How you learn on a start-up accelerator

With accelerators an established facet of the start-up space, we asked Accelerator Academy’s Ian Merricks to explain the logic behind the learning

Start-up accelerators have a limited amount of time to deliver a lot of learning. To do this they combine different delivery styles, from speed mentoring, to founder talks, to mixer events.

Drawing on our own experiences within the Accelerator Academy, we believe the best way to create a constructive learning environment, where entrepreneurs have the best opportunity to take on and (more importantly) apply structured growth training to their start-ups, is through developing a structured syllabus with different themes each week.

During the 10 weeks, we meet each week with the start-up teams, and cover a specific topic – very much focussed from the perspective of start-up growth – not how to do it, but how to do it better.

1. Industry expert input to share case studies and accelerate learning

Our format, after seven semesters of trialling differing formats, is to open each session with one of our exited tech entrepreneur mentors acting as session chair, framing the importance of the weekly subject, and introducing an industry expert.

These experts are at the top of their game, often with significant experience in not only their domain area, but also of working within the start-up community, and importantly beyond that stage, through to growth and success.

We feel this is an important distinction; rather than surround start-ups with start-up advisers, it’s good to have expertise from those who have seen companies “escape” from the start-up phase.

Each of our industry expert speakers are given detailed briefing notes on information to cover during their session, with the flexibility to cover this from their own perspective, based on their own experience and with case studies and examples they are personally familiar with.

Each week comprises some advance preparation from the start-ups, before the session, and a reading list post session with useful follow-up resources.

Within the sessions, the industry expert tends to speak for around 45 minutes, with examples of how to succeed in the specific area, shortcuts and tips, common pitfalls and things to avoid. These see the members taking detailed notes and really thinking around these issues.

The talks are followed by a good half an hour of Q&A from the members to the industry experts, with input from the mentors and Academy team. This tends to help our start-ups think differently about the subject.

2. Applying the theory with peer-to-peer and expert feedback

Into the second half of the Monday sessions, and we break out into small workgroups, two to three start-up teams  working together with support and input from their exited entrepreneur mentors.

Across two or three workshop tasks, and some peer-to-peer experience sharing, the teams begin to understand how best to apply the new knowledge to their start-up, and get an idea of where they are at within each topic.

The Monday evening sessions finish with the weekly chair setting a prepared assignment, on the application of the knowledge from the weekly topic talk into their business specifically.

As the Accelerator Academy has grown, and attracted more partners and sponsors, we have been able to increase the amount of training given. Over the last year we have developed a Clinic format, running midweek, where in a two-hour slot, the start-up entrepreneurs are introduced to expert practitioners.

The marketing week, saw industry experts such as John Straw [SEO], Christina Richardson [collaborative marketing], Cordelia Meacher [PR] and Kristin Brewe [advertising]) come in.

These clinics tend to be more of a “speed dating” format, where 20 minutes each help diagnose any problems the start-ups may be facing and allow for follow-up meetings to be scheduled where needed. All of this really helps bed in the learning, and ensure it is ‘actioned’ within the business.

3. Focused written assignments, designed to deal with investor challenges

Stage three of the acceleration is in the assignments themselves. These are not lengthy, typically one or two pages of succinct short-form content. They are not generic, “how to protect IP [intellectual property]”, but specific “How this start-up has protected its IP”.

They often flag issues that need to be resolved or gaps in the team’s ability to address immediately – this in turn helps the start-ups to recognise these gaps and have the opportunity to do something about them.

This is important on two levels – it helps them build better, stronger businesses and get into a growth trajectory sooner. It is also , unsurprisingly, the same level of comfort an investor would need to see to be able to make an informed investment decision, so will have to be addressed at some point – the Accelerator Academy simply brings this point to the attention of the entrepreneurs at an early stage, so they can tackle it before an investor asks.

Additionally these weekly assignments can be collated into the business plan and due diligence materials that investors will want to see. This results in a very thorough process, and ensures startups have:

  • Taken on board valuable growth training
  • Been able to [at least start to] apply the knowledge
  • Document the process
  • Understand the investment impact of this knowledge application, which in turn ensures investor concerns are properly considered in advance and risk can be mitigated.

4. Mentor review to address any issues and allocate resources

Each of the assignments is then reviewed face to face in a one-to-one meeting with the start-ups designated (and consistent) mentor.

We chose this approach to ensure consistent feedback for the start-ups we support throughout the programme, and also as a safety net to ensure the learning was being applied and address any issues that arose, including prioritising resource allocation in time (and often cash) starved start-ups.

These mentor sessions add a very tangible aspect to the structured growth programme and as our mentors have the right to buy in to the companies they support, their advice is always aligned with the entrepreneur.

The rationale behind this multi-layered approach was to provide structured growth training talks, workshops to help start-ups understand the role of this learning, clinics to aid the application of this knowledge into their businesses, and mentors to rely on their own start-up-to-exit experience to ensure problems were avoided and growth opportunities maximised.

In my next blog, I’ll get into the subject matter of What you’ll learn on a start-up accelerator.

Ian Merricks is an experienced company operator and investor, with 15 years’ experience across music, media, marketing and tech businesses. He is currently principal at White Horse Capital’s commercial and corporate development consultancy and founder of The Accelerator Academy. www.acceleratoracademy.com 

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