A quickfire guide to startup accelerators

tl;dr — accelerators are a great way of rapidly expanding your network, stress-testing your assumptions, founder relationships, your startup and connecting with investors or corporates. But do your Due Diligence to find the right programme for you. Talk to startups in the portfolio, interview the programme team (they're definitely going interview you!) and check the Landscape Reviews!

Hey, Wil here 👋

Starting and scaling a startup is hard work. I've still got some of the scars from my time as a founder almost five years after the business was acquired!

Back in 2013 – as I was starting out with my cofounder and working on an idea that eventually became a startup – I wanted all the help I could get. If you're working at an early-stage startup or you're a first-time founder (or you're a later stage founder looking to find new investors or business relationships), accelerators can be a great way to find support during the dark days*.

What do I mean by an accelerator? I'm talking about something like YCombinator, Techstars, Ignite or the ATI Boeing Accelerator (ABA; where I work with seed to series A-stage businesses in the aerospace sector). These are programmes that are designed to literally accelerate founders, startups and relationships within a limited timeframe. And this is startups with a product (pre-product/ idea-stage founders or startups would probably be better suited to incubators). Accelerators can offer networking, investor/ corporate access, an educational curriculum and a broad range of other benefits.

So how do you find the right accelerator for you?

(📸: Tim Mossholder)

What do you want or need?

Answering this question is a great place to start, before you even start looking at accelerator programmes.  

Are you, your business or your team struggling with something specific – like access to clients, building an investment pipeline, having a support structure of other founders/ startups at the same stage of you? The list can be endless. Defining what you need will help you find accelerators that can provide support on these (and many other topics). Doing this exercise first can also help you explain to the programme team why you're a good fit for their programme (and help them design the programme curriculum around what you want or need, which is always useful).  

Every good accelerator has a USP that makes it stand out from the crowd. Some are great at connecting founders with experienced mentors, others can facilitate fundraising by introducing founders to the right investors. Corporate accelerators**, like the ABA, focus on facilitating client relationships (between each cohort and the corporate sponsors) and commercial trials (like Proof of Concept contracts).

(📸: Fallon Michael

Do your Due Diligence

Once you've defined what you want or need, it's time for some due diligence. And I don't mean 'googling accelerator' and applying to the top result.

I'd suggest pulling a list of accelerators that look like they could help you with what you want or need, and then doing a bit of a deeper dive into each one. What do I mean by deep dive?

Try and meet the programme team. Do they offer office hours***? If so, can you book in and have a chat with the team? Discuss what you're looking for and if they think you could be a good fit for the programme. See what your connection with the programme team is – do you see yourself working with them 24/7 for 12 weeks? If the programme offers investment (not all do), can they share the investment material or talk you through the process? Can they introduce you to some of the programme mentors or workshop leads? All of this pre-programme research can help you find the most suitable accelerator for you and your business.

Another great route to finding the right accelerator for you is portfolio testimonials. Can you find any startups who have 'graduated' from a programme, and have a chat with them to hear about their experiences (and not just the good stuff, what didn't work or what could have been improved in their opinion?) while in the accelerator?

(📸: Markus Winkler)

The application itself

Applying to accelerators can be a bit of a time-consuming process. There'll generally be a written application and then an interview (or repeat interviews).

Create a doc that you put the application questions in, and then draft up your responses. Share your answers with your team, or mentors if you have them, and try to be as clear and concise as you can be. At the ABA, over the last two accelerators we've run, we had nearly 500 applications for 20 places. It's incredibly competitive, and if you submit an essay in your application when we needed (or asked for) 240 characters, you've already made it harder for yourself to progress to the next round.

Do what you can to personalise the application to the programme and remember to always answer the question!

If you've done well with your application, and you've found a programme that is a good fit for what your startup is doing, you might get invited to interview. This will most likely be a phone or video chat (because, you know, #lockdownlife) – so make sure your internet can handle a two-way video call, do a tech test, have your camera on and be positive and engaged with your interviewer.

Don't carpet bomb applications

This shouldn't come as a surprise, but if you're applying to multiple accelerators at once (most of the time, different programmes' applications forms will ask for similar content so duplicating applications can be a time-efficient way of maximising your chances of getting to interview) make sure you submit the right application to the right place.

I've had startups get to interview, only to turn up and present an application presentation for a different accelerator. I've seen application forms referencing other accelerators, or applications so generic they don't seem like they were even meant for our accelerator. This is an instant red flag, and nine times out of ten will result in your application being sent straight to the reject pile.

(📸: carolina daltoe)

What else?

So you’ve got this far, and you've decided an accelerator is not for you. What are your other options?

  • If you're already generating revenue, you've got probably your first option. Bootstrapping your startup. Grind out organic growth and use your profits (where possible) to drive the development of what you're building
  • If you're not generating revenue, build out a product you can charge for, test the market (and see if it wants to pay for what you're selling) and then refer back to the first bullet
  • If you just need some extra cash to pad out your (business) bank balance, can you apply for grant funding, could you look at taking out a loan (I started my business with a Startup Loan before we even looked at accelerators or investors), or are there any investors in your network you could talk to?
  • If you're after advice over anything else, use the Office Hours! Reach out to accelerator programme teams who offer free advisory time, find startup advisors online or talk to people in your network who might be able to help you.

A few final thoughts

An accelerator, if you find the right one, can be an inflection point for you as a founder and for your business. It was for me, and my accelerator experience changed the course of both my life and that of the startup I was building. I loved the experience as a founder so much that I joined an accelerator as a Programme Director during the startup's eventual acquisition process, and I've been designing and delivering programmes ever since.

But that doesn’t mean the accelerator will do everything for you.

One of our corporate partners at the ABA have a great saying: "the programme's all about unfair access, but it won't provide an unfair advantage". And I think that's always worth remembering.

A good accelerator is a jump off point that can show you infinite doors to progress, but you have to open the doors and go through them.

*If you’re having a tough time, drop me an email, tweet me or try talk to someone, anyone. It really helps. Thanks Sanctus (in a big way) for getting me through the dark days.

**On corporate accelerators, it's really important to make sure you understand what the programme’s aims are. Do they have a track record of delivering on what they say a startup will get out of the programme, or is it simply a marketing/ PR exercise? Talk to the portfolio (or look at Landscape Reviews) to get their unbiased feedback.

***Want some advice on accelerators – or startups more generally? Book in for office hours!