The inevitable emotional rollercoaster of your startup accelerator experience
Note: For the past year, PIE has been working to document everything we’ve learned over the last eight years of experimenting with coworking spaces and early stage startup accelerators. It’s an open source project we call the PIE Cookbook. This is an excerpt from that documentation.
We’ve all heard it. “Going through an accelerator is an emotional rollercoaster.” And we’d be the first to agree. It’s not an easy or smooth experience. For anyone.
But what, exactly, does that rollercoaster look like?
At PIE, we’ve spent time analyzing the behavior of founders in our accelerator as well as other programs in which we’ve had the opportunity to participate. And that analysis has led to a rough sketch of the general ebb and flow of emotions that founders experience throughout the course of an accelerator program.
tl;dr Recognizing and understanding the emotional rollercoaster gives staff insights as to when it is reasonable to increase the stress in the accelerator and when they would be wise to pull the pressure valve. It can be equally valuable for founders — and the people who provide their emotional support—to understand this dynamic.
Now, granted, this is a sweeping generalization that may not apply to every founder in a program. But we’ve found that paying attention to this emotional cycle — and managing the program accordingly — can be beneficial for founders, their partners, families, mentors, and the accelerator staff.
So with that caveat in mind, let’s walk through the emotional rollercoaster that is an accelerator. (Note: We’ve noticed a similar cadence with folks who chase and receive venture capital, as well, for what it’s worth.)
Right? That’s a lot to take in. Let’s break it into sections so that we can deal with all of this mayhem you’re putting your founders through.
It’s highly likely that your startups have had some existence prior to their experience with your accelerator. During that time, they’ve had a series of highs and lows where they’ve experienced any number of leaps forward and, likely, an equal number of setbacks. I mean, that’s why they’re looking for some help, right?
We’re not going to claim that we can predict every up and down, but let’s take a look at some of the key moments in the founder’s experience, prior to joining your accelerator program.
- False Ceiling of Euphoria
We’ve learned that the accelerator environment accelerates, among other things, emotions. As such, we’ve learned that the highs are far higher than they have seemed to the founders in the past. For that reason, we categorize the pinnacle of euphoria for founders prior to the accelerator as a “false ceiling.” Accelerator staff and mentors need to be prepared to help accentuate the good times — and to help regulate euphoric misconceptions.
- False Floor of Despair
If the “highs are higher,” then guess what? That’s right. The lows are way lower. Within the accelerator environment, we often find founders struggling with depression and negativity that surmounts anything with which they had to deal prior to entering the accelerator program. Accelerator staff and mentors need to be prepared for how paralyzingly acute these lows can be.
- “I found the perfect accelerator for us!”
When startups are looking for support, finding an accelerator that best matches their needs can be a high point for them. It’s important that Accelerator staff understand and appreciate this moment of euphoria and do their best to cultivate a relationship with each and every founder who has an interest in their Accelerator.
- “It’s been 30 seconds and they haven’t responded. They hate us.”
Just as quickly as founders get excited about your accelerator, they’ll get equally despondent if you don’t respond to them immediately. Make sure that you’re adequately staffed to deal with the influx of questions and inquiries. Automate as much as you can to ensure that founders always get a response to every request. For example, make sure that there is some indication that a submitted application has been received and is being reviewed. Otherwise, you’ll get multiple questions from each and every founder.
- “We made it through the entire process and they accepted us!”
Once accepted to a program, founders often experience a sense of euphoria coupled with relief. To many founders, the recognition and acceptance create a false sense of accomplishment. When in reality, it is actually the starting line for a much more difficult — and emotionally taxing — phase for their company.
- “Maybe we’ve made a mistake. Is this the right move for us?”
While the period of euphoria may last for some, most founders will experience a return to a more calm outlook prior to their beginning the program. This may also manifest itself as having second thoughts or cold feet about joining the accelerator program at all. Be prepared for questions and founders seeking reassurance.
Now that the company has been accepted to the program and is starting the accelerator process, they’ll go through some severe swings of emotions.
As we mentioned above, PIE generally worked with founders who were confident with building product. Your founders may be similar. Or you may attract founders with different points of confidence.
Whatever the case, it is important that you begin the accelerator program focusing on the area or topic where your founders boast the most confidence. The accelerator environment can be exceedingly stressful and emotionally taxing. By starting your founders in an area of strength, you give them the best chance of surviving the emotional onslaught of their new reality.
- “Acceptance! We’ve made it! The sky is the limit.”
Once the founders accept that the accelerator is the right thing for their startup and cofounders, there is a palpable upswing in emotion. But it is important to note that there will be first date jitters and nerves. Each founder deals with it differently, but it tends to be an incredibly positive and reassuring time for most companies. The nerves are perceived as excitement rather than dread. And the notion that someone not only believes in the founders and their idea but is willing to help them succeed is an incredibly heady feeling for most.
- “We are killing it!” aka Breaking through the false ceiling of euphoria
What happens when you get a bunch of euphoric and excited founders together? That’s right: mass hysteria. As founders’ emotions play off of one another, individual founders find that heady feeling of startup superiority growing at an exponential rate. What previously seemed like the height of happiness — the false ceiling of euphoria — pales in comparison to the feeling of giddiness most of the founders begin to experience. But as the founders begin to realize their new existence in the accelerator program, this feeling of euphoria begins to ebb. Note: This will likely be the last time founders feel emotionally positive for months.
- “We’re doing it wrong.” aka Crashing through the false floor of despair
The stress and strain of the new environment, the seemingly relentless strings of new tasks and expectations, mentor whiplash, and a feeling of being unable to navigate — let alone manage — the accelerator environment can be emotionally crushing. This would be bad enough alone. But it’s exacerbated by the fact that the founders are tumbling down off of the highest peak of euphoria. We often see founders barreling down from this crest at breakneck speed, culminating in a descent into the lowest of lows. Lower, in fact, than any of the worst days prior to entering the accelerator program. It’s a true bottoming out. Previous failures and bad days pale in comparison to the founder’s current emotional state. They feel like complete failures and become very inwardly focused, detaching from their peers and cofounders and grasping to find something that they feel capable of handling.
- “Everybody else seems to be struggling with the same issues.”
Once the startups get settled, the founders get comfortable with one another, and folks begin to settle into a daily rhythm, participants will stop being so inwardly focused — and will begin to refrain from continually beating themselves up. They’ll start to notice the struggles of their peers. They’ll begin conversations about how they’re struggling. And they’ll discover that they’re not alone. This causes a slight improvement in attitude. Not stellar, but an upswing.
- “We’re still the worst company in here.”
But that upswing is short lived as founders rapidly return to self criticism. This is usually based on their misperception that every other founder in the program is handling the stress and scheduling more effectively. Or is making better use of the resources at his/her disposal. While this viewpoint is often ill founded — no one is actually doing terribly well at this point — it can still cause a dip in founders’ emotional states. It’s especially important to note that this mindset can be reinforced by other founders celebrating wins. So it’s important to keep both the positive and negative stuff in check.
- “… but folks here seem to get what we do.”
We recommend that the first month be wholly focused on an area of strength for the founders — since the bulk of PIE founders were product-centric, we focused on product — the opportunity to share that strength is an uplifting one. While founders rarely have a cohesive story about their startup at this point, other founders can intuit motivations and functions, giving the companies a sense of belonging. This reinforces the feeling that the startup idea has merit. And it helps reinforce the founders’ feeling of belonging in the accelerator program.
This is by far the worst month for most startups in an accelerator program. The winter of our discontent? A staggering understatement. You’ll find companies remaining well below the midline for this entire month. It’s rare to see them even begin to approach it.
And there’s really no way to fix this or prevent this. If you’ve done your job correctly as an accelerator, you’ve put your founders under a significant amount of pressure in the first month in a new environment — and so much has changed about their business — that your founders will be feeling pretty beat up. And they’ll feel like they’re bumping along the bottom of the tank of despair.
The false floor of despair is long forgotten. This is their new reality.
Some of your founders will have higher amplitude in their spikes and troughs. Others will simply bump along throughout the month. Regardless, every founder will have a rough second month. So be aware of what they are going through.
- “I thought we were getting it, but we’re not.”
Coming off the affirmation of Month 1, founders may be able to retain some semblance of euphoria. But it’s far more likely that this “accomplishment” will quickly erode into stress about all of the other thing that the startup has to accomplish during the accelerator. This is the classic point where founders feel completely overwhelmed. Emotions and egos are extremely fragile at this point in time. And burn out is a significant risk.
- “We can do this.”
If anything, founders are resilient. And stubborn. And they’ll figure out ways to rebound. Even in short bursts. No matter what you throw at them. This difficult time is often the most rewarding and reinforcing of the accelerator. Confidence is built. Egos are rebuilt. And founders start to feel like they’re actually starting to get a handle on this new existence. They’re not overly confident. But their confidence is building. As is their understanding of how to manage themselves, their companies, and their peer relationships, both within the company and within the cohort. That’s what makes this the perfect point to teach — and challenge — the founders on their greatest weaknesses. Because they’ve developed the resilience to handle it.
- “We don’t seem any worse off than anyone else.”
Not only does confidence build, but Month 2 is the month where founders gain the most empathy for their cofounders and peers. They start to recognize that everyone is struggling. And that even the most confident and capable founders in the cohort have their weaknesses. So when you introduce subject matter with which everyone struggles — and everyone recognizes that one another is struggling — you enforce a tendency toward collaboration, support, and peer mentorship. Which, in turn, fortifies the connections and feeling of community among the participants.
This will be the most rewarding month for your startups. Not only will you see them making significant progress, they will make *tangible* progress that the founders, themselves, will recognize. That progress, in turn, will directly impact the future of their companies.
- “After talking to folks, I’m not sure our company is viable.”
The beginning of month three is often a low point for folks. They’ve just come out of one of their most challenging learning experiences in month 2. They have grown used to the constant mentor meetings and the speed at which things are going. So much so, that they have a difficult time recognizing how much they’re accomplishing. They have, to put it colloquially, established a new normal. And that can make them feel like they’re not progressing or succeeding.
- “We get to pitch! We totally get pitching.”
Whatever the reason — be it their acceptance into your accelerator, the bevy of pitch contests to which a startup is exposed these days, or simply having family and friends providing less than critical feedback — most founders tend to exist under the delusion that they already know how to tell the story of their company. Unfortunately for them, nothing could be further from the truth. But at this point, they’ll come into Month 3 with more confidence than they’ve had in weeks — potentially months.
- “No one got our pitch. We’re not even going to make it to the stage.”
Companies start to pitch. And that illusion of “We totally get pitching” begins to crumble. And as more truly critical feedback comes rolling in — from staff, from mentors, and perhaps worst of all, from their peers — founders come to realize that their pitch needs a ton of work. In fact, in most cases, what they thought was their pitch has to be totally scrapped. This realization has the potential to crush confidence and further demotivate even the most confident founders.
- “Wait a second. This is working.”
Slowly but surely, the feedback starts to sink in. And the founders think that the pitch starts to improve. The founders regain their confidence. And then the pitch actually starts to improve. From everyone’s perspectives. And with practice, the pitches become more and more compelling. And with finessing, the founders grow more and more confident in their ability to tell the story of the company they are building. And as the opportunity to get on stage — and get out of relentless pitch practice — draws nearer and nearer both mood and nerves are ever on the increase.
- Demo Day: “This is the best day of my life.”
If everything goes as planned, Demo Day will be the most rewarding experience of any founder’s life. In fact, we often tell them that, backstage. “This will be the most fun you ever have with your startup.” Again, part of that might be the knowledge that they will soon be free of the constant haranguing of the accelerator environment. But the majority of this feeling comes from a sense of accomplishment. And confidence. And the recognizable ability to tell a compelling story — and then to celebrate that storytelling ability in the gathering that happens after everyone leaves the stage. And the ability to take a deep breath. For the first time in months.
… but like getting into the accelerator, this isn’t an achievement. It’s not an ending. It’s really only the start of the next phase. As they’re released into the wild.
This is an excerpt from the PIE Cookbook, an open source guide to running a startup accelerator, that is rapidly approaching the release of version 1.0. For more information, visit the PIE Cookbook project on Github and join us in the PIE Cookbook Slack instance. To stay up-to-date on the latest from PIE, feel free to follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, or sign up for our semi-regular email newsletters.