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How to Choose a Startup Accelerator

You’re thinking about applying to an accelerator, or you’re picking which one to choose. Here’s what to pay attention to.

It’s accelerator season. As you may have seen, a number of accelerators are currently accepting applications for their next classes. YC. 500. TechStars. And a host of others, including AngelPad, ERA, Matter, The Brandery, AlphaLab, and many more. 1

If you’re thinking about doing an accelerator, here’s how you can start thinking about which programs could be a fit for you.

Do your research and think of an accelerator as a long-term partner

Most accelerators will take an ownership stake in your company. All accelerators will have an impact in how you spend your time (during the accelerator’s time period) building your company. Just as you would choose an investor or a business partner, choose an accelerator for the long-term, not the short-term.

Ignore the rankings

Don’t pick an accelerator based on someone else’s algorithm, pick an accelerator based on your specific situation and needs. Rankings can help you create a decision set of potential accelerators, but it can’t help you choose which one. Regardless how good a ranking system’s algorithm is, it’s still unable to capture your own specific situation and need.

Don’t simply choose your local accelerator

Let’s be honest: it can be very disruptive to you life to pick up and move temporarily for an accelerator in a different city or a foreign country. But starting a company is usually disruptive to your life, and often means you’ll have to set aside the rest of your life for a period of time anyway. The simple fact is that not all accelerators are equal, and if you are looking to optimize for the long-term success of your company, you owe it to yourself to be honest about the potential for your local accelerator to be the best choice to help you succeed. Based on your particular business or the realities of your life, your local accelerator could be the best fit. But you have to think beyond your city to be able to make that conscious choice.

Fit matters

Industry fit matters: there are a few, very strong accelerators that are good for almost any type of “accelerator-ready” business, but there are also a number of accelerators that have a tight focus on specific industries or verticals and thus are good fits for those businesses. Matter for media and content businesses. HAXLR8R for hardware startups. Blueprint Health for healthcare startups. And many more.

Stage fit matters: some accelerators are more focused on very early companies that have significant unknowns, some are focused on companies that will be able to leverage the accelerator program for growth, some have specific traction expectations for companies either coming in or exiting from the program. Be honest about where you are at with your business and your capacity to leverage an accelerator program.

Do your research. Pay attention to how they describe themselves, the type of companies that have gone through it, how the program is set up, what mentors they have attracted, how they define success. How an accelerator describes their program and their values will say a lot about how they could be a fit for you.

The program’s principals will define your experience

One of the major assets of an accelerator are the people you get the chance to worth with, meet, learn from, interact with, and leverage for advice, product and business feedback, and fundraising support. The accelerator staff will be your daily, regular, go-to people for help, and they are obviously a critical part of any accelerator experience. They will likely be the people you’ll work with the most through the program; they’ll set the priorities, pace, schedule, and interaction methods of the program. They will determine what matters by the choices they make in how they set up the program.

So, pay attention to how an accelerator talks about their program. What do they look for in an entrepreneur? Are they clear in how the program is structured? What are their expectations or definitions of success? Are they clear about what makes their program different? How can they best help a company succeed? Are they defined and differentiated in how they talk about their program, or does it appear vague and pretty similar to other accelerators?

Mentors matter, but not in the obvious way

Mentors matter, but be careful of the pages full of pictures of people with great titles. Why? The level of interaction of the mentors will vary widely, so don’t count on leveraging the program to meet a specific person. And once you start leveraging mentors and the accelerator’s network, you might be surprised by who turns out to be the best mentor for you: it may not be any of the names that attracted you to the program. Consider it more of a sample of the network that the accelerator has access to rather than a definitive list of the people that will help you. Judge the mentor list warily. 2

Talk to accelerator alumni and be careful about inherent biases

The world of startup advice is often full of simple heuristics like “I did this, my company succeeded, you should do this.” One person’s choices and journey can often not be extrapolated into the best choices for everyone else to make. So, as you talk to other people that have gone through your choice of accelerators (and yes, you should talk to founders that have been through the programs before), don’t just listen to what they say about the program but ask questions to help define specifically what made it a success - or a failure - for them. Dig deep and be honest about how you and your particular situation relates to their own situation. Will you have the same opportunities or challenges as they did?

Don’t optimize simply for the investment terms.

We offer the same advice for companies raising investment rounds: don’t optimize for valuation, optimize for the factors that will do the best to help your company succeed. The same advice holds for accelerators. Great accelerators may offer terms that invest less and take more of an ownership of the company than others, but it it could because they help accelerate your company more than the rest. Like most things, you get what you pay for.

You don’t need to do an accelerator to build a great business. Accelerators aren’t for everyone or all companies. Leveraged effectively, they can be great partners for your business and your life. Just make sure to evaluate carefully and chose wisely.

  1. Disclaimer: I have been or currently am a mentor for a number of accelerators, including TechStars, ERA, The Brandery, and AlphaLab, and I helped start Venture for America’s first accelerator. 

  2. I led pulling together the mentor network for Venture for America’s first accelerator. I worked hard to create a set of mentors with the skillets and relationships to best help the specific range of entrepreneurs we had in the program, and to also provide the best opportunities for startups to best leverage their mentors. I’ve thought about this a lot, and suffice it to say, it’s not easy to create a great mentoring experience. 


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