Although there is some debate on whether or not startup accelerators really turn out the success stories they promise, new accelerators are popping up all over, and startup entrepreneurs are clamoring to get into one.
So, just how hard is it to get accepted by an accelerator? Is the application process onerous? Is it even worth the effort?
To find out, I talked to a few startup entrepreneurs about their accelerator experiences.
Kyle Judah and his partner Jason Woodward started their online venture, RecoVend, in August 2011 after seeing how inefficient, offline and noncollaborative the buying process was at colleges and universities. They created a streamlined platform for collaborative purchases for products and services for post-secondary schools.
As first-time entrepreneurs, the RecoVend founders knew they would need lots of mentoring to avoid the pitfalls in the early stages of a startup. “Applying to a startup accelerator helped us gain access to incredible mentors – entrepreneurs, investors, community members – who had all been there and done that before us, and helped us realize what we need to do to build and grow a successful company,” Judah says.
Judah and Woodward applied to the Betaspring startup accelerator in Providence, R.I., after meeting the accelerator’s partners while participating in a startup pitch contest held at Babson College. “The application was fairly straightforward, just a Web application where you answer some questions about the founders, the company, the idea and your progress to date,” Judah explains. “They asked us to include some short videos talking about [ourselves] and the product. Once we applied, we were asked to come to the Betaspring Experience Day event, where we got to hear talks from some incredible Betaspring mentors.”
At the event, the founders had their first interview with a Betaspring partner and discussed the changes they were making to their product. They were asked back for a second, more in-depth interview with the other partners. Then came a final round of interviews where “they spent an hour doing a really deep dive into our product, vision and progress,” Judah says. “We were informed of our selection for the spring class the day before Christmas – the perfect gift!”
Impressing the Judges
If you live near St. Louis, Mo., you might take a look at Arch Grants, a startup accelerator that hopes to create a vibrant startup culture in the city, and also offers startup funding in the form of grants. Through a business plan competition, Arch Grants selects promising startups to receive $50,000. Many startup entrepreneurs are curious about what the judges at these competitions look for.
Brad Pittenger, the CEO of IT solutions provider XIOLINK, reviewed more than a dozen business plans as a recent Arch Grants judge. He says he focused his review primarily on the management team (Did the team members have experience that made them appropriate for the venture?); the concept (Does it make sense? Is it innovative?); and the presentation of ideas (Were they organized? Succinct? Did they understand the marketplace?). Of the 420 applicants from 11 different countries, 15 winners were chosen and awarded $50,000 each.
i/o Venturesin San Francisco is an early-stage startup program that focuses heavily on mentorship and works closely with startup entrepreneurs from product launch to the next stage of company development. Participants get a chance to work alongside high-profile entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley. i/o has two classes per year and accepts five companies per class; applications for the fall sessions can be found at ventures.io/apply.
Relocating Can Be a Requirement
Once a startup is accepted, the first step is moving the team to the Bay Area. “We require our teams to be in or near San Francisco to take full advantage of all the program has to offer,” i/o’s Cory Mikell says. After an orientation, where the startups hear a very candid look at what it’s really like to run a startup from industry veterans, “the next three months will be a whirlwind of building the product, constantly iterating and weekly office hours,” Mikell says. “Mentors work one-on-one with all of the teams throughout the program, onsite and offsite.”
Is it worthwhile to join an accelerator? “Hands down, Betaspring was the best thing we could have done for our company,” RecoVend’s Judah says. “We have come so far, both personally and professionally, in such a short time, and the progress we made while in the program has put RecoVend on a totally different trajectory. We’re now working with over 10 colleges, including some of the most elite in the country. We’ve met our investors, advisors and mentors all through the Betaspring network.”
Judah says he believes one of the greatest benefits of an accelerator program is the sense of community you gain from being around intelligent, ambitious peers who are at the same stage of their business as you are.
That’s not to say it’s easy.
“It is a full-time commitment over three months – we were probably working 80 to 100 hours a week – so if you aren’t willing to do what it takes and make the investment of time and energy, then it isn’t an experience for you,” Judah cautions. “If you can commit to it, do it! You’ll see huge returns on your investment of time and energy.”