If you’ve just launched a company, you might be wondering whether you should join an accelerator. In large cities or in the countryside, many programs have opened in recent years, all with the same objective: to support founders in building and growing their start-ups.
I have quite a lot of experience with the accelerator business. I have worked for a private accelerator focused on the energy industry, and for a public accelerator funded by the European Commission. I have discussed with the CEOs of the largest accelerators in France and the Netherlands, through my research on female entrepreneurship (see the results here). I know many founders whose companies have flourished immensely through their involvement in a program. I also know others, who regret ever participating in the first place.
So, is joining an accelerator worth it? I am here to tell you: not necessarily. Before signing up, here are 3 questions you must ask yourself.
What resources does the accelerator provide?
There are 3 important resources that you should get from an accelerator: network, investment, and mentorship (yes, in that order). If you receive a deal without one of these characteristics, the program might not be worth your time.
– A strong network: every start-up accelerator will tell you that their program grants access to the largest network of investors, partners, and mentors. Because this characteristic isn’t really quantifiable, it will be hard to verify whether that statement is true. However, a network is the only resource that you cannot build on your own, which makes it the most important aspect of an accelerator. To ensure that you will meet enough relevant people, find the list of start-ups that have participated in the program you’re interested in, and get in touch with them. Ask them about the investors they’ve met, the events they’ve attended, and the companies they’ve talked to. Start-up alumni will be able to tell you how large the network actually is.
– Some investment: most accelerators provide “pizza money”, which is usually enough to pay food and rent for the duration of the program. Of course, they do not give the money away for free. They often ask for a 4% to 6% equity share in return. The cost is high, but it doesn’t mean that you should consider investment-free programs. Accelerators that invest in your start-up are the only ones worth the effort. Their support is much stronger because they have a stake in your project. Even when the program ends, they will continue to help you with alumni programs and networking events.
– A personal mentor: every accelerator program provides “mentorship opportunities”. You must figure out what it actually means. Will you meet countless “mentors” that are actually consultants, only interested in selling you their advice? Or will you get a dedicated expert to follow you from the first to the last day of the program? Obviously, the latter is what you need. You should be able to access the mentor list on the accelerator’s website (if not, that is also a red flag). Have a look at the names, job titles, and companies. Check their LinkedIn accounts. Is it worth your time to meet these people?
Where is the accelerator located?
That’s an obvious one, but I cannot count how many start-ups have applied to the programs I organized without understanding that they would have to relocate. Yes, if the accelerator is in, say, Paris, you will have to move to Paris, at least for the duration of the program. As a founder, you must ask yourself if the relocation of your company will benefit or hurt it.
The network of an accelerator in Paris will only be useful if you are interested in the French or European market. If you feel like the US or Germany or anywhere else might be a better place to grow your start-up, then you need to look for another accelerator.
How much time can you dedicate to the program?
Another obvious statement, of course. Yet I have met many founders who missed most of the activities organized by the accelerators I worked for. Believe me: once the program was over, those were not the ones who were successful with their companies.
Alumni start-ups that have raised the highest investment, hired a lot of people, and are still alive today, participated in every single activity that we organized for them. Every single mentor breakfasts, investor dinners, lean workshops, networking drinks. They met their angel investors at a board games party, their corporate partners in a boat tour, and their new CIO at a Scrum and Kanban workshop.
If you decide to join a start-up accelerator, engage in all of the activities, even the ones you believe are not necessary for your company. Speak with all of the people, even the interns and event organizers. You never know who you could meet. That is the most important advice: do not join an accelerator half-hearted and hope to get the full results you were promised.
What do you think of accelerator programs? Have you participated in one?