A hidden advantage of the best startup accelerators, and how to evaluate them on it

Startup accelerators are everywhere.

What started as an investment experiment with Techstars and Y Combinator, mostly focused on software technology in the early 2000s, has spread across the globe. 

If you can think of an industry there’s probably a startup accelerator for it, including areas like finance, clothing, design, cryptosecurity, food, and education. Large public companies like Wells Fargo now start their own, and those that don’t often partner up with an accelerator via an innovation arm or investment decision. 

When you talk to someone who’s founded or works for an accelerator, you’ll likely hear about a standard set of advantages: rapid growth / learning, customer development, access to world class mentors and networks, and seed funding to get you started. These, entrepreneurs are told, will help you avoid becoming part of the 90% of startups that fail,

Although the terms and execution for each of these varies, accelerators that consistently develop successful companies have one thing in common: they support entrepreneurs in taking risks and growing emotionally. 

That last part may sound funny to anyone who hasn’t built a company from scratch. But the choice to build a company is not an easy one, and as it turns out emotional growth is a key part of the journey.

Entrepreneurship as a journey

Building a company is a deep and complex learning process. Sometimes that learning is exciting — like seeking inspiration from the people around you, or finding a way to test an idea. At other times it is an immensely overwhelming experience, one that can come at a cost of self-doubt and even depression, a surprisingly common condition in startup founders.

Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, talked about that latter cost cost a few months ago in a gritty, soul baring conversation with Jerry Colonna on the Reboot Podcast…

“If you ran into me in 2013 and said ‘I love what you guys have done and what you are working on’ I would have said everything we did was shit. That’s how bad it was.”

Not every person who chooses to create a startup deals with depression, but there are emotionally intense parts of building a business that cannot be avoided. At some point you may find yourself unable to complete payroll for an employee who has a partner and children. You may have to make a decision between food and an electric bill. Or you may have to tell an investor that you’ve screwed up, and ask for forgiveness and help.

In that environment your greatest ally is your own ability to be emotionally resilient, to find calm within the storm, to see a way forward where others see the wall. With a strong foundation and support you’re many times more likely to be part of the 10% of startups that are successful instead of the 90% that fail.

Accelerating emotional growth

What all of this boils down to? If you create a startup, financial risk is only one part of the journey. Your growth as a person both intellectually and emotionally is critical.

Azin Mehrnoosh, a multiple times entrepreneur who has taken companies through both the Creative Startups and Village Capital Edtech accelerators, has seen firsthand how that growth works in the best accelerators:

“I truly believe that every early stage, and first time entrepreneur should go through some form of accelerator. The mental, emotional, social, and cognitive growth that you experience being among your peers and a plethora of industry mentors is life and career altering in a positive way.”

While the traditional foundations of an accelerator matter (money and networks being particularly helpful!), here are a few additional things you can look to assess how an accelerator helps (or doesn’t) with the emotional growth in an entrepreneur’s journey…

What happens when there is a problem during the program? — With a group of dozens of entrepreneurs, mentors, brand sponsors, and support staff there are bound to be problems (most accelerators function as startups themselves, hence, chaos at times). A good accelerator focuses on people over process, and will be willing to work with you if a family emergency comes up, or if there is a problem in the program itself.

Find out the most important part of the accelerator, from a variety of people — ask people who’ve been through it, the program manager, mentors, etc. The answer should be: people.

See if their words and actions match — this is important in any business or partnership, but especially so in the context of an accelerator program. Sometimes it’s small signals, like a program that talks about having a strong marketing / community building competency, but buys thousands of fake twitter followers. Other times it’s bigger, like noticing they don’t follow through on some aspects of their program. There is room for error, of course, but generally you should favor substance over design (e.g. they have a reputation for doing good work, but aren’t slick or high end in their presentation) and keep in mind that a combination of signals will work together to tell you if they’re a good potential partner or not.

The Creative Startups 2015 Application is open through July 19 - you can click here to learn more, and apply.

- Joe Cardillo