Getting the Most Out of Your Accelerator/Incubator Experience
So you’ve been accepted to that accelerator program you applied for, congratulations! Your journey has only begun– these types of programs can be an immense source of value for your startup, but only if you go into it with the right mindset and a solid plan.
We talked to Alex Mitchell about getting the most out of your accelerator program once you’re in the door. Alex is the SVP of Unlocking Innovation (Incubation Services) at the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) and the author of the Su$tainable Mobility newsletter.
Even before you apply for an accelerator/incubator program, you should be thinking about maximizing value. First, identify what kind of program you’re trying to participate in. While there’s no hard and fast definition of an incubator versus an accelerator, incubators tend to operate on a two year time frame, while accelerators are in the 3-6 month range. If your product is hardware-based, you’ll probably need a longer-term program to accomplish any discrete goals. On the other end, software businesses might be able to benefit from a shorter program. You want to have a clear idea of why you chose that particular program and how it will benefit you.
The key when it comes to getting value out of an accelerator is to enter with a short, tangible list of goals to accomplish during the program duration– three to five items max. Be explicit as possible to create a roadmap with the accelerator team and any advisors you’ve been assigned. Break it down into milestones for fundraising, customer traction, policy, etc. and share this roadmap with the program manager and advisors within the first month of your program to get feedback on whether you’ve set realistic goals. They’ve seen many companies similar to yours, so trust their expertise on what role they can play along your roadmap.
As you continue through the program, be sure to check back in with the program manager and your advisors about whether or not you’re sticking to/adjusting your goals. Mentorship is often a big part of accelerator programs, so fine-tuning your map consistently will a) keep you on the right track and b) allow you to maximize the value you get out of that relationship. Keeping them in the loop will also give you external pressure to actually execute on your visions.
How to approach meetings
Once you’ve established achievable goals, optimizing your meetings is critical. You’ll have countless opportunities to connect with other founders, prospective advisors, investors, partners, etc. It’s really easy to waste time on intro conversations that lead nowhere, so come to every interaction with an ask– having specific, pointed questions and discussion points will allow you to maximize every interaction.
One place where founders often struggle is managing accelerator advisor relationships. For many founders, conversations with advisors often turn into a regurgitation of updates, without any prioritized short list of items of feedback or decision-making. It is absolutely critical to come to advisor conversations with specific goals to drive the discussion. Whether or not they have feedback during that particular meeting, coming with an ask will put the idea in their head, and they can point you to another expert or solution by the next time you meet. The time you have in meetings is one of the most valuable parts of accelerator programs. Don’t let it pass you by unproductively.
The great thing about accelerator programs is that they open you up to a vast network of others who can help you to achieve your goals. To derive meaningful value from these connections:
- Reach out to alumni. A great way to get even more value out of your accelerator is to connect with its alumni. They will likely be a few years ahead of where you are with your business, and will have great expertise from the time they spent in your shoes. They’ll likely have/make time to see to it that other founders succeed– being an alum of the same program gives many of them a vested interest in helping you.
- Build peer relationships. Plenty of entrepreneurs grossly undervalue relationships with other founders in their cohort. Make these relationships a top priority. Your peers are going through the same struggles as you are, and can be a great source of support. They’ll also often have incredibly deep investor networks, allowing you an avenue for warm outreach and a great reference. You may even happen upon a joint revenue opportunity by staying connected with your peers. An easy way to reach out to another founder is to give them a shoutout. This creates a win-win in visibility for both founders, and gives you an opportunity to start a relationship from there.
- Form a “shadow” board. You can further the benefits of staying in touch with your peers or program alumni by forming a “shadow” board– i.e. a community of trusted peers who all have deep access to one another’s information (effectively like Board members). A shadow board can provide invaluable counsel without having any fiduciary responsibility like a true Board of Directors.
- Find a “shadow” co-founder. Companies that have multiple co-founders have the advantage of having many checks and balances to keep the business on track and in line with set goals. If you’re a solo founder, you may benefit from finding another person in your network to be your go-to. You could give them some amount of equity to keep them invested if they’re not ready to give up time to collaborate with you. Either way, it can be very valuable to have someone else to check you– consider someone who’s not directly related to your company or space so they can truly be objective with you.
- Avoid FOMO. Especially in the accelerator environment, it’s easy to get FOMO about all the new developments others in your space are creating. In any cohort model, there will be companies that seem like they’re doing it all. Remember your roadmap: while you can adjust as you go, stick to your necessary goals and don’t feel pressured to expand past what you have deemed realistic. Having a written guide for the next few quarters can also help you look back and consider whether your needs are still consistent with your goals from when you started.
No matter what sort of relationships you derive from participating in an accelerator program, remember that much of the value comes from your willingness to give back to the community. Regardless of your experience level, you always have something to offer– whether it’s policy expertise, scientific background, or anything else. Be explicit within your cohort about what you can give– making yourself a point person for something unique will pay back big time in terms of others helping you out in turn.
The program ended, now what?
The end of your program doesn’t have to mean an end to the value and involvement you get out of it. Especially in the clean tech industry, alumni are still eligible for many of the accelerator’s benefits. Since the need for capital in the climate space can be unpredictable, many accelerators make their financial instruments available to alums as well.
To get the most out of your program after its completion, stay connected with the accelerator community. Volunteer to teach a session, or provide value in some other way. Use these connections to your advantage– for example, getting a grant can be tough on your own, but if you apply to do it in an incubator-affiliated way, you may have a higher chance of success.
The incentive structure for accelerators and incubators is to create measurable results to bring in other startups, and therefore raise more money. So, the more opportunities you give them to produce results with you as a cohort member, the better. You can even do this in perpetuity– add your accelerator manager to your monthly updates, schedule regular check-ins, etc.
Most importantly, don’t let the relationships you built through your accelerator fade with time. Once you’re an alumnus, become a resource to others in the program– not only is this a way to give back, it will likely create a ton of long-term value for your startup as well.
Alex Mitchell is the SVP of Unlocking Innovation (Incubation Services) at LACI, which is one of the leading clean-tech incubators in the United States. He is also the author of the Su$tainable Mobility newsletter and advises startups via StartOut. He is also an advisory board member for A2MAC1, a provider of technical benchmarking solutions for the automotive industry and others. Alex received his MBA in marketing from the Wharton School at UPenn, his MA in International Studies from the Lauder Institute at UPenn, and a BA in International Relations from Stanford.