What An Accelerator Taught Me That I Could Not Have Learned at Google
Recent debate has centered around the concrete value that accelerators offer, and how to know if an accelerator is right for your startup. While seasoned entrepreneurs who have one or two startups in their pocket may not go the accelerator route, many will come from large corporate environments and seek critical insight. If this is you, consider that accelerators, beyond the obvious networking and investing opportunities, have a lot to offer. Being a part of an accelerator will teach you core principles for running a startup that you may not otherwise learn without floundering, and in half the time it takes to learn on your own.
My time at Google helped inspire me to create a company focused on helping marketers boost mobile engagement. However, it took the unique environment of an accelerator program to teach me the valuable lessons needed to lead a successful startup.
Competition Is a gift.
Large companies like Google are titans in their market, so when moving from a dominant position to a startup, the very notion of competition can be intimidating. Instead, an accelerator will teach you to embrace the value of competitors. During TechStars Seattle, my co-founder and I naively thought we were the first to offer mobile app A/B testing, yet quickly learned we had a competitor with millions of dollars in funding and dozens of employees. We were crushed. Our accelerator mentors first laughed at us, then taught us a key lesson: competition is the best thing that can happen to your startup. This validates the market for your offering and it forces you to sharpen your business. It also proved the market was ripe for innovation, not only for us founders, but also in the eyes of investors, who see less risk in putting money into a startup in a known market and not building a business in uncharted territory.
Speed Is your superpower.
Google and other large players have a lot of advantages over startups, such as access to "infinite" funding, great talent, and Silicon Valley’s "inner circle.” But one thing startups do have going for them is speed. At an accelerator, you learn to embrace this as your core advantage to outperform competitors. This speed enables startups to launch products in a matter of months or even weeks. Startups have to respond quickly to customers’ evolving expectations, so when we learned that a customer was evaluating a competitor to replace us, we acted at the speed of light to meet their needs. We built new features on nights and weekends and within two weeks we had surpassed the customer’s initial ask and leapfrogged the competitor. The customer was so impressed with our responsiveness that they upped their contract size. It's those "code red" moments that truly move forward your product. Speed is what gives startups their most important advantage over large players.
Customer development Is face to face.
Google sits on troves of data that they can mine every time they need to understand user behavior. This results in many decisions being made without talking to a single end user. Startups are in the complete opposite place because they have little data, so instead they are out in front of customers all day, doing research and customer development in order to learn their users’ needs. Many first-time entrepreneurs learn at an accelerator that this is in fact the "lean" way of building products that address a pain point. Thanks to all the resources you have access to - including mentors, customers and potential investors - an accelerator is one of the best ways to build your customer strategy.
Culture Is an absolute must.
At big companies, tech recruiting tends to focus more on hard skills and less on cultural fit. As a result, they hire qualified people who don’t necessarily have the leadership skills or passion to advance their organization. However, personality fit is much more critical at startups, due to their close-knit work culture. Building our startup at Techstars, we began to understand the importance of hiring missionary leaders, driven by purpose, rather than mercenary leaders, or opportunists focused on money.
We learned that the hard way when we hired a brilliant, award-winning employee without evaluating the cultural fit. Unfortunately, we realized we didn’t share the same vision or leadership principles, so despite his smarts, we had to part ways. At any startup, while the technical bar is very high, the experience is intimate, and thus requires a unique kind of dedication. As such, entrepreneurs need to focus tremendously on cultural fit, and finding missionaries, not mercenaries, as they expand their teams.
For many, the steep learning curve of an accelerator is the perfect bridge from being a corporate employee to becoming a startup founder. You quickly have to adjust your work style, get comfortable with the lack of a safety net, understand how to differentiate from competition and grow your ideal team. Find the right accelerator, and it will give you a crash course in running a startup so when the time comes to run the business -- you won’t need to crash.
Momchil Kyurkchiev is the CEO and co-founder of Leanplum, an integrated optimization solution for mobile apps that makes it easy for non-techie marketers to better engage customers and sell more through mobile. It utilizes real customer analytics and automates the process from A/B testing to in-app marketing. Prior to Leanplum, Kyurkchiev was a tech lead at Google where he optimized video ads. Follow the company at www.leanplum.com or on Twitter @leanplum and @mkyurkchiev.