As I prepare to join Techstars Montreal AI 2019, I realize that setting the right goals before beginning the journey of going through an accelerator is mandatory. This is my third experience of participating in an accelerator, having been through Startupbootcamp (Copenhagen / 2010) and Prosper Women Entrepreneurs (U.S. / 2016) with my previous startup. So I already have a set of expectations and assumptions that will be refined at Techstars.
The points below also outline our vision at StepFWD – how we envision the program – from a founder’s point of view.
Expect to be challenged
A (pre-)accelerator program is an intense experience that is challenging from both a professional and a personal point of view. By exposing founders to a vortex of feedback, it forces them to rethink everything about their startup, starting from their startups’ business model, customer personas, pricing model and so on.
Some feedback will be good, some will be bad. And since we are all (sometimes unconsciously) searching for approval, the harsh feedback is really difficult to digest. It can trigger a defensive or aggressive reaction and the first instinct is to dismiss it. And while we don’t have to sway with every piece of feedback that we receive, we should spend the time to analyze it, filter it and apply it accordingly. After all, if we wanted to be comfortable and always receive praise, we wouldn’t be part of such an experience in the first place.
Expect to network (a lot)
A (pre-)accelerator program’s most valuable asset is its network of mentors. Of course, cash investments can also be a big help, but their purpose is to be spent (and rather quickly). If at the end of the program you can manage to get a few valuable connections, those connections might be a hundred times more useful in the long run. That is the reason why so many activities from a (pre-)accelerator are centered around discussing with mentors.
I can’t state enough the importance of networking. A professional network is a huge asset that can be leveraged in numerous ways, from reaching out to partners, clients, investors, potential employees, etc.
Expect to get help and help others
Mentors are there to help. But they aren’t obligated to do so.
I can’t speak for every program on the planet, but I know for a fact that all StepFWD mentors are volunteering their time. Of course, they have their own personal constraints with regards to the time and effort that they can contribute. But even though they are very busy people, they go out of their way and make room in their busy schedules because they genuinely want to help.
When going into a meeting with a mentor, I’m always respectful of their time. If we align, I ask for help, while at the same time understanding that it’s the mentor’s decision if he or she wants to get involved.
I also believe it’s a really bad idea to bullshit people. So if you find yourself chatting about how everything is great with your startup – just stop. Experienced mentors will pick on the fony act right away and you will only manage to create an atmosphere of distrust. Not to mention it’s a complete waste of time (both theirs and yours) to dance around the subject instead of concentrating on getting help. Thus, I choose to talk about the challenges that I have and focus on brainstorming ideas about how those challenges can be addressed.
And finally, it’s always nice to give back and offer help yourself, not only to your fellow cohort colleagues, but also as an alumni – to future entrepreneurs that will join the program.
Don’t expect (and don’t ask for) permission
While the vortex of feedback is to be expected, don’t expect anyone to make decisions for you. The founders have the last say on how that feedback is applied.
Also, there’s a difference between asking for help and asking for permission. In my head, asking for help sounds something like: “I want to do this and that, but I don’t have any experience in this area. Can you help with advice on how to start working on this?”. Asking for permission is something like: “I’m thinking about doing this, but should I? What do you think?”. While receiving feedback from mentors is important, don’t expect them to share the responsibility of making decisions. They won’t, and you shouldn’t ask them to do so.
Don’t expect anyone else to do the work
A (pre-)accelerator’s management team is usually pretty involved in helping out the founders during and even after the program. Some (pre-)accelerators even hire associates to help the founders with specific tasks. While the extra help is most welcomed, don’t take it for granted. We, as founders, are the first ones who are responsible for executing and pushing the startup forward.
Don’t expect an investment (but strive to make connections)
A (pre-)accelerator program is not a guarantee for an investment, but it can definitely be a facilitator. In any case, the main reason for joining such a program should be growing the business and that mostly translates into more customers. Connections to investors are to be expected, but the process of raising funds is a different experience. However, mentors can help shape the business model and to position the startup in a way that will make it more attractive to investors.
In conclusion, participating in an accelerator or pre-accelerator program can greatly boost your startup. However, to fully take advantage of such a program, you must first do your homework by taking an honest view at your startup’s current stage and checking if it aligns with the accelerator’s or pre-accelerator’s target and values.
At StepFWD, we strongly believe in helping founders achieve their potential. Our mentors will be there to guide you and share their knowledge throughout the 6-week program.
Let’s do this together: StepFWD today!