I have noticed that the biggest mistake most startups make when they are at an accelerator is that they focus on
Increasing their total surface area” instead of “accelerating their business.
This results in the “tail wagging the dog”, where the accelerator schedule, mentors and connections determine what the entrepreneur and the startup does each day. It is important to ensure that you get enough value from the accelerator program, but I would recommend entrepreneurs optimize for acceleration.
If you don’t have a clear idea on what to expect from an accelerator, you should spend time with alumni of the program to understand the value their provide first.
If you get into an accelerator program, the #1, #2 and #3 thing you should be focused on is validating key assumptions, building product and customer development. Most everything else at the accelerator stage of your company is a waste of time, including attending knowledge information sessions on term sheets, understanding the “local” investor scene or going to “startup events” – unless startups are your target market.
There are 3 important things that most accelerators promise:
1. Learning from mentors, other members in your cohort and industry experts.
2. Connections to investors, potential customers and influential early users.
3. Infrastructure, office space, and a little sustenance money to get your team and product ready for seed investment.
If you look at these 3 items in isolation, there are many other entities that do a much better job individually, but a good accelerator “bundles” these items together so you can have a great experience.
Let me explain with 3 specific examples of what increasing your total surface area is versus accelerating your startup.
a) The best learning is via practice and teaching. So if you spend as little time as possible understanding the contours of the topic you want to learn, you can spend more time practicing and refining your learning.
Instead, I find most startups attending every learning workshop including “how to sell your company” or “the legal ramifications of your series A investments”. While <10% of the startups in any cohort will really be ready for a series A, 100% of them actually “try to increase the surface area” of their learning by attending sessions that they dont need given the stage of their company.
Instead, I would spend more time accelerating the learning of specific topics from your customers – what real problems they face outside of the pain point your company addresses, etc.
b) The best connections are those that are mutually beneficial. So, if you can help your mentor or adviser learn about your business, the market or new updated techniques of engineering, marketing, sales, etc. they can help you learn more about the nuances based on their experiences. If they are unwilling to learn or are not interested, they are not the right mentor.
Increasing the total surface area is trying to network with every mentor from the accelerator and networking with every potential investor, even if they have not invested in any company in your market or domain.
Instead, accelerating your startup is focusing on specific investors by domain, check size, background, connections, and other criteria you need to help your company grow.
c) While the infrastructure is available to have meetings, get the team together and learn from other entrepreneurs in your cohort, increasing your total surface area is trying to spend every evening with other startup entrepreneurs, networking over beer or having a lot of meetings at the space with other startup influencers from the community.
Accelerating your startup, instead is spending enough time with your own team, learning about the challenges they are facing and understanding how to remove the roadblocks. Or, spending time outside the building, trying to meet potential users and customers to refine and validate your assumptions.
If the accelerator focuses you on increasing your total surface area, they are wasting your time.