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.

Positioning

  • 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?

Programming

  • 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?

  • 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:

          1. Start with outcomes

          2. Draft outline of topics to get me 1 step closer to the outcomes with each topic

          3. Judiciously cut topics to focus on the most important, value-added concepts that are key to getting get 1 step closer to the outcomes

          4. 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.

          5. Leave at least 15-20% time of each session for questions.

          6. 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?

Community

  • 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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