Accelerators are effective. Occasionally.
And only if they deliver three key ingredients:
1.) An awesome network of successful mentors, investors, and service vendors. (Right, we all know that.)
2.) An expertise in a specific set of industries with the network that comes with that. (Yup, got it.)
3.) Experienced entrepreneurship educators and learning systems designers in place. (What? Say that again?)
Startup accelerators are, by their nature, learning systems. So startups are wise to ask, "How have you designed a system that will be effective and relevant to my learning needs?" In other words, what are the pedagogical framework, tools, and techniques you use to educate and propel founders toward increased growth and success? Sounds kinda wonky but the best programs can answer this intelligently and will be glad you asked. You are taking them seriously and they are taking you seriously.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of accelerator managers would say they have "experts" come and "mentor" which translates oftentimes into putting a successful entrepreneur at the front of the room who then talks at the cohort about his (occasionally her) personal success and some lessons learned. It's sort of like me, being an great driver, telling a room full of Drivers' Ed students about "that one time I almost hit a telephone pole and then didn't." It does nothing to help them get in a car and drive safely home.
Effective accelerator programs have developed a thoughtful, rigorous pedagogical approach that provides startups a relevant and engaging learning experience. A great accelerator uses curriculum and examples, case studies and guest faculty that help startups discover and diagnose, tackle and overcome startup challenges. It may be interesting to learn about how Google is leading product development but what can a team of three founders take away from that discussion other than, "Someday we might have a whole room full of product developers!"
At Creative Startups our case studies, our guest speakers, our mentors are all entrepreneurs from the creative industries. So we make sure the content is relevant. We present content via mulitple modes so that visual, audio, kinesthetic, and social learners can engage with the information. It is experiential in that we are not telling entrepreneurs what do do; we invite them to engage, "get out of the building!" and take hold of their learning process, making it unique and personal.
Our Lead Faculty, Lena Ramfelt, PhD uses "Four Pillars" to build any module for our accelerator programs. These pillars are: Discover, Explore, Apply, Internalize. With this as a planning backbone we can take a new concept (let's say, Cash Flow Management) and build out a learning experience that introduces new knowledge and concepts, vocabulary and frameworks, and tools. Next we can move startups to explore why this concept is important to their business and success, how other startups have managed this challenge, and then apply their new understanding to their business. We would, for example, have them build a cash flow model for the next 24 months and do scenarios and decision-making around these scenarios. Finally, we have founders internalize the new knowledge through a variety of reflective activities.
We are also rigorous about content. Startups need to focus on a few select things that are "do or die." In any accelerator, startups will ideally learn:
a.) How to ensure their startup's business model will scale profitably.
b.) Who can help them do this and how to build those relationships.
Sounds straightforward, right? But, in our experience, many entrepreneurs haven't yet figured out who their customers really are and why people are paying them. Which has to be understood before a replicable model can be designed and tested. So, we focus on customer discovery and development before we talk about cash flow. And we talk about cash flow before talk about Balance Sheet. Content is a set of building blocks. One comes before the other in order to construct a stable foundation. We also address how startups can effectively engage mentors and other ecosystem leaders. Relationships are an essential element founders should gain through an accelerator. But they don't just happen. Startups often benefit from practical guidance own how to approach investors, or mentors, or strategics.
So if you are a startup looking at accelerators, do your due diligence and ask the program, "How will you offer an awesome learning experience and how can I make the most of it?" Because your time and energy is your most valuable asset. Spend it wisely!