Founder Friday is a weekly guest post written by a founder who is based in or hails from the Silicon Prairie. Each month, a topic relevant to startups is presented and founders share lessons learned or best practices utilized on that topic. June's topic focuses on sharing experiences from and lessons learned in accelerators.
About the author: John Schnipkoweit is CEO and co-founder of NextStep.io, a Cedar Rapids-based startup that helps personal trainers put context to their client's wearable technology data to help them better achieve fitness goals. They joined the Nike+ Techstars Accelerator.
I first learned about accelerators shortly after we began building the RecBob product in January 2012. I was evaluating all avenues for funding, partnerships and advice. Accelerators were just starting to really come into their own at that time, but like many entrepreneurs, I was skeptical. It seemed too good to be true—massive success rates, good funding track records and the opportunity to learn from some of the best.
Even still, when looking over the schedule it seemed like there would be quite a bit of deceleration. A whole month of meeting mentors? And another whole month of grooming for Demo Day? While I knew these had to be over-simplified, and not the only things you’d be doing, it felt like we would loose ground because we wouldn’t be out recruiting users, building our product, etc. Well, fast forward to our accelerator experience about a year after we started and I can say that it is true, you do decelerate at an accelerator, but sometimes you have to slow down to go faster. #DoMoreFaster
Deconstruction then reconstructionIt’s important to note that every accelerator is different, and everyone’s experience, even at the same accelerator, is unique to each company and individual. Our experience started with rapidfire mentor meeting madness. Our team met with well over 200 people in one month. 200 meetings in one month! This gave us the opportunity to literally deconstruct everything we had built, everything we had assumed and even everyone’s roll on the team. We were forced to slow down and were given the opportunity to pressure test every fitting of the machine. This led us to our pivot, which is common at accelerators, but this process teaches you how to rapidly dismantle and focus; one of the key ingredients for building a successful company.
A three month-long business tripMost people who have never traveled for business think it sounds awesome to go on business trips. Honestly, I generally enjoy business travel—but when I stack trips together or go to long conferences where I try to do too much, I suffer. Accelerators are generally not in your hometown, so this means that everyone has to physically relocate on a shoestring budget. All five of our team members were in a two bedroom apartment—luckily it was a spacious two bedroom apartment. But for me, I struggled with this new dynamic—am I the CEO 24/7 now?
I think a good work life “balance” (whatever that is) begins with the ability to take off your work hat for at least a few hours every day—I had no idea what wearing that hat 24/7 would feel like. My advice to other startups, is that the leader should get their own place; even if you end up staying up late working and crashing at the team "bunk house" once in a while. Your company may go though some very difficult twists and turns—from business models to emotional clashes—the leader needs to be able to navigate the rough seas for the team, to get away and think, to be able to take off the leader hat once in a while. I can see how this might not be relevant for a team of two, but I believe the leader will still need to find time for perspective, like I did with lots of long walks, running or supportive phone calls to people back home.
Niche-focused acceleratorsFor us, being part of the Nike+ Techstars Accelerator was an amazing opportunity, not just because it was Techstars, but because it meant building a relationship with Nike and being around other companies that all shared a common thread—physical activity. Startups in an accelerator take on a new responsibility, and you feel it from day one. You have just joined a new team, a new family. If there has ever been an environment where the rising tide will lift all boats, it's an accelerator and its network, regardless of whether the startups share a market focus or not.
In accelerators that focus on a niche market, or have a large network of alumni like Techstars, those relationships have a multiplier. Not only can you give feedback and make introductions, but you can potentially partner and make each other’s businesses grow faster. My advice to startups in a company-sponsored accelerator is to maximize every opportunity you have to work with the sponsoring company. Successful companies are often built by other successful companies that believe in what you are doing—a sponsored accelerator gets you in the door to start that partnership.
You don’t “win” an acceleratorAs an accelerator alumni, I feel it's often my job to help people understand what an accelerator is, and what it is not. This is important, because just like I mentioned before, startups need the help of other businesses and a company coming out of an accelerator is no exception. New doors are opened and you get tremendous benefit, but you still need partners to defy the odds. Companies and people from your home city need to rally behind their startups, because it really does take a village.
So, first off, we did not “win” the accelerator. No one did. We all "won," but that doesn’t mean it's over, it means it’s just begun. You don’t "finish" in three months. Accelerators guide you in your business, because they know that after those three months, it’s not them running your business—it's you. It’s amazing what you can get done in those three months but in the grand scheme of things, three months is such a minuscule amount of time in the life of a business.>>>