Dear Advisor: What should I consider when launching an accelerator?
June 2022, updated July 2022
Having mentored 100+ start-ups at many accelerators in California (including Techstars LA, FoundersBoost LA, Alley Tech for Good, Alchemist, 805 start-ups, and CoFoundersLab Startup Accelerator) on product market fit, cross-section of business and technology, data and AI, and taught 1000+ academic and industry professionals on topics in data and AI, I now get asked for insights, advice and tips for those considering launching new accelerators.
I don't have to tell you that it will all be about trade-offs you can make to achieve the outcome(s) you're aiming for. Here’s what I share with them, to help you better understand what those are.
As an aside, whenever I consider mentoring at a new start-up accelerator/precellerator/incubator, these are also the questions I ask, to help me decide to mentor there, or conclude that I'm not a fit.
#1 Question: What outcomes would you like to see founders accomplish by the end of the accelerator?
That is, how would you define founder “success” at the end of the program? What will be the cohorts’ (typical) biggest pain point – and one that you’ll be trying to help them solve? Is the outcome a prototype of an MVP? Something else entirely?
For many accelerators, a great outcome is an elevator pitch and a pitch deck.
I highly recommend aiming for an MVP prototype/wireframe. Dave Parker's book "Trajectory Startup: from Idea to MVP" is a good resource for founders on how to get there.
What will be your differentiation from the competition?
Will you be optimizing for outcomes, volume, or support? Or something else entirely? And hopefully not aiming for value, quality and 1-1 and group support for all, all at the same time?
How view you tier support across content, networking, mentoring, office hours?
What niche (in industry, specialization, focus, stage, etc.) will you expect to fill?
Who/what will be your competitive landscape for applicants? Which specific accelerators/precellerators/incubators or startup studios will you be competing with, based on outcomes, cost, reputation, etc.?
Do you expect founders to be technical or non-technical?
What will be the application process?
What will the applicants be expected to learn during the program? In what format? And length?
Will content be mostly speaker/panel-based? Training videos followed by Q&A? Book club? A combination? Something else entirely?
Regardless of format, I highly recommend covering "101" topics on contracts, financial, equity, customer pain point understanding for value proposition, pitching, technology and data for product market fit – for all founders.
How does each piece of content/programming get founders closer to accomplishing the end goal of the program?
Having taught and designed many courses before (including for graduate students of UCLA Statistics, on software development best practices for AI), here's my strategy:
Start with outcomes
Draft outline of topics to get me 1 step closer to the outcomes with each topic
Judiciously cut topics to focus on the most important, value-added concepts that are key to getting get 1 step closer to the outcomes
For each remaining topic, assume you'll have founders who range from novices to advanced expertise on the topic. With this in mind, I design my courses assuming no prior knowledge, but do include topics from novice all the way to advanced -- even if it's "advanced topics to Google on own time" for shorter class sessions. This way everyone walks away having learned something new that they wouldn't have otherwise -- and can build on what they've learned or already know.
Leave at least 15-20% time of each session for questions.
My graduate students really enjoyed starting each (3-hour) session with a 5-7 minute networking session in breakout rooms, as we wait for everyone to join -- and having at least a 5 minute break every hour.
Will the program be open to remote, hybrid or local founders only?
What is the expected time commitment for founders?
To help manage expectations, I also recommend sharing “norms” and code of conduct with founders and mentors, covering time commitments, reaching out to mentors, what to expect, etc.
At one accelerator I mentored, first-time founders didn’t know – until the very last week – that they could have reached out for a complimentary weekly meeting with me, for the duration of the accelerator.
Will there be a pitch event at the end – or another way – for founders to get introduced to VCs?
Monetization and Costs
How do you expect the program to be self-supporting? Will you be self-funded, charge founders (in cash and/or equity), apply for grants, find sponsors, etc.?
Who will be your core leadership team, potentially helping you run the program?
Will you be charging founders based on success metrics?
Will you be offering honorariums or equity in the startup studio to mentors?
What will you offer the Beta group of your first cohort?
Will you have mentors share expertise with founders? In what format? Will there be a mentoring agreement and mentor matching? What is the time commitment for this, for founders and mentors?
As a mentor, it helps to know what the expected time commitment is for the duration of the program, to help me see if I’m a fit.
Typically, I mentor via a "flipped classroom" format. Before my mentoring session, founders watch the video + review slides from the talk I gave on product market fit last year, and then we can use the time live for Q&A to cover their most pressing questions around product market fit, product, data and technology.
How will you on-board founders and mentors to the accelerator?
I highly recommend the detailed Google and Notion documents of Alchemist and Techstars accelerators, respectively, that have helped me onboard as a first-time mentor of each accelerator.
I can’t wait to hear more about your program. If you’re looking for advisors or mentors for the program, please keep me in mind. You know what questions I'll ask :) Good luck!
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Dear Advisor: I have a start-up idea, what should I do next?
Should You Join a Startup Accelerator?, by DC Palter, who's also a FoundersBoost mentor
TechDay's session recording on "Accelerators: What they are and how they work"