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Should you join a start-up accelerator?

Start-up accelerators often promise to turbo charge your company within 3–6 months and help you cap off the programme by helping you secure your first big round of funding. But is it worth it?

I’ve been accepted and completed a few accelerators in London and my answer to the title is ….it depends.

Buyer beware

Be incredibly weary of equity only programmes (or even worse when you pay £ to join!). It costs the accelerator nothing to own equity in your company and without any significant cash investment from their end I question whether the incentives are really aligned to “accelerate” you to your full potential.

Get specific

Look out for accelerators that are either dedicated or have a good track record for supporting companies in your sector. Domain expertise is valuable for early stage startups.

Avoid places where it’s being run by ex-consultants, ex-bankers and university graduates. You’re looking to learn off the mistakes and successes of other entrepreneurs and from people who have been-there-done-that at startups.

Avoid places where it’s being run by ex-consultants, ex-bankers and university graduates. You’re looking to learn off the mistakes and successes of other entrepreneurs and from people who have been-there-done-that at startups.

Check the programme schedule and try and avoid accelerators where it’s Week 1: Marketing, Week 2: Sales etc. Each startup on an accelerator is at a different stage, so if you’re in desperate need of help with PR but it’s not till week 7 then what are you meant to do, wait around!? Warning — this can be a big distraction and counter productive! The best accelerators will have a more tailored approach and build a programme to address your startup’s stage and weakness.

Fundraising

They’ll all promise this. It’ll usually come in the form of a bright shiny investor day at the end of the programme, where money will be oozing from the who’s who of VC world, you’ll close your round and upgrade to that fancy WeWork office. Aside from the top few accelerators, most accelerators don’t have the “investor network” in the form they promise and these days are often a sad affair with wanna-be angel investors who you’ll struggle to even get a £5k cheque. Don’t let fundraising be a key reason for joining an accelerator. Whatever you’re promised…you’re going to have a hustle for yourself.

Having said that, which accelerators actually do have a decent investor network from my anecdotal experience?

Real angel investors and VCs are bombarded by emails and pitches from startups all the time, they can’t attend every accelerators demo day. So, if they’re going to take a day off to attend one, it will probably be the bigger ones with a good rep.

Corporate partnerships promises

Similar to funding, some may reel off a list of their fancy corporate partners and dangle the idea that by joining the programme you’ll have your first B2B client, B2C distribution partner, pilot etc.

Again, this is likely a false promise, and don’t let this be a sole reason for joining. Unless it’s actually a corporates venture accelerator where their set up is probably more aligned for partnerships, at best you’ll get a warm intro in to the corporate from the accelerator (which, yes, will be better than you may have got otherwise) but there’s not guarantee you’ll have some partnership contract signed within 6 months.

IF there is a strategic reason for the corporate to partner with you, you’ll be subject to the same procurement/legal/corporate BS anyone has when trying to work with a large corporate. This will be take c.12 months. Take this into account.

It’s not so gloomy!

Overall, if you’re a first time founder, pre-seed stage, and you find a sector specific accelerator or maybe one of the big ones listed above, I’d like to think an accelerator programme will do you more good than harm. Key benefits:

  • Company culture & CPD: A well appointed office space, networking with other startups, events and learning opportunities for you and your whole team.
  • Test-Learn-Iterate-Repeat: You’ll hopefully get some good mentorship and advice on how to refine your product, avoid making trivial startup mistakes and most importantly put you into a routine to keep listening to customers and iterating your product to find product-market-fit.
  • Users + investors: Accelerators area a great place to get your first batch of users, carry out user testing and bounce around ideas. If you don’t have a big personal investor network then leverage the accelerator’s network. It can be a good placer to avoid the “cold start” problem for product launch + fundraising.

p.s. don’t be put off applying to U.S. based accelerators — something I should have considered earlier on. Y Combinator, arguably the “best” accelerator programme, really disciples their startups to focus on building things people want!

I’m Nish, an ex-founder based in London. I’m documenting all the mistakes and lesson that come from being a first time startup founder 🚀

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