So, you want to join an accelerator, jumpstart your young company and maybe see your tech become the next big thing?
These business development programs — often supported by corporations that might later purchases services from the startups they mentor — can offer financing, governance and connections. You want to be sure that it’s a good fit and worth the time.
But how do you choose one?
In reality, the process of deciding which accelerator to join is more like picking where to go to college: Ultimately, once you apply, the accelerator will choose you (that is, your company). To find the one that’s the right fit, you need to understand what specific accelerators are looking for and what they want from startups like yours.
“There are examples of programs run by corporations where it’s frankly a bit of a PR exercise,” says Luke Butler, executive director of startup engagement for Comcast NBCUniversal. “They just run it off to the side and they get to say that they did it.”
Is an accelerator right for your startup?
First, it’s important to recognize what’s not a good fit.
The big one, according to Butler: “If you’re looking at an accelerator to raise money purely from a fundraising perspective, you probably shouldn’t do it. There are more efficient, effective and frankly, better deals for you as a founder to raise money outside of that model.”
Instead, where accelerators can really be a valuable opportunity is in networking. The Philadelphia-headquartered Comcast’s SportsTech program is for, you guessed it, startups focused on technology related to competitive and pro sports. Acceptance to the programs means exposure to Comcast’s larger portfolio orgs, including NBC Sports, Sky Sports, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Wells Fargo Center. “If you’re looking for access into what’s already a pretty tough industry to crack into,” Kurath said, “that’s a huge playground right there.”
SportsTech also has external partners, including NASCAR, WWE, PGA Tour and three Olympic teams.
“They’re on your dream team of customers and clients that you serve. This gives you unique access to those decision makers, those leaders that can help shape your business,” she said. “And at the end of the day, while I agree wholeheartedly that it is not the most efficient vehicle to raise funds, it certainly is helpful when you have a number of high-profile customers to go back to investors and say, ‘Look, I have tangible product market fit.'”
What do accelerators look for?
In short, oftentimes, it’s companies or tech working on something the accelerator host can use.
“When we’re choosing companies, we’re choosing ones that we think will have a strategic fit to the business,” Kurath said of Comcast. “We’re pairing up with commercial advisors, subject matter experts across businesses, and we’re having an opportunity to test and pilot and experiment with technology [which] gives us some early lessons on what we can license, acquire or integrate into our business.”
The endgame may be that your tech becomes the company’s tech, so keep that in mind when researching accelerators. As we’ve heard from startup founders who have gone through a Comcast accelerator in the past, that can be a win-win, if you go in aiming for an enterprise-level client (or acquirer).
Founders’ experience and disposition matter, too.
“We’re really looking for founders that are coachable,” Kurath said. “They should have a really strong conviction and their vision, their product, what they’re building, but an openness to asking tough questions, challenging assumptions, and really listening to what customers want.”
Are you ready to commit to an accelerator?
Accelerators are typically intensive, months-long programs, and you’ll be running the business while working your way through it.
“You really need to be clear about what you want to get out of it,” Butler said. “There are companies, when we’re working with early-stage founders, that are really trying to figure out the product market fit and what kind of approach to market is best for them. Some have that and they just see us as a big first enterprise client, and some of them are really just trying to get ready to raise money and make sure that the company is in the best position to go and raise money.”
The outcome may be positive, leading to company advancement. But, Butler noted, sometimes accelerator experiences expose weaknesses in the vision, the product or the team.
“We’ve had companies where the accelerator put the pressure on the team and helped expose that the founders weren’t necessarily the right fit to go forward,” he said. “And they were able to address that quickly. You have to commit to that intensity, and that’s where it’s slightly different from just taking money from a traditional early-stage investor.”
Does your chosen accelerator have genuine intent?
Those running the accelerator also need to commit. As applying founder, you should do enough research to know how involved they’ll actually be.
“The programs that are most successful and beneficial are the ones where the executives from the corporations are really rolling up their sleeves and working side by side with the founders,” Butler said. “They’re not just doing it because it’s cool to work with startups; there’s a genuine intent to find the next big technology or product that our business is going to work with. I think that’s a bar that we have for anyone internally that wants to participate.”
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