Choosing an accelerator program is a big moment for any startup founder. Not only are accelerators often the first significant outside investment you’ll receive, but you’re also dedicating months of time to a program that could change the trajectory of your startup. There’s also the value-add of tapping into an accelerator’s network for customers, investors, and talent. Because of the significant time commitment, introducing a new investor to your cap table, and the years-long brand affiliation as an “alumni” of an accelerator, choosing the right one is critical.
While working on the investment team at Forum Ventures, an early-stage B2B SaaS fund and accelerator, I’ve spoken to hundreds of startup founders trying to navigate the early days of building their companies and explore the value that accelerators can add for them. The key to finding success via an accelerator program is primarily driven by asking the right questions when choosing an accelerator. When startups choose an accelerator for the wrong reasons (perceived brand image or big names in their portfolio), rather than the value they can provide to their specific stage, vertical, team needs, startups tend to struggle, and in some cases, fail.
If you’re a startup founder considering accelerator programs, here are the questions you should ask to help identify what program is right for you. They are based on the three phases of decision making: identifying if the accelerator model will help you at your current stage, identifying the right program based on offerings, and identifying the right program based on values alignment.
Phase 1: Determining if an accelerator is right for you
We live in a world where access to resources and capital have never been more abundant - this is a wonderful thing for early stage founders because it enables more company creation and growth. As a founder, you can and should evaluate every opportunity critically to see how it can add value to you and your company. When it comes to accelerators, not every startup founder needs (or wants) an accelerator program. At a high level, accelerators are meant to provide support to founders to help them reach near-term (1-2 year) goals. There’s also usually a fundraising element to this, where accelerators will invest in your startup pre-Seed and help you prepare to fundraise a bigger Seed or Series A round.
With that in mind, ask yourself these questions to better understand your near-term goals and see if the accelerator model is right for you at your stage:
- Is my business at least in the formal idea or MVP stage, if not already in-market?
- Am I planning to have a venture-scaled company?
- Does the team / do I lack adequate domain expertise and experience to take our product to market and sell?
- Do I want to be raising venture capital in the next year or two but lack a customer acquisition and business growth plan to get there?
- Do I know I want to raise venture capital to scale but lack a clear end-state vision of what my company could be?
- Does the team / do I lack a strong network of potential customers to get us started and earn revenue?
- Does the team / do I lack a strong network of potential investors?
- Do I lack confidence that I can solve current business challenges on my own / solely with my team?
If you answered yes to all of these questions, an accelerator could definitely help you.
If you answered no to any of these questions, take a look at the questions you answered yes to - if the pains are big, then an accelerator would still be valuable.
If you answered no to all of these, an accelerator is likely not a good fit and could potentially be a waste of your time.
Phase 2: Determining fit based on offerings
Assuming Phase 1 gave you a resounding “yes” and the accelerator model is right for your startup at this stage, the next phase is to identify what program offerings make sense for you. Here are some questions that you can use as a framework to determine whether the accelerator you’re applying for or being recruited to is a fit for your company and your goals as a founder. Compare the answers to your needs based on answers in Phase 1 to pattern-match which programs offer the support you need.
Questions to ask each accelerator based on the support you need:
- What’s your focus (industry, vertical, stage, size, etc.)?
- What’s your domain expertise as a program?
- What’s your curriculum - and what customization opportunities are available for me as a founder?
- Are mentors practitioners with specific domain expertise or generalist successful entrepreneurs?
- What kind of access can I expect to different types of mentors (weekly talks, 1:1, group chats, ad-hoc, etc.)? How much 1:1 time will I have with partners each week?
- How many checks can you write / what size / what equity do you take in return?
- How long is the program?
- What’s the expected time commitment? Relocation commitment?
- Do you make warm introductions to prospective customers?
- Do you make warm introductions to prospective investors?
- Do you provide dedicated support to all founders equally or focus only on the most promising?
The key here is not necessarily to find out who has the flashiest brand or the one with the biggest success stories. Instead, it’s about issue-matching and making sure that you are getting the kinds of support you need, based on your stage and pain points, to make your business a success.
Phase 3: Determining fit based on values
Phases 1 and 2 hopefully got you a short list of 1-3 accelerators that might be a great fit. Choosing the ultimate winner (or choosing to accept the accelerator offer(s) on the table) is most importantly about values alignment. While this sounds like a “soft” topic, it can have lasting impact. An accelerator is still an investor that sits on your cap table throughout your company’s journey. Since you build such close relationships with the team behind the fund during your time in the accelerator, you will often lean on them for support on strategic decisions even beyond your time in the program. If you don’t align on values, you may be pushed into building your business in a way you don’t want to or end up not supported when you need it most. If you do align on philosophical and company values, it’s a sign that you and your partners have the building blocks to a harmonious long term relationship.
Questions to ask to better understand values and community-focus so you can make a decision:
- What are your values as a fund and team? How do these values apply to investment decisions and how you work with your portfolio companies in the accelerator?
- Can you share an example of a time when it was more profitable to ignore your values but you stuck by them anyway and persevered?
- Can you share an example of how your community operates (show the platform, explain how networking events work, etc.)?
- How much do you prioritize alumni engagement after the program is over? Can you share an example?
- What’s the biggest benefit alumni say they get out of this accelerator besides money?
- Have you ever let a company go from the accelerator or clawed back your investment due to values and ethics infringements with accelerator companies?
- Do you have a standard code of ethics, conduct, and respect that accelerator companies sign? If so, can I see it? If not, how do you hold companies accountable to your stated values?
These questions are really only helpful after you’ve identified the accelerator can solve your problems specifically (the questions from Phase 2). Until that point, these questions may seem a bit too much.
Remember: it’s about you
In the accelerator choice process, remember: it’s about you. Accelerators are incentivized to help you become successful, either because they invested in your startup or because your success means a better brand for their future programs. That means it’s up to you to assess whether you feel they can help you become successful, just like they are doing in reverse. Simply being accepted to a program does not always mean it’s the best option for you - and sometimes the best option is not doing an accelerator at all (or at least not at that time). Every accelerator has a unique approach, so make sure you’re picking a program you have confidence in. If none are a fit right now, don’t worry. Apply next round when you’re ready - it will be better for everyone.
Pranavi is an investor at Forum Ventures focused on early stage B2B SaaS companies, the author of publicbeta.substack.com, and a contributing writer on TechCrunch, Crunchbase and Hackernoon. She is passionate about emerging economies and the public sector, diversity in tech, and most importantly, people.