Reflections on my time at a Startup Accelerator Program
I recently completed the Melbourne Accelerator Program ( MAP). Each year 10 teams are selected to take part in the five-month Startup Accelerator, where they receive mentoring from some of Australia’s most brilliant business minds, as well as access to a global network of advisors, channel partners and investors, and $20,000 in funding (with no equity taken) to help them accelerate their startup growth.. All of which were designed to give your startup as great a chance to firstly avoid death, but secondly to build the foundations to grow and prosper.
It’s been about a month since stepping on stage to deliver my demo day pitch for Syncio, which formally marked the end of the program for myself and my fellow MAP18 cohort. It’s probably about time to do some reflecting. This article also serves as a companion piece to the article I wrote about my application to and acceptance into the program. Double reflection.
So without further ado, here are my reflections on my time at a startup accelerator program.
The people are awesome!
Prior to getting into MAP, I would often ask startups that have gone through the program what they thought was the most valuable thing they got out of it. Pretty much all of the answers will go along the lines of, “It’s definitely the people and the network. Oh, and the (free) money and office space are handy too!”. Now having gone through it first hand, I can wholeheartedly agree with this. MAP truly have an amazing and supportive network that make you feel like you’re part of a family.
If we’re going to stick with the family analogy then my cohort were like my siblings. We practically saw each other everyday, shared all of our highs and lows, and had some pretty epic nights out. I’m really grateful to have met a bunch of awesome people who also happen to be working on some awesome startups.
I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of cohort dynamic. I wasn’t sure if each startup would just be heads down working on their businesses with little socialising. But those thoughts vanished almost instantaneously on launch night. Maybe it was the fact that we spent a lot of time confined backstage nervously waiting our turn to pitch our startups, but whatever it was, it’s been a high that isn’t likely to end even after the program.
No exaggeration, but trying to meet a potential mentor or investor becomes much easier being connected to MAP. There is nothing here that you cannot do by yourself, but doing it on your own is like waiting in the ‘general admission’ line to a popular night club compared to the MAP ‘VIP’ line. Fast and direct access to connections is one less aspect of running a startup that you have to spend energy on, and it all counts in the end.
Fast and direct access to connections is one less aspect of running a business that you have to spend energy on, and it all counts in the end.
Simply through the program, I have met many people that I have ‘admired’ from afar and can now count on as mentors, advisers, or just friends that I can go grab a coffee with. Unless I had incredible foresight, this simply would not have happened without going through the program, or it may have happened much slower organically.
The benefits of being in an environment with so many like-minded people are further exaggerated by the alternative most founders face — isolation and a lonely journey. Joining MAP eliminated the downside of “doing everything on your own” and simultaneously raised the upside of “being the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. Therefore, the net benefits were extremely high.
Is your company a $1bn business?
Inevitably in the startup world, and which is definitely amplified in a startup accelerator, you get challenged to think about whether your startup has that mythical ‘unicorn’ potential of growing to a +$1bn company. Anyone that has done a startup pitch before will have to talk about market size and ask themselves this same question.
We met with two of the biggest VC funds in Australia and this point was really drilled in. And it’s a good point too, after all, any type of new business whether it be a local milk bar or in autonomous vehicles, is ridiculously hard to make successful. Founders of any variety will likely work 80+ hour weeks for little to no return in the first few years. So the VC rationale is, if you’re going to go through hell, why not choose the path that can make you a billion dollars?
If you put your heart and soul into a business that is capped at $1m/year as opposed to $100m/year, does it make your business any less successful? When founders pour their heart and soul into their business, their business becomes an extension of them. And when you are confronted by whether your business can be worth $1bn, then you naturally think about your own self-worth.
If you put your heart and soul into a business that is capped at $1m/year as opposed to $100m/year, does it make your business any less successful?
This was a confronting topic especially as it penetrates to the heart of who you are and why you are doing what you are doing. It might not be something you have to answer if you were quietly going about your business, but because we had chosen to enter a startup accelerator program, it was a very valid question. When you’re in a startup accelerator program, the default is that you are building a startup with ambition to become an unicorn, otherwise you’re just building a lifestyle business.
The whole unicorn concept isn’t just about the billion dollar valuation, that monetary figure is only a byproduct of its true value — that of great impact to this world. When you can grow a company to that size, your company inevitably is impacting the lives of perhaps millions of people. This again plays into your mind — why would I choose NOT to build something that can impact more people? Am I being selfish if I am not being as ambitious as I could be?
This confronting theme can create existential challenges not just for the startup but for yourself, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that that is just one view of the world. Everyone has different values and purpose to why they do what they do. It’s neither wrong or right. We were reminded that there is nothing wrong with building a small to mid-sized business — in fact, these form the backbone to most advanced economies. A successful business will have happy customers that employ happy people that create value to society, whether it be to a million people or to a hundred.
A successful business will have happy customers that employ happy people that create value to society, whether it be to a million people or to a hundred.
The other thing to note was that this was also one of many reminders to try to detach your self-worth from your startup. Whether your startup is crushing it or getting poor customer feedback, this is relevant only to your startup. That customer review saying how crap your product was is not the same as them saying how crap you are as a person.
You are in a one person race
I remember going to previous MAP launch nights and hearing some incredible pitches. It seemed every year the startups were just so impressive and so much further along than your own. Conversely, I also heard lots of ‘critiques’ of each of the startups. Either way, when your startup is selected into an accelerator program, the spotlight is on!
When you’re part of the selected ten startups, it’s hard not to compare yourself as well. Are there any similar businesses? How much revenue is every startup making? How much have they raised? Our first real exposure to how every startup was going was on launch night rehearsals. When I heard every startup’s pitch, I felt the gap in quality between my startup and their’s.
In order for me to stop feeling this insecurity, I just shut those thoughts out. I told myself that the comparisons were silly because each startup runs its own path — it’s a fruitless exercise to compare apples to oranges (that my friends, was my creative zenith). And besides, everyone else may be thinking the exact same as you are (which turned out to be true!).
To stop comparing felt liberating to me. I was able to shed bias when interacting with the other startups and genuinely feel the lows and highs that they brought too. I was also able to open up much more about my own highs and lows. The upside was immense as I was able to be comfortable and be myself. This was critical to ensuring that I worked at an optimal level and also got the most out of the program.
The only person that you should compare yourself to is the person that you were yesterday.
This is a reflection that must be applied to life in general too, that everyone is on their own path moving at their own pace, and at no one else’s. There is no comparison and hence no judgement should be made about one’s life compared to another’s. I see that this is a very common and dangerous trap that people fall into with how filtered everyone’s lives are now on Instagram and other social media. The only person that you should compare yourself to is the person that you were yesterday.
Pushing yourself through the program
The program is gruelling, it can really push you — I’ve covered some aspects already around this. Or, the program can be well within your comfort zone. It’s up to you what you decide. For me, I chose to push the crap out of myself. This meant doing things that required real discipline and to ignore my natural inclinations to resist. This meant that I pretty much said “yes” to almost every opportunity that came my way through the program. This also meant being completely honest to myself and to others in the program about my progress.
I said yes to guest speaking at the Melbourne Law School, pitching to VCs, providing difficult weekly updates, guest speaking at the Melbourne Business School, panel discussion events, PR training, and more. All of these were stretching the limits to how far I could perform on top of the stress of growing my startup. I made a huge effort to attend almost all of the masterclasses, presentations, mindfulness sessions, mentor dinners, open office hours and anything that MAP was offering.
Now I’m not trying to gloat over how participatory I was, but wanted to highlight that this was an objective of mine to develop myself and my startup through being as available as possible. I felt that most of the events that MAP offered were relevant to achieving this objective and thus it meant at times dragging my tired ass to these events. For some, this wasn’t what was necessary to meet their own objectives and that is absolutely fine too. The great thing was its up to you to define what works and what wouldn’t.
The VC pitch sessions were the toughest. None of them were compulsory but I wanted to really stretch myself, even if I felt that I may be in for an absolute grilling. It’s kind of weird when you need to perform to someone that you have a lot of respect for. It’s fairly intimidating. In this instance, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to go down the VC route, so in theory didn’t have as much riding on my pitches. Nonetheless, it was extremely nerve wrecking. Anxiety inducing.
Looking back, the pitches weren’t that great and it resulted in a dent to my self-esteem, though no fault of the VCs — they were really supportive. I pushed myself to prepare for these but stretched myself too thin and ended up not meeting my own expectations. However, through this experience, I learnt way more than if I hadn’t put my hand up. The VCs gave great feedback on the pitch itself and I also was able to connect to them personally.
An accelerator program is a fantastic way to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. It’s kind of easy — they organise events constantly that invite you to publicly speak or pitch and all you have to do is say yes. But it’s not always full-on, like with most things there are ups and downs in activity. If I were to approach it again, I would plan better and keep myself ‘fresher’ for important events such as the VC pitches, rather than try and go hard all day everyday.
An accelerator program is a fantastic way to push yourself outside of your comfort zone.
Pushing myself through this was also deliberate on my end, though risky. I knew that if I could survive through the increased load, that my own baseline level of stamina would increase — similar to progressive weight training. However, if I couldn’t cope, this would, if using the weight training analogy again, cause injury to myself. I got really close this time.
You’re living in a bubble
I did at times catch myself staring out of the window thinking about how happy I was to be in the program. I’d never felt more comfortable working in my life — I loved working next to other brilliant entrepreneurs, mentors, and working on my own startup. I also quickly realised that I was totally in a bubble — that the people I meet, the conversations I have, are all things that just don’t happen in the real world. That the program was for a finite amount of time and that it’d all be over, accentuated the feeling that it was all too temporary and even illusory.
I also quickly realised that I was totally in a bubble — that the people I meet, the conversations I have in the office, are all things that just don’t happen in the real world.
When we first started the program, we had an offsite day where one of the activities was a bubble-soccer-on-ice match. The idea was that working on our startups without MAP would be like playing soccer on ice — extremely difficult, embarrassing, and painful. Now working on your startup in MAP? Still extremely difficult, embarrassing, and painful, but your mistakes would at least be cushioned by the bubble protecting you. The bubble protects you from major damage so that you can get up from your fall over and over again to keep playing. This ended up being fairly accurate of the role of an accelerator program.
Even before MAP, I’ve always actually felt that my startup journey was a bubble of sorts. That it was some sort of dream and that when I woke up from, it’d all be over. Some people joke that being your own boss is like being on holidays all the time. It really isn’t, quite the opposite in fact. However, I kind of understand what they may be getting at — that the holiday is not to mean that you can relax on an island somewhere having fun, but that the holiday represented something far deeper than just pleasure. It represented fulfilment and autonomy.
Being in an accelerator accentuated those feelings. And it motivated me like crazy — to try and seize the moment as they say. To really relish and appreciate and enjoy this time — that for five months, 10 amazing startups run by amazing people are pretty much in it together despite working on separate businesses. Being in an accelerator feels like an accelerator — everything feels faster, bigger, and harder. I often had to catch my breath and be present, and enjoy the position that I was in. We have an amazing opportunity to do great things, and I know we’ll make the most of it.
These are some of the takeaways that I have gotten from being in an accelerator program. If you were thinking about joining one, I would encourage you to be open to it. The startup ecosystem is quite vibrant these days and there is probably an accelerator program for your startup.
But just like running your startup, the program’s value is what you decide to make of it — it’s not going to force feed that winning formula but it will give you heaps of opportunities to give your startup the best chance of not only surviving, but to grow and prosper.
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