Defining a “startup accelerator” is no easy task. The term has become diluted with many different programs calling themselves “accelerators” despite widely varying offerings. As such, it’s often unclear what an accelerator is supposed to do, leading to mismatched assumptions and disappointments when founders don’t get the support they expected. Explaining - and re-explaining - what an accelerator is meant to do is something that happens frequently for me. As the Global Operations Manager at Forum Ventures, an early stage B2B SaaS startup accelerator, I often have to clarify what an accelerator is supposed to provide - and why Forum Ventures might be different than other programs calling themselves accelerators.
To better understand the definition of “accelerator,” I’m going back to the origins of the term in Silicon Valley. My hope with this definition is to help founders make a decision if the accelerator model works for them - and weed out programs that call themselves accelerators but really provide something else.
A practical, working definition of accelerators
Squeezing it all into one sentence, a startup accelerator is:
“A support system for founders that financially invests in startups and delivers a time-boxed program providing specialized knowledge, customized mentorship, and introductions to both customers and future investors, in order to help the startup reach its next level of success.”
Breaking this down into its elements:
Support system for founders: Fundamentally, a startup accelerator needs to provide the right team and resources that help the founder build their business to its next level of success.
Financially invests in startups: An accelerator needs to be financially incentivized to provide all the support a founder - and their startup - needs. However, it can’t be the sole investor - that becomes too risky for the model to work. That also means, by extension, that accelerators should focus only on venture-scalable companies.
Time-boxed program: Accelerators, as the name suggests, need to help a company grow quickly. This happens best in a time-boxed environment where founders can set (and reach) milestones, stay accountable, and effectively plan budgets and resources.
Specialized knowledge: Startups often focus deeply on one area or one type of customer to gain a foothold in the market. Everything they learn from accelerator programming should be specialized to that focus.
Customized mentorship: Every startup has unique challenges based on context, team strengths, and resources. Mentors need to understand those challenges and work within a founder’s context, otherwise they’re just providing generic advice.
Introductions to customers: Customers are foundational to growth, so an accelerator should grease those wheels wherever possible and help with customer discovery, getting a pilot, or closing a sale.
Introductions to investors: Most venture-scalable companies need far more investment than an accelerator can (or should) provide. Helping with introductions to investors is thus critical to help that founder continue on their journey once their time-boxed accelerator program finishes.
Simply put, if a program doesn’t meet these requirements then it is not an accelerator. That’s not to say founders won’t benefit from these programs - or that every program must meet these criteria to the exact same degree. If you’re wondering whether a program you’re considering fits this definition, ask them about each element (and ask for specifics and examples).
When accelerators can be valuable
Accelerators are helpful in a small percentage of all businesses. They are not critical for every single founder nor does every kind of business require an accelerator to succeed.
An accelerator is likely not valuable for:
- Founders with extensive customer networks and access to capital that don’t need to leverage an accelerator’s connections or money.
- Founders that founded venture-scalable companies but have chosen to bootstrap (there are many high quality founder support programs for bootstrapped founders).
- Experienced founders who don’t need the same level of specialized knowledge or mentorship as young or first-time founders.
Here’s where an accelerator can step in and provide significant value:
- If administrative work is crushing you, an accelerator can provide process templates or help you secure massive discounts on technology to automate the process altogether.
- If you’re having trouble identifying your ideal customer profile (ICP) and worry that you won’t be able to service the varying and wild demands from customers.
- If you need deep domain expertise in an area and can’t afford the executive salary necessary to hire an expert in house.
- If you’re feeling out of your depth as a founder and worry that you are the bottleneck holding your company back from success.
Accelerator programs, true to the spirit of being a “support system for founders,” can help you with any of these challenges - and more. In choosing a program, make sure you not only look out for red flags but also ask the right questions to see if a specific program is a good fit.
Faye is the Global Operations Manager at Forum Ventures, responsible for programming and operations across San Francisco, New York, and Toronto. Faye has 6+ years of startup experience, with various roles across marketing, sales, and fundraising. Faye graduated with an MBA from the University of Toronto, where she was President of the Graduate Business Council, and received a BA from Florida International University.