Accelerator Insider: What to look for in an accelerator
Our new resident expert Ian Merricks shares the variables all start-ups should consider before choosing an accelerator programme
Over the last few years, start-up accelerators have sprung up at an increasing rate.
From the early US exports like Seedcamp, to Springboard (now US-owned TechStars), Telefonica’s Wayra (which expanded from Spain / Latin America), and our own (built for Britain!) Accelerator Academy, which runs from the City of London Corporation’s Innovation Warehouse.
In addition, some strong support programmes have developed for specific types of entrepreneur. Entrepreneur First works with universities and graduates to ease individual grads into work placements leading to entrepreneurial business creation.
And the New Entrepreneur Foundation follows a similar model – I have been involved in the selection and evaluation of students for each of these programmes from launch.
The most recent additions to the start-up accelerator space have specialised (often with niche industry investment) in areas of tech, including:
- Level39 (fintech)
- HealthBox (medtech)
- The Bakery (adtech).
Fighting for start-ups?
As a programme manager I am often asked about the competition between accelerators, and have been asked to speak on panels at a “shoot out” between accelerators.
This absolutely misses the point of the accelerator support structure, and on every occasion I and other accelerator programme managers have turned these down or changed them into something more productive for the audience.
The accelerator “market” is not fiercely competitive. Yes we all want to work with talented entrepreneurs with the potential to build lucrative, scalable businesses.
But we are all nuanced and it is useful for entrepreneurs to look a bit deeper into selection criteria, programme content and duration, access to capital, team, mentors and track record to understand how and where their business will be best suited to different accelerator’s expertise.
Contrary to some opinion, we often work together, we sometimes share mentors and have been known to direct applicants to each other’s programmes where there is a better fit.
It’s not unusual to see myself, Jon Bradford, Simon Devonshire and Carlos Espinal in the same room, or on a panel, chatting together at conferences. We are all founding members of the Accelerator Assembly, a pan-European membership body for accelerators.
A useful resource for researching best fit (even before making an application via F6S.com) is CapitalList, a resource developed with EU funding and operated by Capital Enterprise, the trade association for top tier accelerators, incubators and university knowledge transfer units.
This database can be a useful early research tool, and entrepreneurs can evaluate against their own requirements. For brevity, the main variables are:
- Time commitment
- Access to funding
- Team / mentor involvement
- And therefore access to markets.
This ignores standard selection criteria such as location, team size, and the track record of the programme, which are easy for entrepreneurs to select.
Some of the programmes are full-time where businesses are perhaps earlier stage and need a lot of support developing their proposition. Others are part-time where businesses have launched or are immediately about to launch.
The aforementioned student accelerators are 12-month programmes, moving from part-time to full-time. It’s important to understand what life stage an accelerator is best able to support.
We are all very particular in what we look for, such as:
- Businesses at a particular inflexion point
- Sidebar moving to full-time
- Graduate looking for entrepreneurial experience
- Growth company looking for a framework and funding for future growth.
Some programmes come with equity or convertible loan notes with pre-determined company valuations, some are opportunities for entrepreneurs to hone their proposition before engaging with external investors at market rate.
The programmes offering up-front cash are obviously an early port of call for a wide range of start-ups, although the job of sifting through hundreds if not thousands of applications all looking for cash can be tough and time consuming.
With the Accelerator Academy we look for businesses who can credibly build an investible proposition able to raise £150,000-£500,000 from angels, syndicates, seed funds and corporate venturers. 71% of our alumni to date have achieved this, and the number will continue to increase over time.
Ask whether the funding on offer will be transformative to your start-up, will it last you and is it offered on commercial terms.
Early equity injections should be the most expensive equity in your business’ lifecycle so be specific about the deliverables this funding will create, and what your investment partner/s will bring to the table (the need for smart, active money at the early stage).
Finally, I would also counsel a close look at the cost of programmes. We have seen new accelerators launching charging £20,000-£30,000-plus for 12 weeks of training, which seems high in my mind.
Mentors / team
The team within accelerators is an essential part – arguably the most important element contributing to the success of their cohorts. The programmes I have mentioned have very bright teams of committed individuals, willing to apply their expertise to the start-ups they work with.
Ask what introductions they can make and examples of previous market engagement. The networked nature of accelerators creates a competitive advantage for start-ups accepted into the programme – and investors know this.
Things to look out for are time spent with mentors, some programmes have a large number of occasional mentors, which can be useful for expanding your network and introductions.
Other programmes have dedicated mentors linked to each particular start-up – at the Academy there is a vested interest, as the mentors support a carefully allocated start-up.
Ask about the mentors, what have they done before. I once met a 23-year-old mentor. I am certain he was enthusiastic and trying to be helpful. I’m not sure I would have used the phrase mentor though.
In our programme, all of the mentors we work with have built and successfully exited tech businesses – with £1bn of collective trade sales under their belts.
So they know a little more about the entrepreneurial journey and can also provide feedback from the perspective of investors (through the cycle) as they are now angels as well as experienced exited entrepreneurs.
From my own experience, Accelerators are tough to run. They consume a huge amount of management time, require a fantastically networked team, large quantities of enthusiasm and tenacity, and a willingness to be judged publicly on each cohort.
They are however incredibly rewarding as the teams and mentors can see the positive influence they have on high growth potential start-ups and share in the upside opportunity.
When my firm White Horse Capital invested in the creation of the Accelerator Academy we took a five-year view on seeing any return from investing several hundred thousand pounds in the infrastructure to set the programme up.
With this in mind, I would advise caution for very new accelerators, which perhaps have not been put together with such a long-term plan.
Over the coming months on Startups.co.uk I will continue to blog views from the inside of accelerators, encompassing more tips to get the most out of your selection of, and time with, the UK’s leading accelerators, accessing cash from and through accelerators and other useful info.
Accelerators thankfully continue to grow in quantity, quality, depth and breadth. Our own programme has successfully delivered six semesters, supported 57 start-ups and created £40m of value; all within less than two years so there is no shortage of learning that can be shared with aspiring early stage entrepreneurs looking at the best way to scale their start-up.
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. http://acceleratoracademy.com/