accelerators General incubators metrics startups Toronto Waterloo: vanity metrics
by Jesse Rodgers
leave a comment
There is a rapidly growing number of support groups and organizations that fit into the category of accelerator or incubator. What is the value one of the core metrics many accelerators use today ‘Alumni’ success and what does success mean? That success metric can be a funding event, exit, or some other significant milestone that has been made public. Each has a different value but the purpose is to say something positive about the accelerator which is, for many, a key ‘metric’ used to report back to those that back the program.
Why is it a metric at all? After all, shouldn’t accelerator/incubators be focused on making money? The role of accelerators in Canada according to Mark MacLoed:
…these programs are not meant to help investors discover the next giant. They are there to help investors and mentors identify, nurture and develop talent. In smaller markets like Canada’s, we are sorely lacking in proven, been there, got the t-shirt talent.
I generally agree with Mark as the purpose of all these programs is to build a funnel of qualified talent which has a value to those that back the accelerator. That could include investors and/or the government (the tax payer). I will add that what happens with all this support is self guided experiential ’business education’ but that is another blog post.
When an accelerator releases something that states “congrats to cohort company x on raising money from y” how should future applicants weigh those releases when the company is an alumni of more than one program? How should the people that support these organizations value those announcements?
As a recruiting and reporting tool I can certainly see the value in getting the organizations name out there. The problem is that it starts to sound like a ‘party round’ where so many people have been involved in some way it is impossible to say who made the difference. The truth is they all helped. The value for any one organization is not as high as it would be if the company only worked within a tiny controlled system. That simply isn’t happening and that is a good thing. It takes an early stage business ecosystem to build more frequent and bigger success which includes all points between here and the valley.
This is something very similar to the education system where every school at all stages of education can share in celebrating success of their alumni. If a higher concentration of success is coming from a particular school then that won’t go unnoticed and it should be supported and enhanced.
What I hope will happen peacefully and relatively unnoticed by the entrepreneur is that the organizations that have more success grow, those that low success fail, and new ideas are injected into the process as everyone keeps learning.
accelerators General incubators metrics startups Toronto Waterloo
by Jesse Rodgers
leave a comment
I spent a little time at StartupWeekendHamilton3 in April as a mentor and was talking to one young founder that proclaimed that there was one great accelerator in Canada. Who he said it was surprised me a little and got me thinking, what makes an accelerator “the best” and why should an eager founder care? The baseline in my mind is Y-Combinator. No one can argue it is the best seed stage accelerator based on its results. What is difficult for everyone to agree upon is what does it do to achieve those results or even harder, what defines success?
In my opinion the key things it does:
- Social Capital via Paul Graham – how he teaches founders and the hacker culture he has built provides entrepreneurs with access to the very best social capital that exists for anyone starting a technology based company.
- Peer mentorship – the structure of the 12 weeks enables peers to hold each other accountable. This competition amongst comrades is powerful as it turns around the human nature of playing to our own strengths and pushes founders to “keep up with the Jones’s.”
- Hungry founders – funding is minimal. After a bit of a bump it has since been decreased and I would bet if you look at the successes out of YC the biggest ones started off with the least amount of financial resources.
There is some striking similarity to what YC does and the thinking/observations behind the Goldmine Effect by Rasmus Ankerson (watch it, it is interesting). The basic point is that if you can find the talent that has the potential vs the talent that already been refined you will get a better result. Money and facilities do not make a difference, identifying underdeveloped talent does. I think there are three core factors that go into determining the quality of a given program.
- Where is the program located? Are there companies in the immediate area just a stage or two ahead that can help you grow?
- Who is backing the program and what did they invest to make it happen? Do they get involved in the companies they invest in or do they “spray and pray” with their investment?
- What type of companies have been successful in the accelerator in the past? Who gets funding afterwards? Are the B2B or B2C, SaaS or something else, etc.
What is less important:
- Demo Day: The rock show nature of Demo Days is not a good environment for investors but you need to take advantage of the intros and the social capital on offer to build those connects yourself.
- Money: Funding amounts from the accelerator should not influence your decision to go there. Good companies will get funding, build a good company and spend as little as possible doing it.
- Mentor walls: In Canada there is a relatively small pool of people with both time and capital but there are a lot of people that can help you move the needle in different ways.
Right away some might say that the above “less important” items are what builds momentum and if you look at the YC companies momentum being 3x that of TechStars then how can I say that is less important? These things have the greatest effect after the startup object is already in motion, in my opinion. The less important items are used all too often as *the* way to get the startup object moving.
A simple score card to find out who’s best for you
If a score card was set up to measure a program it should look something like this:
- The program is located near companies that I am interested in working with
- 1 – none that I know of
- 3 – some interesting founders
- 5 – who we would exit to and/our would like on our advisory board are within walking distance
- Investors in successful companies that have been in the program are
- 1 – Not involved in investments
- 3 – one of 12 investors in the companies that graduate
- 5 – take a board seat and/or a significant position in the financing round following completion of the program.
- Companies that have been successful in the program in the past are
- 1 – nothing like us, we are B2B SaaS and all the successful companies are gaming companies
- 3 – some are similar to us, there is no particular pattern to the type of company
- 5 – just like us, we are a hardware company and everyone that has done well post-program are hardware companies
- Funding we receive from the accelerator program is enough to
- 1 – we can go 6-12 months no problem, its great to not have to raise or find revenue right away
- 3 – it is ok but in 6 months if we don’t have revenue or financing we are done.
- 5 – we can pay rent while in the program but we have to move and stay lean to survive.
This is by no means research quality metrics but it does start to assign some way to weight rankings… for you. If I was going to score YC I would give them a 5, 3, 4, and 5 which would total at 17/20.
What else should be on this scorecard?
accelerators General incubators startups Toronto Waterloo
by Jesse Rodgers
leave a comment
The incubator/accelerator market has a growing number of people watching and waiting for it’s bubble to pop. The reasons sighted for this looming pop should be obvious: most accelerators aren’t going to perform as well as some TechStars (TS) programs and not even close to Y-Combinator (YC). Poor performance (measured in the number of short-term wins) along with the short-term nature of the funding behind most of the accelerator programs will cause them to run out of money and simply fade into startup history. But that won’t pop the bubble.
As accelerators have become an increasingly popular way to scatter seed funding among a large number of companies, critics have noted two key developments: Companies of lesser promise are gaining acceptance, and often funding, and the quality of mentoring in the programs has decreased.
When David Tisch, former managing director of TechStars’ New York City accelerator, stepped down from his role with the program, he complained in an interview that “the majority of accelerators are not good for companies.” - http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-03-14/waiting-for-the-accelerator-bubble-to-pop
I think the bubble pops when the application numbers and quality of the people applying drops. That will happen when people no longer feel they need what accelerators offer. The leading indicator will be poor performance of the companies coming out of the program, which is likely a result of the poor quality of entrepreneurs in the program.
The Angel and VC community reacted to YC’s early success and latched on to the TechStars model that was viewed as a copy of Paul Graham’s YC model but open (there are only two models for success). This experimentation with the TechStars worked in terms of building a big lead list of early stage companies and “founders to watch” that have a baseline education and network. Education is something investors used to have to do on their own for their early stage investments, the TechStars model allows investors a way of scaling that early stage knowledge transfer.
The problem with it is that everyone copied the 12-week TechStars model and didn’t look at what brought Y-Combinator it’s early success. It isn’t the DemoDay or the great list of mentors. It is the education process (which includes holding people accountable) that built the success and now the alumni network that is allowing it to scale to a point.
When looking at the demand (indicated by the ever growing pile of applications), it isn’t just fuelled by the popularity of tech startups and the sexiness of the moment. The demand for accelerator programs is fed by a gap in the services or product that is currently offered in the education system – globally. As building companies that require highly skilled and educated employees has become ‘easier’ the higher education system that was optimized to train PhD candidates hasn’t adjusted to the new reality.
The education industry gets this and it has been learning how it can meet the need. There are a lot of experiments out there in higher education that have a long history but more recently the focus on experiential learning has seen the accelerator model meet education. The common place to find them spreading in higher education globally is to google “Venture Lab” and skip passed the .ca reference. There 25+ of them across the globe and growing.
The first generation of programs are a few years along and the next generation of programs is emerging. There is a range from innovation and entrepreneur streams in undergraduate and graduate programs to full blown programs that are accelerator-like but heavily integrated into the educational experience of students. There are still a lot of unknowns to be worked out but it is clear to me that the education system is better positioned to educate students and will eventually make most accelerator programs obsolete.
These programs will exist at every school and if they are done right at a few key schools the applicant pool will degrade for expensive accelerators.
accelerators incubators startups Toronto: CDL funding MYO Thalmic
by Jesse Rodgers
Today Thalmic Labs announced it’s amazing MYO device is now available for pre-order. Techcrunch highlights their Y-Combinator backing, which is only part of the story. A community is supporting this company from San Francisco to Waterloo to Toronto — like so many companies in Canada. That community has grown a lot over the last few years. I am really excited to continue to have a part in its growth. Over the last 6 months I have had a lot of fun in developing a part that had a key role to play with MYO, connecting them to world class talent in Canada that invested both time and money to accelerate their growth.
The Creative Destruction Lab at Rotman is a venture lab that leverages: the business school’s leading faculty and industry network; inventions and talent from the world-class, technology-oriented faculties at the University of Toronto such as Computer Science, Engineering, and the University Health Network; and, its location in the heart of Toronto – North America’s third largest financial centre and one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities, to achieve its mission.
What do we do for Thalmic (and 9 other ventures)?
“Thalmic quickly leveraged the Creative Destruction Lab and raised the majority of their seed capital from the Lab’s G7 (coaching and investor group) including some of Canada’s leading entrepreneurs like Daniel Debow, Senior Vice President of SalesForce.com, founder of Rypple and Rotman JD/MBA graduate, Tomi Poutanen, founder of Optimized Search Algorithms and Rotman MBA graduate, and Lee Lau, Director and Co-Founder of Alignvest Capital Management and founder of ATI, and their network,” says Rotman Prof. Ajay Agrawal, Peter Munk Professor of Entrepreneurship and Academic Director of the Creative Destruction Lab.
How we do this is by starting off with 18 ventures that were a mix of everything from software to hardware, many in life sciences, consumer, and B2B. From there the G7 (a board of amazing Canadian Entrepreneurs) set milestones for them and have them meet with our G7 every 6-7 weeks like any funded startup would to its Board of Directors. Each meeting at least one company must be cut. What we experienced so far is that four were cut at the first meet, three at the second, and then two at the third meeting. Then we added one. You will hear about them in the future I am sure.
Thalmic is cool (and early) example of what the lab is about, there will be others coming out over the next while. Over the last few months we have developed our program, tweaking here and there, while on a crazy steep learning curve. This is the start of something awesome and yes, we put the founders first. Another company is looking at funding options now and the message to them from us is that they decide what is best for them. If they don’t take the funding we will support them. No one should feel pressured to do anything but focus and create awesome companies.
accelerators General incubators startups: Apprenticeship education Masters Paul Graham YC
by Jesse Rodgers
I believe that humans have and always will learn better by doing. We can label it experiential learning or project based learning (not case studies) but at a very simple level it is learning through doing something with an “expert” guiding the process. Learning by doing is essentially apprenticeship but we don’t use that label because we have strictly narrowed it down to the trades which ignores the historical context:
Each age tends to create a model of apprenticeship that is suited to the system of production that prevails at the time. In the Middle Ages, during the birth of modern capitalism and the need for quality control, the first apprenticeship system appeared, with its rigidly defined terms. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, this model of apprenticeship became largely outmoded, but the idea behind it lived on in the form of self-apprenticeship—developing yourself from within a particular field, as Darwin did in biology. This suited the growing individualistic spirit of the time. We are now in the computer age, with computers dominating nearly all aspects of commercial life. Although there are many ways in which this could influence the concept of apprenticeship, it is the hacker approach to programming that may offer the most promising model for this new age.
The context of the above quote is a series of posts in support of a book about great masters in history, placing Paul Graham amongst them. The article gives some great insight into Paul Graham’s path to building YC and how it represents a model for modern day apprenticeship. This, I think, is lost in the proliferation of YC clones that are now being targeted as a bloated trend destined for a shake out.
What has bothered me for a long time with the proliferation of structured mentor programs throughout startup ecosystems is just how overworked the mentors are. One mentor could have 30-50 ‘companies’ assigned to them. On the other end the entrepreneur has to compete for attention and insight as well as deal with contradictory information that usually comes out of context from the wrong person (btw, I think Clarity.fm is going to help fix this). It’s hard, takes a lot of thinking, and I believe the return is low outside of very specific situations.
When TechStars cloned the Y-Combinator model it missed one important detail:
“Paul gives these kids money, but he also gives them a methodology and a value system,” YC investor Fred Wilson said to Inc. about Graham. “I don’t mean this in a negative way, but Y Combinator is more like a cult than a venture capital fund. And Paul is the cult leader.” – Inc.com
By being a cult of a certain ‘group think’ YC is exploiting peer mentorship, expert mentor opinion, and the master/apprentice relationship it is kinda like grad school. Where the student enters many years learning how to be a researcher like their supervisor. The best Phd supervisors are the ones that also imprint their methodology and value system on their students. I believe you can identify them by the personality similarities in their grad students and the peer relationships that are formed between students that last a lifetime. Their own path to true mastery continues past their graduation.
Retooling that process of building great researchers to building great founders is something that Paul Graham likely did subconsciously as he does have his PhD. He mastered the process, added his own bits, and keeps improving on it.
The methodology and values YC educates is one way, there are others, but there likely isn’t better process to educate entrepreneurs. Those that work closely with one or two “mentors” already know this. In reality they aren’t just a mentor, they are the master and you are their apprentice.
There are no shortcuts or ways to bypass the Apprenticeship Phase. It is the nature of the human brain to require such lengthy exposure to a field, which allows for complex skills to become deeply embedded and frees the mind up for real creative activity.
YC kick starts the exposure and focuses it. Your peer group helps re-enforce discipline, Tuesday dinners gives you a weekly check point with intellectual offerings outside of the thing you are thinking about all day/week/year, and a due date of a demo day gives you something to work towards. The process continues outside of the 12-14 weeks with the YC team ready to support and guide at any time. The peer group of YC founders stays connected and, I would guess, does the bulk of the recruitment now.
What part of YC is the secret to its success that the clones haven’t copied? It could be the atmosphere and purpose at the start (running out of his living room) created the right culture that mixed with YC’s selection process a it evolved that picks mostly the right people that don’t want shortcuts, want to learn, want to grow. They focus on the founders not the funding or office space or mentors or the demo day. They build a community of like minded people that are constantly learning, perfecting their skills, developing mastery in entrepreneurship.