I would get from this new network would be redundant. Or worse, that mentors would think we are more early-stage than we actually are, and want to do fluffy things like “brainstorm strategy” for sales, marketing, etc. That made me worried because at the stage we are at, ideas are not as important as execution.
I thought the type of mentorship we needed would be — meet this person, plug their brain into an existing challenge we have, and see what happens. Then, iterate our solution, follow-up with mentor, get advice on how to execute the second attempt, reflect on how the first try went, and go from there.
So those were my biggest concerns going into the program — that I would be taken away from executing at DUMA for 5 weeks, and waste those weeks on brainstorms with not actionable follow-up.
Here is my summary of the program. (Spoiler: I was an idiot and Unreasonable was AMAZING, haha)
Unreasonable Institute East Africa — 2015 — Growth Stage
The Unreasonable Institute East Africa was established last year (2014), as a branch of the Unreasonable Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The 2015 fellow cohort was the second cohort of the program. The program goals are to put startup founders with startups between 1–3 years old through an intensive 5 week accelerator program, and give them an “unreasonable advantage.”
- Overview — To reiterate again, after participating in 2 programs already, I was fairly skeptical about joining another program. With all the hype in Nairobi about startups (which is both good and bad), I was hesitant about intentions of the programs — whether or not these experiences were more beneficial to the incubator/accelerator brand or the startups themselves. This wasn’t because of the eLab or Nailab, but just an observation of the ecosystem as a whole. I was very happily surprised over the course of participating in Unreasonable for the reasons below.
- Community — I think startups, for one reason or another, always discount each other as “takers,” rather than “contributors.” What do I mean? Speaking for myself, and given the amount of favors I have called in over the last 3 years, I somehow always prioritized feedback and relationships with mentors over other startup founders themselves. What an idiot I was. Unreasonable East Africa did an amazing job of selecting like minded, driven, and accomplished founders to join our cohort. Unreasonable also gave us a college-like environment to get to know people and really bond (sorry for the cliché, but no other way to describe it). I found myself staying up to hours way past my bedtime because there were amazing people who I could talk to about our challenges and get amazing insight. Plus, we all have connections that we could share — without an imbalance in the power dynamics. All relationships could be symbiotic because we all know where each other are coming from.
- Mentor Network — Now that the company is a bit more formalized, I have a clear picture of where our mentors fit in. This ties back into my mentor network comment from the eLab — we are now less focused on “brainstorming” mentors, and more on “specialized strategy” mentors. Therefore, I was able to meet people and say to myself — “wow, I could really use their brain when it comes to building my sales machine,” or, “wow, this persons product insights will take Duma Works to the next level of visionary.” I was able to have practical and actionable conversations with people who I have been following up on to make Duma Works a stronger company in every aspect. Plus, being in a college-esque environment with these incredible people is unique. It almost never happens in the real world that you can walk to the ping-pong table and have a 45 minute chat with someone who works on high level strategy for a government in East Africa.
- Mentors are amazing! — I think I had forgotten how fulfilling it is to meet new people and brainstorm about the company. There is no such thing as being “saturated” with mentors. Also, all the mentors I talked with understood exactly what stage the company was in and how they could best add value to us. Unreasonable had a good way of presenting mentors as well — they told us the mentor’s strengths and what topics they might be most helpful with given their experience. That was awesome because there were SO MANY mentors coming to campus all the time, and we had to find a way to prioritize. Moral of the story — always be humble, accept you are (probably) the dumbest person in the room, and appreciate all the people who shower you with knowledge and time. You never know how someone will help you! (or you might be able to help them in return)
- Stage — Transition stages, I find, are the best places to insert these accelerator experiences. Eg. when you want to go from idea phase to growth phase, or growth to scale. Right now, I would say we are 50% of the way into our growth process, and we are in a place where we need to think about scale. Scale in our quality control, internal operations, team dynamics/culture, structured goal setting, expansion planning, etc. This accelerator could not have come at a better time. The reason I think having this type of experience is important at this stage is because it forces you to disentangle yourself from day-to-day operations, take a step back, and reflect on the bigger picture. I’ve heard this value chanted so many times before and never truly realized the value because I hadn’t experienced it to this level before.
- Funding — Unreasonable also set up an entire investor week, and investor day for the startups. We actually wound up raising a significant of capital from relationships we built during the program. This was actually a big priority for me, given that Unreasonable is not free. My thinking was that if all else fails, if we raise more capital than our expenses for the program, it will have been worth the time and money. The entire program was a success, but it was an added bonus that we were able to raise capital. And it is smart capital — people who have a background in Kenya/East Africa, and who are on the same page as us in terms of impact-profitability scale. Our business fits into the grey area sitting between making a huge impact, and building a hugely sustainable company. It’s important that we found investors who share our vision on this.
Summary: If you do a program like this, prioritize forming a relationship with other startups. Select accelerator programs that are known for inviting top-notch entrepreneurs. Prioritize mentors and concentrate on how they can add value to your business, and how you can add value to theirs. Additionally, as you get later-stage, your time becomes more valuable, and make sure the program you are in can earn you money in smart investment, or potential clients.
The thing is, as a startup founder, you get so wrapped up in the business, you sometimes aren’t even aware of what elements of the start could be improved. At transition periods, these new ideas and processes you discover as part of the accelerator can have the biggest impact on the growth of your company.
I would recommend seeking out programs during these transition periods. Also, the funding opportunity isn’t a joke. Being a startup in Kenya, you aren’t always “showered,” as it were, with funding opportunities. Structured programs not only expand your funding network, but also give you a great environment to connect with the funders.
I wound up leaving Unreasonable saying over and over again — “wow, that was not real life.” We were in this great limbo environment for 5 weeks. You are working on your startup, but you are giving yourself time to think about what you are doing. You are living and spending all your time with a community of people that would never come together in real life. You wind up playing pool with people who would be impossible in real life to take an hour of their time.
The other great part that I haven’t emphasized is the rejuvenation aspect. One of the values at Unreasonable was to treat everyone like the Messiah. This means, we were in a community of people who were challenging us but also showering us with praise, good vibes, and encouragement. Running a startup isn’t a walk in the park and you constantly doubt yourself — you turn this fear off for the sake of making fast decisions, but it is usually always there lurking in the background. After the Unreasonable Institute, my soul was nourished and I felt ready to take on whatever lied ahead of me back in Nairobi.
Accelerators. Do them. Do them during a transition phase in your startup. Focus on accelerators that have funding opportunities. Emphasize relationships with mentors. Treat your fellow startup founders like the messiah and get/give value. Boom.
Originally published at dumaworks.com on September 18, 2015.