Guest post by Max Gurvits Partner of Teres Capital

One guy walks up to another, and says: “Hey, I got this great idea! We can hack a little prototype for a mobile app this weekend, call a few tech blogs and investors next week, and ship to thousands of users in the course of next month. What do you say?” His friend looks at him with disbelief: “Are you pitching me a startup? Dude, it’s 2013. If you’re starting something, better start an accelerator”.

accelerator

I heard this joke in Tel Aviv this spring, as we were talking about the explosion of accelerators and accelerator programs with a couple of Israeli tech insiders. And as with many good jokes, there’s a considerable degree of uncomfortable truth in it. As Robin Wauters recently wrote in Tech.EU, Europe now boasts around 100 accelerators, with the whole scene so awash with mentorship, mini-equity and grants, as well as co-working spaces, that people start talking about the “accelerator bubble”.

I ‘m not sure it’s a bubble, but I do think that the general notion of pre-seed startup foundership being a mainstream thing isn’t right. As Wayne Gretzky said, if you’re gonna win, you better not skate to where the puck is, but to where it’s heading. Entrepreneurship is all about standing out of the crowd and gaining competitive advantages by doing things differently, so if you’re considering to join an accelerator program, here are 5 ways to make sure you don’t get sucked into a dime a dozen perception.

1. Do your due diligence

Accelerators are all different, no one program is the same. If you decide you can use some mentorship or funding, be very specific about why you want that specific accelerator to support you. Mark Suster likes to say that investors should invest in lines not in dots. The same holds true for selecting an accelerator; make sure you get to know the people that you’re going to work with in one office, and give a part of your company to. I would advise anyone who is applying to an accelerator program to ask the manager to follow the program for a couple of days or an event. If there’s a problem with that, I would seriously discount the option.

2. Be pro-active on mentorship and advice

It’s well-known that in the startup world, guidance from mentors and advisors is very outspoken and categorical. This makes sense, because business success is usually gained by being bold. Mentors tend to be very prolific with their advice, because they know that their experience is what got them where they are. But it isn’t necessarily what will get you where you want to be. Make sure you listen very well to all advisors, and then make up your mind about what makes sense and what doesn’t. Remember, it’s your company.

3. Use the network

You would guess this goes without saying, but oddly enough I see a lot of founders that don’t make optimal use of the network of founders and mentors at an accelerator. It’s the most obvious benefit of any program; a large number of people (active and alumni) that can be your distribution channel, initial user base, brand ambassador, etc. Some of the formidable founders I’ve worked with use their time in the acceleration program to make sure that every single participant or contact of the program is tasked with testing, validating, connecting, marketing their startup. That’s a winner’s mentality, and it easily makes up for many of the challenges of being accelerated.

4. Be frank with your expectations

The startup world is often just a nasty exercise in blowing up stories to galactic proportions. You know that if you repeat a story often enough, you start believing in it. Many accelerators, especially among the 100 or so in Europe, do great marketing of their work, often showcasing their place as the biggest, awesomest, most-funded, most-connected, etc etc. Startups often go along with this, which sometimes leads to disappointments. Generally in Europe, checks don’t get written at demo day, Silicon Valley VCs don’t invest at the seed stage, and products don’t get to double-digit week-on-week growth within the first 6 months. Instead of getting emotional about the unraveling of unrealistic expectations, plan to spend time to iterate, improve, and use the experience of others to avoid the most basic mistakes.

5. Learn and earn

Another favorite Mark Suster quote of mine. Very often in life, and definitely in startups, your journey involves a lot of trying before you know what actually works for you. I love comparing startups to dating: you gotta try a bunch of stuff with a bunch of different people, involving both moments of awesomeness and extreme awkwardness, to figure out who that special person is that will make you follow them for the rest of your life with a smile on your face. Same with foundership: most startups are simply steps in the growing of potentially great future founders and CEOs. And while you may not “earn” this time around, you definitely must “learn” in order to have any chance the next time around.

What you make of your accelerator experience is up to you. No situation is sub-optimal and no challenge not worth taking, if you’re focused on getting to the next level with the tools. From that point of view, accelerators are a tremendous opportunity to get a chance to use the resources and knowledge of other people to build something extremely exciting and worthwhile. And the more accelerators there are, the better for founders. Some will use them and become better founders, a few will start a great company, and while not everyone can earn, everyone can learn. Great startups don’t need accelerators, but can use them to smooth their growth, as long as they know how to make the best out of the opportunity. Which is what business is all about in the end.

Max Gurvits is partner with Teres Capital, a VC firm based in Sofia, Bulgaria, and was the founding principal of Eleven Startup Accelerator. A one-time founder, he mentors in a number of acceleration programs, including Seedcamp, Startup Spotlight, and many others.

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