“We’ve been accepted onto an accelerator” I said to my co-founder, Mark, abruptly interrupting him from coding. “Awesome…” he replied, slowly removing his headphones, “What exactly does that mean?”… “No idea, maybe we should find out”
It’s been 4 weeks since we walked through the doors at our first startup accelerator, MassChallenge. Despite a string of software startups and 2 successful exits neither my experienced co-founder Mark, nor I (a first time founder), have had any exposure to accelerators before. This is an account of what life inside a startup accelerator has been like and some advice on what to expect for anyone considering joining one.
Firstly let me explain about the specific accelerator we’re on. MassChallenge originated from Boston, USA and unlike other accelerators it does not take any equity in the companies or place any restrictions on the startups they select. To support the program, funding comes primarily from sponsorships from large corporations. This is great for us as it means we get almost all of the upside of an accelerator program with none of the downside (i.e. giving up equity in our company). And at the end of the 4 months we get to pitch to a round of judges to win £500k of cash prizes, no strings attached.
What is an accelerator?
The aim of a startup accelerator, sometimes known as an incubator, is to take a startup from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Our point A at TalentRocket is a beta product and point B is the launch and successful commercialisation of that product. Everyone we’ve met so far at MassChallenge has different point As and point Bs. David, sat opposite us, is right at the start of his journey. He’s a solo founder of a hardware startup and he’s hoping to go from a great idea (A) to a working prototype (B). The startup on the desk behind him is a food delivery service, they already have traction and a growing user base so their point A is way ahead of our point B. At first it seems confusing, startups at idea stage mixing with ones that already have customers, but this mix is actually what makes MassChallenge work. If we were more advanced than everyone else it might boost our egos for a minute but then we wouldn’t be able to learn from the startups that are a bit further ahead of us.
8 things we now know about life in a startup accelerator
Your to do list grows – Like most things in life what you get out is based on what you put in. There’s no shortage of events to be part of, people to meet and conversations to have. One of the main things is that accelerator events are of higher quality than the usual ‘free’ startup events. But with regular meetings, events and mentoring sessions, your to do list explodes. Focus is the most important thing for any startup, so ensuring we have a clear list of priorities for each day, each meeting and each interaction has been critical. Choosing what activities will give us the most value for our time is something we constantly battle with, but it’s a nice problem to have.
Entrepreneurs are night owls – I’m not sure if this is a MassChallenge thing or a more general observation but the office doesn’t get busy until at least 10 or 11am. At first I thought what on earth is everyone doing arriving at this time and then one night I lost track of time and looked at my watch, it was 10pm and the office was busier than it was at lunch time! So be prepared for late nights, accelerators only run for a few important weeks so make sure you give it everything.
Don’t compare your startup to others – Everyone’s success metrics are different. You’re doing well and are hiring an intern and then you see the company on the desk next to you is showing 12 new employees round the office. You think you’re product has legs with investors then you hear that the company opposite you just raised a huge seed round. You think your startup is changing the world and then you chat with some guy over lunch that’s made a product that can save millions of lives each year. Working in an accelerator is a humbling experience and definitely brings you back to reality when you start to get a little bit boastful. I can almost guarantee that you won’t be the cleverest person in the room. So don’t compare your progress to others; it will only make you go crazy.
Mentors are awesome – Initially the thought of enforced mentoring made me cringe. It was one of the elements that I thought we probably different need. Having spent 10 years in recruitment, I know the market we’re trying to disrupt inside out and my co-founder Mark has spent 10 years in software startups as both CTO and CEO. What can a mentor really offer us? Then I stopped being such an arrogant (insert favourite expletive) and realised that we needed all the help we could get. Mentors give up their time for free. Where on earth do you get experts giving up their time and listening us whine for free? So we re-thought the whole situation. We identified the areas we needed most help. These were Marketing, (specifically b2c user growth), PR, and securing investment which we categorized into 2 areas; pitching and investor connections. Then we then identified a shortlist of experts to help us with these areas and secured meetings with them all. We now boast a roster of big hitting mentors to take TalentRocket to the next level. So if you need help in any area of your startup (and you will) then a place on an accelerator comes with a golden ticket to expert advice.
A “can do” atmosphere – So I know it sounds obvious but we’re into week 5 now, and with 90 startups in the same room, the office is buzzing. With startups coming from multiple countries and speaking a ton of different languages, it just feels like a special place to be. Being in the office really is where the magic happens so make sure you make the most of it.
Advice comes on tap – Aside from the mentor program accelerators regularly schedule office hours with in-house experts to guide you through the program. Our first office hours was with Hailey from MassChallenge on PR who gave us some amazingly helpful advice on our press release as well as connecting us to journalists in the London tech space. It’s not just MC that like to offer advice though, fellow startups love to find out about what your doing and try and add value. From comments and messages on our own private Slack channel to meeting curious entrepreneurs over lunch, one of the hardest parts of an incubator is actually knowing who NOT to listen to.
Inspiration comes in spades –In month one there is no shortage of opportunities to learn at MassChallenge. From kicking off things at startup bootcamp with inspiring speakers such as the enigmatic Sarah Wood co-founder of Unruly Media and Stewart Rogers of VentureBeat, to expert workshops run by elite venture capitalists in the London community, each startup is engaged in a “curriculum” of events that will help turn ideas into action. Listening to countless startup success stories helps keep your chin up when things get tough.
Camaraderie and community wins –It was Friday, I’d had a great week and was riding a bit of a high. David from the hardware startup I mentioned was sat opposite me. He looked defeated. After a quick chat it turns out that he’d just read that one of his main competitors had just landed £17m of funding. He needed a boost. We sat and talked. I told him that being first to market was a disadvantage and that if they blow a few million on marketing it would create a market for his product. I don’t know if it helped. I do know how he feels. But in that moment I knew that at some point in the next 3 months I’m going to be David. I’ll need someone to come and keep me on track. That’s when I knew the true value that accelerators add – the camaraderie. As well as a dose of healthy competition to keep you focused, being part of an accelerator means contributing to it not just benefiting from it. After all, we’re all here to make a positive difference, in our own little corners of the room, in our own little corners of the world.
In summary, successful entrepreneurship is all about access — access to experience, mentorship, funding options, fellow entrepreneurs and possible partners. An accelerator gives you this. One thing that’s obvious already is that our startup will not (and should not) be the same business as it went in; just how much it transforms we’ll have to wait and see.
This is the first in a series of 3 blog posts about life at a startup accelerator. Follow us for notifications of the follow up posts. If you’ve had a similar or different experience of working in an accelerator or have any questions then I’d love to hear about them in the comments box below.