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Accelerators- Expensive Capital, or More?

Jason Yeh
September 5, 2023

The Real Value of Startup Accelerators: More Than Just Money

Startup accelerators are an essential part of the startup ecosystem, offering founders access to early-stage capital, mentorship, and resources. As someone who once underestimated their importance, I now recognize that these programs can deliver far more than just expensive dollars. Let’s explore the real value of accelerators and what founders should look for when considering joining one.

Learning from Personal Experience

In my last venture-backed company, we were invited to apply to several accelerators, including Y Combinator, whom we already had personal relationships with. This did not guarantee acceptance, but certainly improved our chances. However, my perception back then was that these accelerators were just a source of expensive capital and marginal help with fundraising. Given that I was confident in my fundraising skills, I dismissed the idea and knew we could raise capital on our own.

After spending time with many founders who have gone through accelerator programs and received a ton of value out from them, I have a much greater appreciation for what they can do for an early-stage startup.

Equity and Accelerator Programs

Although there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, accelerators usually ask for equity in exchange for their support and seed capital. Sometimes they invest a small amount in order to get a relatively large equity compensation, and other times will invest zero capital but still receive equity for the support they give you. Founders should also be aware that deals change with the market. Prior to 2014, YC would typically get 7% equity in return for a $17,000 seed investment. Now YC now invests $125,000 on a post-money SAFE.

You can think about that as valuing a company at just under $1.8 million, which isa relatively low valuation and can be considered expensive. But would you give away 7% of your company in order to go through the program that created gargantuan winners like Reddit, Airbnb, Dropbox, etc.? If not, there’s someone itching for the chance- YC’s already received a record 44,000 applications this year.

Unpacking the Value of Accelerators

Founders should view accelerators as a temporary supplement/expansion of their team and advisor network during the program. This is crucial, especially for inexperienced founders, as many companies that join accelerators consist of just a couple co-founders and nothing else. Having the structure of an accelerator program to navigate the challenges of building a startup is invaluable.

Both knowing what to do and actually holding yourself accountable for getting things done is difficult for solo founders or founding teams that have never done this before. These founders are often guessing at what to should do next and have little to no guidance around best practices. The moment you find some kind of advice or direction or strategic imperative, you are the only ones pushing yourself to execute- which can be effective for some teams but usually hard to sustain when you don't have anyone else to answer to.

Effective accelerators provide guidance, support, and an additional layer of accountability, along with the cumulative benefits of being in a high-output environment around other startups.

Evaluating Accelerators

When considering which accelerator program to join, founders should:

  • Evaluate the program's track record and reputation: What is the success rate of companies that have gone through the program? This lets you know how effective they are in supporting companies, getting them to the next level, and their relationship with investors.
  • Alumni Feedback: Reach out to companies that have graduated from the program to get their feedback. Was the accelerator effective at helping them grow and secure additional funding?
  • Network: Does the accelerator have a strong network of alumni, investors, and industry experts that you can tap into?
  • Mentorship and Resources: What kind of mentorship and resources does the accelerator provide? Are they relevant to your specific needs and industry?
  • Funding: What kind of funding does the accelerator provide, and on what terms?

The Many Advantages of Accelerators

Joining a reputable accelerator program can bring several benefits:

  • Demo Days: These events bring together a pack of investors all looking at the same deals at the same exact time- manufacturing the calendar density that most founders have to engineer for themselves
  • Credibility & Brand Lift: Being accepted into an accelerator that’s produced meaningfully valuable companies can enhance your credibility, making fundraising easier.
  • Networking: Joining an accelerator plugs you into a vast network of other founders can help you with introductions and the fundraising efforts you' are about to execute as well as future ones down the road.
  • Accountability and Structure: Accelerators often set aggressive growth targets and deadlines and provide a structured program to help startups meet these. This can drive rapid improvement and momentum in not only fundraising but building a better product/service.

Getting the most out of Accelerators

Like any support you can get- in fundraising or otherwise- you get the most out of these opportunities by putting in more effort. Spend time with mentors in and outside of the program, be prepared for any meetings where you’ll be receiving feedback, and explicitly ask for help from the people who are there to help you. Being comfortable with asking for help is a skill that overly self-reliant founders need to learn and improve on.

Potential Red Flags with Accelerators

Accelerator programs can be incredibly beneficial for founders, particularly those who are new to the startup scene. However, like any opportunity, they come with potential pitfalls that founders should be aware of. Here are a few red flags to watch out for:

  1. Lack of Clarity: Accelerator programs should be transparent about what they offer. If a program is vague about the resources, mentorship, or funding it provides, it's a red flag. You should have a clear understanding of what you're getting into.
  2. High Costs: Some accelerator programs might seem incredibly expensive, especially if it's not clear what they're offering in return. Be wary of programs that require a significant equity stake in your company without providing substantial value in return.
  3. Poor Track Record: Look into the program's alumni. If previous participants aren't singing the program's praises or if the program hasn't produced successful startups, it might not be worth your time.
  4. Lack of Personal Attention: Accelerator programs should provide personalized mentorship and guidance. If a program takes on too many startups at once or doesn't provide individualized attention, it might not provide the support you need.
  5. Mismatched Goals or Values: Not all accelerators are the same. Some might focus on rapid growth, while others might prioritize sustainable business practices. Make sure the accelerator's goals and values align with yours.

Joining an accelerator is a significant commitment, and it's essential to do your due diligence before making a decision.

Standing Out in the Accelerator Application Process

To stand out during the application process, demonstrate that you are a fast learner, have an action-oriented mindset, and can work effectively without letting ego get in the way. Showcasing your accomplishments or past projects that prove your abilities can help convince accelerators that you have potential.

Accelerators offer much more than just capital. They provide essential resources, mentorship, networking opportunities, and support that can be invaluable to early-stage founders. By considering these factors and carefully evaluating potential accelerators, founders can find the right partners to help them navigate the challenging path of building a successful startup.

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