In this week's post, I've asked Julie Edge, Co-founder of Creelio.com and an alum of the 2014 SparkLabKC class to give some advice on how to prepare for the start of an accelerator program.
Guest Blogger: Julie Edge, Co-founder & Chief Storyteller, Creelio.com
Congratulations! Your company has been accepted to SparkLabkKC (or one of the 224 other accelerator programs across the globe listed on Seed-DB). To be accepted into an accelerator program is quite a feat! You are joining an elite group of 4,264 companies that have been accelerated since 2005 when Y-Combinator was born.
As you know, this is a highly selective process and many worthy companies do not make the accelerator cut. It’s an important first step in the validation path for your startup company that many others do not get. It gives you an “edge” in the dog-eat-dog world of startups and improves your odds of success.
So Now What?
In December 2013, my company Creelio.com was accepted to SparkLabKC in Kansas City, MO. My co-founder Steve Stava and I were pleased with the external validation bestowed upon our nascent company, which at the time wasn’t much more than an idea on the back of a napkin with an MVP iPhone app.
Luckily, we received some good advice from the alums of SparkLabKC’s 2013 class and other friends that had gone before us in accelerator programs across the U.S. They told us to “jump in with both feet." That the program was “what we made it.” If we grabbed the “bull by the horns,” our company would benefit. But if we "sat back and waited for things to happen," our company would miss out on the opportunities to advance.
Based on our experience, here are 10 tips to help you make the most of your time in your accelerator program.
Tips from an Accelerator Graduate
- Be “ALL-IN”
To get the most of the program, you and your co-founders need to be committed to every day of the program. If you have a full-time job or need to earn income during the program, it’s near impossible to be “all in.” For Creelio, we both had runway through the end of the program and no other commitments, so we could be fully focused.
- Remove Any Distractions
You only have 90 days in the program. It will fly by fast. Don’t let anything distract you if possible. That means asking for help. Quitting your job. Taking every commitment you can off your plate. For Creelio, both our spouses and all our kids took bigger loads at home so we could be dedicated to the program.
- Work Backwards
Start at Demo Day and work your way backwards to create your plan. Ask yourself, “What do we need in T minus two weeks to demo day?” “What about T minus one month...two months?” For Creelio, we set some key milestones for each month of the program, and we knew our Demo Day presentation needed to be done with 2 weeks to spare so we could practice, practice, practice.
- Know Your Goals
You may need to ramp up your users, get your first paying customers, build awareness of your brand, or woo 3-4 investors to write checks on Demo Day. If you are not clear on your goals for the program, you will likely waste away the time (and you can’t get it back!). For Creelio, we needed to recruit and complete an Alpha Trial with 10 customers, meet key angel investors, develop our brand, complete development of our web dashboard, and refine our mobile app.
- Listen Carefully and Critically
You are going to have 30 plus mentoring meetings during your 90-day experience. Many of those mentors will actually contradict each other. Listen most to the people who have tried your product or are your target audience. For Creelio, our target market includes top executives and small business owners, so most of our mentor meetings gave us direct feedback on how they would use our service -- many of them are now our customers.
- Be Thankful
Remember that the mentors who spend time with you are VOLUNTEERS! They are taking time out of their busy day to give you their point of view. Don’t be so caught up in the frenzy of the program that you don’t send a thank you email for their time and attention. At Creelio, we made it a habit to send a thank you e-note as soon as we got back from the meeting. If we let time pass, it was too easy to forget.
- Give and Take with Your Classmates
In most accelerator programs you will be one of 10 companies. You will have many opportunities to swap stories and get feedback from your classmates along the way. At Creelio, we had most of our SparkLabKC mates in our Alpha Trial, which means we got feedback every day of the program because they were using our service. Also, one of our classmates -- the founder of Hello Fearless -- came up with our tagline at a SparkLabKC happy hour.
- Stay As Long As You Can
Many accelerator programs offer space to the participants after the 90 days is up. If that is the case for you… stay put. While the full frenzy of the program will die down a bit, you will still get the benefit of interacting with your fellow classmates who stick around, as well as your accelerator founders. For Creelio, we stayed at the accelerator space an additional 8 months (until they kicked us out for the next class). You can't beat free rent when you are on a tight budget!
- PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Your Demo Day is your debut to the business and investor community. It will be one of the most important 10 minutes of your startup career. Blow your Demo Day speech because you didn't practice enough, and that's a great way to slow your growth. Steve and I started practicing our Demo Day speech 2 weeks before the big day. We are both accomplished public speakers and we still practiced four times a day to make sure we nailed it on stage.
- HAVE FUN!
One of the best things about an accelerator program is that it’s a bit like college – work hard, play hard. There is a lot of camaraderie that builds in an accelerator class, and you can have a lot of fun together. Whether it’s ping-pong tournaments to let off steam, happy hours, or just shooting the shit, you will build many life-long relationships during the program. Steve and I are both mid-career, so the accelerator program was a breath of fresh air after our corporate and consulting lives. It was a little like going back to school, but with a serious purpose.
Some Final Insights
Being accepted to an accelerator program is both an honor and a privilege. I hope you treat it as such and make the most of your time in the program. There are many startup companies that would give anything to be in your place. Don't forget that.
I'll close with one of my favorite movie lines:
“There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for….Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day, make your lives extraordinary.” -- Robin Williams’ character John Keating in the movie Dead Poet’s Society
Be daring. Be bold. Make the most of this accelerator opportunity. Seize the day and build extraordinary companies!