Is it worth going into an accelerator?

Do accelerator programmes actually help get your startup off the ground, or is it better to go it alone to avoid giving away any equity? That was the question my co-founder Robin Houston and I found ourselves asking when we were first considering going into Founders Factory. It’s a question that I know lots of founders battle with, so I thought it might be useful to share our experience.

As a data visualisation agency keen to reinvent ourselves as a product company, we were a slightly atypical startup. We already had clients, a reputation in our sector and an idea for a product, so we didn’t think we’d need a huge amount of help. Although we liked the idea of the support and contacts promised by the Factory, and being a part of the media cohort backed by Guardian Media Group (I used to be a Guardian journalist and Robin build the original Guardian website), we weren’t certain the whole package would amount to much in practice. We decided to go ahead as much as anything because we wanted to use the six-month programme as a structure to stop doing agency work and focus on the product.

Robin in the Factory experimenting with the technological equivalent of double-manual harpsichord (above) and with the first ever Flourish visualisation (below).

It turned out we had underestimated both how much help we needed and how much of that help the Factory could and would provide. In our very first strategy meeting, David from the corporate development team suggested we think about our product less as a toolkit and more as a platform — the “middleware” connecting visualisation developers and end users with data. That was a really important change in our thinking, and immediately made our proposition more scalable and interesting. I think we would have reached the same conclusion under our own steam eventually, but it would have come later after wasting months building something incompatible with that approach.

The Factory made an even bigger difference when it came to raising investment. The team provided detailed advice on what seed-stage investors would be looking for and made introductions to friendly VCs who could offer feedback on our pitch. As a result we were well prepared when — a few months into the build of our platform — we were given the chance to demo the prototype to investors and others at Founders Forum.

Walking off the stage I met David Frankel from Founder Collective. That meeting led to us closing a seed round with LocalGlobe in the UK and Founder Collective in the US — which was our dream consortium of super-smart and founder-friendly investors.

In the meantime, the Factory team were busy introducing us to dozens of potential customers. Senior people from all kinds of organisations — including tech giants like IBM — would regularly amble through the office with Factory co-founders Brent Hoberman or Henry Lane Fox to see what the startups were working on, and some of those encounters have led to valuable ongoing relationships for us. There were also more structured meetings, for example with the companies partnering with the various factory streams.

We moved out of the Factory after six months, delighted and a little bewildered at how far everything had come. But that wasn’t by any means the end of the relationship. Since leaving the office we’ve had support with investment contracts, more intros to potential hires and customers, and help landing press coverage of our developer launch and fundraise in TechCrunch. Amy, the factory’s PR guru, even art-directed a photoshoot for us.

Looking back it seems naïve that we thought we didn’t need much help. We were confident technically (mainly thanks to my genius co-founder), but I now understand that the technology itself is only one part of getting a new tech company off the ground. Creating a company from scratch is difficult and, based on our experience, it pays to have as much support as possible.

Every company’s experience will be different, of course, both within and between different accelerators. But in our case going into the Factory was definitely the right call. I hate to think how much further back we’d be now if we’d decided to try and do it alone.

Our product a few months after moving out from Founders Factory. Note it’s not only for newsrooms!
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