So you know what a startup accelerator or incubator is, but do you know how it works or even better, what happens next?
Don’t worry, I’m here to tell you what a startup accelerator is, how it works, and what how you should handle your next step.
I hope you’re as excited as I am to get started. But before we do, let’s talk about the basics.
What is a startup accelerator?
Simply put, a startup accelerator supports early-stage, growth-driven companies through education, mentorship, and financing.
The great part about an accelerator is in addition to the above, you reduce administrative expenses, maintain morale through peer support, boost acquisition through media coverage, and gain credibility in the eyes of investors.
The conclusion of the program is a graduation or “demo day”, The Refiners calls it “Pitch Night, where the startups have an event to demo their startup to the public and potential investors.
Related: A great Medium blog post about startup accelerators.
Quick history about accelerators
The first seed accelerator, Y Combinator, launched in 2005 and as you may know, later moved to Silicon Valley. Smart move ;)
Others like TechStars, Seedcamp, Startupbootcamp, all followed which led to the growth of popularity for accelerators.
U.S. based accelerators took off in 2008 with early-stage capital, venture investments and of course, startups, in general.
How do accelerators work?
Startups enter accelerators for a fixed period of time, and as part of a cohort of companies.
The accelerator experience is a process of intense, rapid, and immersive education aimed at accelerating the life cycle of young innovative companies, compressing years’ worth of learning-by-doing into just a few months.
Typically, an accelerator is held on-site between 3 to 6 months where the startups will work and attend weekly seminars and workshops.
Our accelerator at The Refiners is a 12-week program focused on pre-seed to seed round startups in all of the above: cohort-based, investment, seminars, workshops, investor meetings, and on-site at our home base in SoMa, San Francisco.
But here’s the real question...
What do I get out of it?
Probably the most important questions one should ask before joining a startup accelerator.
The true value lies in the mentorship program and huge network you’re introduced to.
At The Refiners, because we’re based in Silicon Valley, you get access to big time players in Silicon Valley!
For example, you’ll have a chance to meet Reid Hoffman, Fidji Simo, Phil Libin, Josh Elman, and much more. This will comprise of you meeting one-on-one or during an intimate seminar or chat. Very cool stuff (we know).
You’ll also be granted access to the people you want to meet most, Business Angels and VCs during our own Investor Fireside Chats.
To give you a quick rundown on how Investor Fireside Chats work, what we do is bring in these Angels or VCs to hand one-on-one meetings with you at our space.
We eliminate your cold emailing process to get past the front desk, gatekeeper, blah, blah…You don’t have to do any outreach with us. You just show up to the meeting (on time, please).
This is great for both startup and investor because the investor is fully focused on the meeting with you as well as for the investor, they’re excited to have the first crack at the new startup that could be the next unicorn.
How do I get into an accelerator?
Most accelerators have an application process where they decide whether your startup is a ‘good fit’ for their program or not.
This decision can be based on many factors depending on the accelerator’s mission or business model.
For example, The Refiners has one rule to be selected to join our program, you must be a startup founded outside of the U.S. We don’t target a specific niche of startups. Nope. We accept all.
All you need to be is a startup with at least one foreign co-founder Simple, right?
Here are 3 universal prerequisites accelerators like The Refiners looks for:
Most programs don’t accept startups with incomplete teams or solo founders. We like teams with 2 to 5 co-founders.
This refers to both funding and more importantly, time. Joining an accelerator is at most times, an on-site full-time job where you will use more than 50% of your time at workshops, meetings, or events. This means that you won’t have as much time to work on your product.
You need to make sure you have an MVP to demo and you can free yourself from your responsibilities, so this is where having a team comes into play. You need to be able to delegate tasks to ensure you make the most out of the program.
You need to be able to listen, learn, and iterate. Don’t forget to listen. Wait, did I already say that?
I know I did. Being able to truly listen is so important that I had to say it twice!
During the program, your choices will be constantly challenged by a wide array of mentors and experts. I’ve seen this firsthand with let’s say, 100% of our startups at The Refiners.
All of the startups in our program question themselves daily because they meet a new mentor that day that has a totally different approach to their business model, market, product, etc. Such is life.
You need to be open to a complete perspective on your business. Don’t be stuck in tunnel vision because the constructive feedback you get (which is invaluable), is the nuts and bolts of the program. You’ll either take it and go with it or be introduced to another position that you have to overcome.
But...which accelerator do I pick?!
You need to figure out what is the right market for your business as well as which program has the best mentors in your sector.
At The Refiners, we bring foreign founded startups to the U.S. that we feel can scale globally as well as disrupt Silicon Valley’s ecosystem.
First thing I’d do is find accelerators that focus on specific verticals, then see if the market they’re in fits your product niche.
What makes The Refiners different is that there is no program in the Valley entirely dedicated to foreigners and we believe foreigners have to overcome specific challenges.
For example, the cultural gap, having zero local networks, and not being Silicon-Valley-VC ready.
Other programs like 500 Startups and Y Combinator are great, but they don't have the "Google translator" that we have.
Who are the best entrepreneurs to help these foreign founders? Other season foreign entrepreneurs that have the experience to decipher the bountiful and yet complicated SV ecosystem.
Alright, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for!
What happens next?
Mission complete. You’ve made it past all of the mistakes, heartache, and success.
You’re the graduating class of an accelerator. What’s happens next?
Make sure you have a way to keep in touch with people you met
This point is so crucial for startupers.
Don’t put in all of that effort in meeting with investors, founders, CEOs, and not have a list of all of your gained contacts.
We have everything in place for our startups in The Refiners.
There is a shared contact list spreadsheet, Facebook Group, and Slack Team that we used extensively throughout our program to communicate. We leave the Slack Team open for our startups because we want to keep our family close together.
Because Slack is so important for our communication, we created a Slack Team for alumni, to keep the community vibrant and backbone solid.
Take some time to reconnect
All of our startups have been away from their country so a lot of them take time off to reconnect with friends and family.
Sometimes their visas are up and have to leave until they renew it, so they, unfortunately, have to go back without a choice.
An important thing to remember is, to take what you’ve learned and share it with your colleagues back home.
Sure, you’re not going to change the country, but don’t lose focus on what you’ve experienced in Silicon Valley because of everyone else’s dissonance.
Don’t waste your time changing people that can’t be changed, stay focused on your project and keep crushing it.
Keep the pressure
It’s not the time to relax, you have to continue the momentum. The last thing we want our startups to do is go back to running their companies the same way they did before the program.
It’s certainly a breath of fresh air to not be at hyper speed for 3-months straight, but you have to keep your grit, focus, and intensity.
"Keep the pressure. It’s not time to relax, you have to continue the momentum” - Stephane Nasser
Since you’re not being forced to meet people anymore, you need to keep pushing yourself to do it. Don’t get eaten by your internal work, stay external oriented, your job as CEO is both internal and external.
Now, run your own ‘accelerator program’
Every week, meet with investors, mentors, leads just like how you did in your accelerator.
Use what you learned, the mindset and work ethic aka keep responding to emails day off. Keep that Silicon Valley “sense of emergency”.
Finally, transfer the knowledge gained to your team and future employees:
Since you’ve raised money, you have to set up a best practice for internal reporting and mentor and investor reporting:
Workshop and seminar best practices
Revisit the internal process and culture to your team
The Refiners insists you stay focused on becoming a global company:
Make English your internal language in your emails, conversations, Slack, etc. (even abroad) if you’re trying to become a global company
Be on time
Keep meetings 30 minutes short
Keep the Silicon Valley pay it forward or “karma” mentality
It’s easy to fall back to your initial culture because it’s comfortable.
Point is, it’s not an end, it’s a beginning of something new.
Remember, Silicon Valley is fast-paced, so you need to always be running at the same speed.
Is your plan to have a global startup?
Well, your first question should really be, what is your GTM (Go-to-Market) strategy? Is your goal to scale globally or stay in your location? This decision is the deciding factor for what your next move after the accelerator is.
Let’s use The Refiners as another example. We’re based in Silicon Valley, the mecca of tech and innovation. A startup who wants to scale globally needs to enter this ecosystem, so they have to be here. Simple.
That said, you have to be aware of your virality probability and the momentum you will get when your startup gets noticed.
Great words of wisdom that I’ve always remembered from Carlos Diaz, Co-founder and General Partner at The Refiners, “Silicon Valley is a light bulb. It’s either on or off. You’re at high intensity or not.”
Final Tip: Timing is everything
If you didn’t know, things happen REALLY fast. Especially here in the Valley.
New companies are born or closed down, executives are fired and hired, your product spreads viral and you get contacted by giant tech companies here in the Bay.
You must maintain the pace of your intensity.
What does this all mean?
If your goal is to be global, then what you should do next is stay in Silicon Valley. That means that you have to either do 1 of 2 things:
Split your team up to be in both countries
Stay and base your HQ in Silicon Valley
“Out of sight, out of mind” is so true, and is especially evident in the Valley because there’s so much talent here doing the exact same thing as you (most times, better). So if you’re not here, you’re replaced.
Back where I’m from, Honolulu, Hawaii, things will always be at the same speed and the same place it was when I left. People are doing the same jobs, living the same “laid back” lifestyle.
But that doesn’t fly here in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. You need to take flight even if you haven’t lifted off the ground before.
I hope that you have a better perspective of what a startup accelerator is, how it works, what value it has for you, and how you should ultimately decide on what to do next.
Like I said, it all depends on where you want your company to go. Accelerators don’t tell you how to run your business, they give you expert guidance to mitigate mistakes, network growth, and many lanes for you to choose from to take flight.
If you’ve ever participated in a startup accelerator, let us know what you got from it! Tell us what lessons you learned and what mistakes you avoided. If not, give back advice to other startups looking to join an accelerator in the comments below.
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