More than a few accelerator or incubator programs have quietly wound down their operations or merged with other programs over the last 6-12 months. This isn’t a surprise. Even with what are essentially successful programs to most, they have a hard time maintaining momentum let alone generate any revenue to sustain themselves. The math is hard to make work.
The upside for all the people involved simply isn’t there in most cases. It takes a huge amount of effort and resources to make a program successful.
I think this highlights two potential issues that many of the organizations that support startups could have.
- The program operators start to think like the startups around them and they think they need to grow or scale to help more companies. As a result the things they do are focused on the good of the accelerator instead of the companies in the program.
- Incentives are not aligned. Program operators/coaches do not share in the upside of the successful companies. They are instead rewarded for the popularity of a particular program.
They grow. They generate PR. They position themselves as experts on early stage companies. They do all the things they know you should do to build a successful company. When you are around startups all the time there is a tendency to see the world through the lens of the startup – growth, lean, pivots, MVPs, agile, metrics, etc. What they don’t focus on is the companies they are trying to help. All those other things tie up a lot resources.
Achieving optimal effectiveness of a program
I have a theory that the optimal effectiveness (cost vs return) of an accelerator or incubator is at a very small scale. They should provide a service that benefits the founders and the company without PR/Marketing/Events/Space. There is one exception, Y-Combinator. Its scale is huge but I would argue its allowing a lot of waste because the returns are so big and there is a lot of inherent value in the alumni base that offers a ‘fraternity’ type social network.
…and YC started really small. It didn’t have a marketing or communications team. It doesn’t appear to have sought out PR to recruit or host big parties.
There are things that do scale (space to work, creating a big club house full of energy and people, etc) but the effectiveness to truly ‘accelerate’ a business is limited in terms of the ability of the organization to help companies grow faster than they would have without the program. What a program that does space and events may help is to create an ecosystem that is more accessible. It creates an environment were peer mentorship can happen. It is impossible to say whether that would happen naturally or not.
In many cases the community needs a kick start so its great accelerator programs do that.
In all cases the founders need a personal and professional kick start that only very focused coaching can provide. Each founder/company is different as well. There are some general things that can help but nothing is as effective as knowing the people, situations, and having credibility in a given founder/funder network.
Space, club houses, and events are a different business model — it isn’t company acceleration, it is community building.
How to combat this tendency to operate on a growth trajectory is to separate the business operations (space, etc) from the support directly offered to the companies. Keep something totally focused on the companies but don’t hang the success of the business operations on the success of the companies.
What a startup community needs for long term sustainability are local investors that can add more value that just dollars plus are invested in the community. Along with a few other things according to the Boulder Thesis.
If you have a great community with mediocre slow growth companies its hard to argue the investment was anything more than a community development activity.
If you focus on building successful companies the returns will go into the community. That is the optimal return on investment where incentives become aligned – investors (accelerators) see a return, founders gain wins and become investors, early employees gain experience and opportunity.
I do not believe all accelerators should just stop all that other stuff but I think they should be very clear what value they are creating vs capturing (for self promotion). Accelerators should ensure they are on the side of creating value. They need to take the time to know the founders and that is hard to do if they are out promoting their program.