7 Things to Do to Get the Most Out of a Startup Accelerator
So you decided that an accelerator is appropriate and helpful to your company. You read the 10 Must-Knows About Joining a Startup Accelerator post and decided to go for it. You filled out the application, researched different kinds of accelerators, applied and got in.
Congrats! Now the work begins. Here is how you can maximize what you get out of the program.
1. Work backwards from your goal.
Most companies join accelerators to catalyze funding, grow and build their networks. Whatever your goals are, work backwards. Set goals (or even better, just one goal) for the entire program, then for each month, each week and every day. See my post about GMT on how to do this effectively.
Recognize that unless you work backwards from the goals, you may not achieve them. Accelerator programs are known to be chaotic, serendipitous, competitive and often distracting. There is a lot going on and there can be a lot of noise. To stay the course, and avoid being pulled into different directions and wasting time, decide on goals and make them your true north.
2. Go fast.
The Techstars mantra coined by Brad Feld and David Cohen is "Do more, faster." The idea is to accomplish in three months what typically would take years. During Techstars programs we accelerate companies by pairing them with amazing mentors and letting them tap our network. The feedback from the mentors allows the companies to go faster. By tapping into the network the companies are able to shortcut business development, funding, sales introductions -- all the things that typically takes weeks and months.
In addition to the mentors and the network, it is the rhythm and the culture of doing things quickly that defines an accelerator. Realize that you are on the clock. This means you can't afford to waste time. Don't write extra code. Don't waste time chasing customers that take too long to close. Quickly decide what is important, prioritize and go fast. Read my post on action and idea lists for how to prioritize and execute effectively.
3. Look for shortcuts.
This is a simple tactic for going quickly: Try to always ask how something can be done faster. Look for a shortcut. Do you really need to build the app to test the market or could you test it using a text message? Do you really need to have the full database in place or can you just enter a few rows? Do you really need to build the product before you get your first customers? Why not sign them up in advance, then sell them on the concept?
Shortcut mentality can help you go faster during the program. Always ask, is what I am doing simple? Can I do this faster? Am I making it too complicated and grandiose? Am I doing more than I need to do? More often then not, you find a simpler, better and faster solution to test a hypothesis, get to a customer and validate the market.
Since you are on the clock during the program, doing the least amount possible for maximum results is what make sense. Note that in no way am I advocating that you compromise the long-term quality of your product. Quality is absolutely important, but if your minimum viable product is successful and sticky, you will get funding and the chance to refine and make your product better.
4. Focus on growth and revenue.
The most important thing you can do to help financing is to find a product that resonates with the customers and/or users and generates revenue and growth. The whole point of acceleration during the program is not to speed up your financing -- that's not really possible. What gets accelerated is your business, which in turn leads to acceleration of financing.
If you already have some initial product market fit, then your goal is to grow as much as you possibly can during the program. You set key performance indicators, or metrics, and work hard to drive them up.
Ideally, your number-one metric is monthly recurring revenue (MRR). That would make your company more attractive to prospective investors. If that's not possible, then growth in beta customers and/or users is another good metric. Basically, if you are not growing during the program, it means that there is no demand for your product. That means there is no product market fit (PMF) and that signals to investors that you don't have proof that your business will work.
On the flip side, it is hard to argue with revenue and customer growth.
5. Iterate and pivot.
Next, let's talk about pivots. To me, fail fast has become a cliche that some people take too far. The point is that, yes, you do want to pivot if your business isn't working. But you need to also give it a fair shot. The thing to do during the program is to iterate weekly, where each week you are trying to grow. Initially, you are iterating and refining your original concept, and then you measure if it works or not. If you feel that week after week you can't generate growth, then maybe it's time to pivot.
Once you decide to change direction, apply the same idea of iteration. Before you write a lot of code, or any code really, go and validate that the market is there. Do customer discovery, make sure you test and learn as much as possible using all kinds of non-scalable tactics and prove that the new idea will work.
6. Maximize mentor whiplash.
Most accelerator programs are known for mentor whiplash. This happens when founders get conflicting advice and feedback from different people. It is really frustrating and mind-twisting experience (as many founders tell me). The key thing is to turn this into a positive.
To do that -- open your mind, listen, take notes and say "thank you." Remember, you don't have to do anything that people tell you. This is your company, and you will not be measured or judged based on how much advice you did or didn't take. You will be judged and measured based on your KPIs, revenues and growth of your business.
So take all the feedback that comes your way -- the good, the bad and the ugly. Synthesize and process it. Combine and distill it. Hear mentors out and then decide for yourself and execute. Don't be too rigid and stubborn or too twistable and flexible. The point is to realize when a lot of people are telling you the same thing -- pay attention. At the same time, have the gut to follow your vision when you really believe it and have data to back up your belief.
7. Network, network, network.
Regardless of whether you take someone's advice, be super thankful and respectful and always shake hands and connect. Become a networking machine. Other founders, mentors, investors, customers -- all of them should become nodes in your network. Obsessively collect people and connections. The network will help accelerate your company after the program. It will help you with this business and all your other businesses. It is your resource and your set of shortcuts around the business world.
If you don't obsessively connect, you are missing out. You will be at a disadvantage compared to other founders who are doing this correctly. Networking is the basics of business, and an accelerator program creates fertile soil for you to rapidly build out this amazing professional asset.
Follow these seven things and you are likely going to get the most out of the program. Remember that funding is not guaranteed and doesn't just happen. An accelerator is not the end, but the beginning. Other people have good ideas and experiences. Be thoughtful, make the most out of the program and win.
Alex Iskold is the managing director of Techstars in New York City. Previously Iskold was founder/CEO of GetGlue (acquired by i.tv), founder/CEO of Information Laboratory (acquired by IBM) and chief architect at DataSynapse (acquired by TIBCO). An engineer by training, Iskold has deep passion and appreciation for startups, digital products and elegant code. He likes running, yoga, complex systems, Murakami books and red wine -- not necessarily in that order and not necessarily all together. He actively blogs about startups and venture capital at http://alexiskold.net.