Accelerators · Fintech

Accelerators - who's been through them?

Larissa Lielacher Data Scientist / Co-CEO at Flock Data Analytics

May 29th, 2015

I've recently applied to a startup accelerator program after this was suggested to me by two of our mentors. After reading the descriptions and schedule of those programs, I became very excited about the idea and am considering applying to more programs. 

Has anyone here been through a startup accelerator? If so, what was your experience and what can we do to get the most out of our time there? How did it affect your company? Do you have any tips for the application? I would love to hear from entrepreneurs that have been through such a program!

Theodore Vaida Founder/CTO at Exact Assembly

May 29th, 2015

tldr summary:

Focus on why you need from the accelerator, and make sure that need is being met, don't let the lure of "help" from an accelerator blind you to mismatches between your goal (making "Startup X" successful) and the accelerator's pre-programmed processes. If there is a mismatch - be very careful.

The gory details:

It might help to know why you selected a "startup accelerator", and to differentiate between the kinds of programs. By "accelerator" I assume you are talking about an organized and funded operation that provides one or more of the things startups have trouble getting - advisors, investors, office space, employees, education (management/marketing job skills), manufacturing, etc. - these can be very helpful if you are in a position to make use of them. On the other hand they can also be a huge distraction if what they offer is not matched to your organization.

Back in the early 2000s, I allowed my partners to get our startup to join an "Incubator" (an ancestor of today's encompassing "accelerator" programs). This program had office space, some minor and essentially frivolous benefits (like cheap printing - something you can get from Kinkos), and a mentoring program with a process of matching you to a board of advisors. It was an alluring idea, particularly since none of the partners had ever held a CEO title before, and we thought that this program would help us mature. The problem was that as soon as we started accepting their "help" we became captive to their interests, and not our own goals. Ultimately I think we were too small to work with them, because everything that was our startup identity was swamped by the paternalistic "help" they were prepared to offer.

We were also a very small startup with 3 people, when most of the other companies in "the program" had tens or more staff. As far as the incubator was concerned, after we signed the agreement, we were just one more potential win/lose, and as time went on we never grew fast enough to garner more than cursory attention. Most of the products they offered we couldn't take advantage of, and the few fits like matchmaking with advisors was a shambles, the incubator managers air-dropped a team on us that was very poorly matched.

In our case, the hand-picked "advisors" immediately disagreed with our idea, arguing that what we wanted to do would never work, and that they knew better markets than we did. In the end, the partners decided to accept the advice, and we pivoted to pursue someone else's ideas. The downside was that the advisors who knew those ideas best, and would have been excellent partners, were not actually invested in the startup, and arms-length advisors will never be as committed and involved as you have to be to make any startup in any market successful. Note, our ideas did see light of day in the market, and success, with a different company, so much for the vaunted "advisors". Be careful of "free" advice...

To put it bluntly, no one cares more about your startup than YOU, no accelerator or incubator can match your passion for your idea. When you agree to let an outside organization guide your startup, now you have agreed to let someone else into the decision making process. Ultimately, an accelerator may be a very good idea, if you are close to market, you have a strong grasp on your team to ensure they wont be captured by the accelerator's own goals, and you are looking for specific outcomes. Remember, what was worth pursuing before the accelerator came into the picture should be driving your decisions, not what the accelerator can do or wants to do. Don't let "advisors" become directors or pseudo-CEOs unless they literally join and invest in the startup - and always remember, only the people with money on the line (you) actually care about your success or failure.

Boris Kogan Startups and innovation

May 31st, 2015

I've been through 2 accelerators. They are popping up like mushrooms.

Keep the following in mind: like startups, VCs and many other things, accelerators follow a Pareto distribution. 

That means that 20% of accelerators consistently get 80% of successes. Within that 20%, there is another subdivision-20% of THEM (4% of the total) get 80% of the 80% of successes. 

This puts them in a position to bring you all that stuff that accelerators promise: major value-added mentorship, connections and help securing follow-on investment.

If your accelerator is one of this small minority (YC/Tech Stars/a couple others,) go for it. The 6% they take will be more than worth it. 

The rest are fighting for scraps, balled up in a defensive posture and hoping for their big break, that one startup that puts them on the map. 

Which means that they have very little value to add to you beyond whatever incentives they give up front ($20K and office space, typically). Despite the hype they project up front. Think Ehrlich in Silicon Valley. Their investors will likewise be second tier (and hoping to breakout.) Any big names stopping by will not be very engaged. Out of your cohort of 10 or so, maybe 1 or 2 will have significant traction/start to generate significant traction while you are there/pick up lots of hype. The accelerator will pin its hopes on them and string everyone else along while limiting their exposure. Promises made verbally-unless you've got it on paper, well, you know...

Oh, and those mentors? Again, largely guys hedging their potential downside (the amount of time they put in) against the potential upside (the very small chance that the startup they are mentoring is the next Dropbox.)

You can't blame them. They are trying to survive. But don't be their sucker.

Bottom line: if your accelerator is in the top 4%, go for it. How do you know it's in the top 4%? Well, media coverage follows a Pareto distribution too. If you heard of them before you started trawling through GAN, probably they're in the top 4%. If not, probably not. 

If your accelerator is not in the top 4%, I recommend against it, unless you already have decent traction. But if you have decent traction, you don't need $20K for 6% of your company. You need an angel investor with area expertise who can lead an angel round and help you with a follow on. 

JC Duarte Co-founder & COO @

May 30th, 2015

Hi Larissa,

To compliment what's already been stated here, my experience, and I've worked with accelerators of varying degrees of maturity & across 5 continents, indeed you do get out of them the equivalent effort you put in, including leveraging the resources / value prop that you identified in your selection of choice beforehand.

But be careful, the majority of "accelerators" focus too much on funding first & product 2nd, that you never truly build your Sales Ops that actually going to give you traction & guarantee your success / scale. Successful Sales Ops is what will get you a better deal at A-Series & beyond. Serial entrepreneurs know what I'm talking about, it's very much related to the conversation around organizational debt.

After coming across many challenges with unstructured support from accelerators, I developed the following curriculum to exemplify what successful companies are typically addressing at different stages of growth. 

Focus yourself on the pre-seed / seed column, find an accelerator that has a structured program, and or access to one, that will do more than simply throw mentors at you with no continuum or context. 

You want to have a structured program so that, for example, if you're having challenges with inside sales, you're already taking a few voice recording of your cold calls, pain bank creation, etc to have a sales coach / mentor do some specific work with you. Without the proper context / framework, you'll at best have inspirational conversations that will be minimally applicable to your specific situation, and or impact your ability to scale.

Hope that helps!


P.S. If you haven't read the Founder's Dilemmas, do so quickly. Here's the 15m version.

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

May 29th, 2015

I'm in one now. Depends on which one you are applying too. They are different and have different expectations. Mine is very hands off with lots of networking and mentors.  

Others are hands - on with total focus on building a pitch to investors or customers. 

Gabe Mott CEO at Huedoku Labs: Mapping Human Color Perception

May 29th, 2015

We are just completing our 3 month program with Blue Startups and it has been incredibly helpful. I can't imagine trying to raise money without the knowledge, experience and resources I now have. The only downside is that our product really went into super slow dev mode, but our business has caught up to the product, probably passing it. 

Mary Wolff CEO & Co-Founder

December 13th, 2015

I didn't really understand how beneficial an accelerator experience could be until I went through one. If you're a "new" entrepreneur, you really don't know how much you don't know until you get exposure to other entrepreneurs and advisors in the accelerator setting. It was the best decision I made. I did an AWESOME one called Prosper. It's an accelerator for female entrepreneurs. I would highly recommend it. 

Lucas Jaz

May 30th, 2015

Did you search on FD? There are tons of discussions on this topic but as others have said they aren't all created equal.

Helen Adeosun

May 31st, 2015

@Boric Kogan great insights! Which ones did you do and why?

Stephane Paquet Sr Director of Product

June 1st, 2015

Kogan, do you have list of these 4%?