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Behind the Scenes of an Accelerator

what happens in a startup accelerator

There are hundreds of accelerators in the US and the world, with more cropping up every day. We usually hear about the big venture successes and the notable failures emerging from these venture development firms’ programs. What we don’t hear much about is what happens once a company gets behind the doors of an accelerator, which makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to know if they’re a fit.

A good accelerator can help you beat the odds of startup demise only if you’re truly willing to do what is needed to make progress. Before you decide whether it’s time to submit an application, here are some things you should expect:

Expect to be questioned…a lot

Entrepreneurs need a healthy dose of hubris, tenacity, and vision. Enough arrogance to believe they can change the world, and enough ignorance to not realize that they can’t. The danger zone is when arrogance and ignorance intersect, which is where accelerators come in. You’ll get a lot of questioning and criticism from the market and from your advisors. So put your ego away and listen, learn, and keep overcoming those questions. Don’t forget, it’s in the accelerator’s best interest that you change the world, too.

Expect to engage with real users

When an entrepreneur walks in our doors, we typically see one of two issues. Either the product is overbuilt or they didn’t spend time identifying what their users are truly gaining from it. Just talking about the product to your audience isn’t good enough; you have to engage real users in the market in a meaningful way. Are the features you’ve conceived solving real problems? An accelerator should help you validate the market, the problem, and the product based on hands-on user testing and problem-solving tools.

Expect to change your perspective quickly

The feedback you receive from engaging with your users can lead to dramatic changes in your product and business model. Perhaps what you previously considered to be a single feature becomes the whole product. Early user feedback may tell you that the problem you’re solving isn’t very important to them after all. Every entrepreneur faces the challenge of what to change and what to preserve. The key is to make those decisions sooner rather than later.

Expect to focus on your go-to-market plan

We’ve seen entrepreneurs hunched down, responding to every email and tweet or spending their scare resources on Google AdWords. They have grossly underestimated their go-to-market plan. Once you’ve gotten traction of some sort and have validation, an accelerator should provide you with meaningful ideas on how to get your products into the hands of your customers. Understanding how to enter a market and get your product in the hands of customers is just as important as building a great product.

Don’t expect funding – it’s not a given

A good accelerator should help you become more fundable. But there are no guarantees. Capital should be one of the outcomes you hope for, but focus on what your venture needs besides capital when looking at accelerators. Investors need to have the confidence that you are organized properly, have extracted market risk, show traction, and prove that the team can execute so when the money comes you’ll be able to deploy that capital and move the needle. With their industry knowledge and connections, an accelerator will help you on one or several of those counts.

If you’ve carefully considered the challenges you’re facing, an accelerator can help you get the results and progress you need to gain traction. Your comfort level of having someone looking under the hood combined with the degree and vigor to which you participate in the process will dictate the outcome. Before jumping in, do your homework and be ready to embrace the process…it just might help take your business in the winning direction.

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About the Author

Robert Wallace is Executive Vice President of Venture Services at Tallwave, where he leverages his entrepreneurial and strategic marketing expertise to develop and implement Lean Startup strategies for Tallwave early-stage ventures. He has more than a decade of startup and client-side experience developing growth strategies, positioning companies, and bringing products to market. Follow him at @robertwallace.

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