The money they offer and the equity they take is only half the story. Accelerators are different in lots of ways. Here’s a breakdown of the main ones to help you make the right decision for your startup.
It’s really hard to tell just by looking at their glossy websites what goes on inside an accelerator program. They all come with the same promise of helping you get to the next level, but they offer little specific information about how they go about it. That makes it pretty hard to decide whether to apply to one at all, and also to determine which one will be the best personal fit for you.
Your job as an entrepreneur is to find a sustainable and profitable business model. If you are ambitious and want to build something quite big, you will be in the accelerator program sweet spot. Most are looking for founders that have strong ideas that could grow into global businesses. You don’t need to know how you’re going to get there, you just need to be open to the idea and have a clear understanding about the potential market opportunity.
Accelerator programs are designed to help you grow your business which means they need to do three things — build your entrepreneurial muscle so you become a master at market execution, help you land customers, and help get you ready for investor funding. You may be surprised to learn that each program takes a bit of a different approach. You can distinguish between them by how much weight they give to each element.
Need to Build your Entrepreneurial Muscle?
The gold standard for building businesses around new products and technologies is to use a lean startup methodology. This approach is evidence based which means you are out in the market talking to potential customers from the very first day — even before you’ve properly built the product. Rather than guess what people want, you follow a process that helps you find out so you can build to a known specification.
You use evidence based approaches to test other elements of your business model as well. Everything from how to best acquire and retain customers, to which pricing and revenue models work best. The process is designed to de-risk your business. The approach provides you with a data-rich feedback loop that helps you navigate in the right direction.
Programs differ in the weight they give this aspect. Some offer specific lean startup skill-building opportunities and use an experiment design approach quite deliberately, others not so much.
If you are just starting out and haven’t settled on a business idea yet the best place to start is a university accelerator program. They teach you the basics and help you work out how to find an opportunity worth pursuing. You’ll meet lots of like-minded people and perhaps even find a co-founder. Most universities have these types of programs. Some also have programs for established startups (MAP and Founder10x).
If you have a great idea but very little business knowledge you are best applying to a program that actively builds your entrepreneurial muscle. If you are from the creative industries ACMI Xcel is a great choice. If you’re a scientist or a researcher there are a plethora of choices including ON Prime, ON Accelerate, or the University of Melbourne TRaM (Translating Research at Melbourne) program. If you are in the medtech space try The Actuator, or the ag-tech space have a look at Cicada Innovation’s GrowLab. The benefit of these programs is that they understand where you’re coming from, they have people with your exact backgrounds running the show, and they’ve been specifically designed to help you cross-over and succeed in the startup space.
Need Access to the Right Customers?
When it comes to supercharging your customer discovery process it really comes down to getting you in front of as many potential customers as possible. Warm introductions work best, especially if you are selling to other businesses. If your business is going to sell to the public you’ll need to tap into the expertise of business to consumer experts. Make sure the program you join will enable you to build the knowledge you’ll need.
Look for an accelerator program that has networks in your target industry. You should also look for programs that offer some expertise in building repeatable sales models. One-off hits are great. Ultimately though, you’ll need a sales capture strategy that consistently delivers.
If you are struggling to capture the attention of your customer base find an accelerator program that can connect you directly with them. MoonshotX for example has extensive networks into the international space industry, ACMI Xcel can put you in touch with key decision makers in the gaming, film and museum sectors, and the Australian Sports and Technology Network (ASTN) has reach into sports organisations globally.
The first question you should ask yourself is whether you need investment, and if so, when. It’s not for everyone and that’s okay. Investors are looking for a 7 to 10 times return on their money so you’ll need to have significant growth potential and staying power to qualify. Accelerator programs introduce you to the investors in their networks. They help you understand what investors are looking for and how you can position yourself to peak their interest. There are specific stages that correlate to different amounts of investment. Find a program that suits the level you need.
If you have some market traction in the form of paying (or pilot) customers and you’re getting ready for investment have a look at programs like muru-D and StartMate. They are high profile programs with strong reputations and extensive mentor and investor networks. Their goal is to have all the startups that go through their program funded so they will be working hard to help you get there. If you are a female founder you should definitely have a look at the Springboard program run by SBE Australia that can link you with Australian and USA based mentors and investors.
Still Wondering Whether an Accelerator is for You?
Accelerators are looking for startups that will be completely committed and able to generate impressive results. They are putting everything in place to help you move fast and expect to see you do just that. You should aim to be working on your business full time throughout the entire program to make the most of the close access they can give you to mentors, coaches and the other startups in the cohort. You will also need a learning mindset. No-one expects you to have all the answers, just to be determined to build-measure-learn them.
If you ask Nicola Farrell from muru-D why you should join an accelerator she’ll tell you that “An accelerator becomes an extension of your team, keeps you accountable and helps you navigate through the ups and downs of startup life.” Chat with Helen Simondson from ACMI Xcel and she’ll tell you that “Being part of an accelerator program is like doing an intense leadership program; the personal and professional growth is as big a metric as the business traction.”
Accelerators are not for everyone. They are not a ‘must do’ to get your business to the next level. But if you like the sound of them, think you’d like to have a go and manage to win yourself a place in one, throw everything you have at it — and more. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.