Startup 101: Getting the Most Out of Your Time at an Accelerator

Incubator101_ImageIt’s startup season and we are getting ready to kick off Mix & Stir’s summer session with a new class of founders. They are all smart and ambitious and they’ve been carefully selected to fit our design driven approach.

One big component to their success, however, is out of our control. We work hard to recruit talented founders that we believe in, but when they get to the accelerator, how they approach their time is up to them.

At Mix & Stir, we’ve identified five key elements that are critical for founders to make the most out of their time. While these are based on our own experience, the advice extends beyond our program. If you are a startup founder getting ready to kick off with any accelerator program, here are a few key pieces of advice to help make sure you get everything out of the program that you can.


Be Proactive

Incubators and accelerators have different approaches, but structured programs usually include some mix of mentorship, pitch skills and networking. It’s important to realize that, even in the most highly structured situation, making the most out of this opportunity is up to you. Incubators can provide amazing access to talent and connections, but it’s up to the founders to make that access matter. Use your time wisely.

Get clear on what skills and talents your startup needs and look for people who can help in those areas. Reach out to mentors and network as much as you can. Connect with the other teams in the program and get to know who they are and what they are working on. Step up when you can to help other teams. You’ll find the folks who will do the same for you.


Play it Long

Relationships are critically important. They take a long time to build but can be quickly damaged. This is as true with mentors and investors as it is in your personal life. Mentors need to know you are credible before investing significant time or resources. When you find an advisor that clicks with your team, build that relationship. These relationships can last far beyond the accelerator session, so approach them with that in mind.

Also, understand that mentors are looking for fit just as much as you are and they need to have confidence before investing significant time in your startup. A bad recommendation can negatively impact a mentor’s own reputation, so they need to have real trust in you before going to the next level or recommending you on to other potential connections. The process requires time and commitment, proceed accordingly.

Prove that you are good to work with and committed to building a successful business and you may be surprised at who steps up to help you move it forward – but if people have doubts on your ability to follow through, or if you have a lot of meetings but never integrate any of the input you get, it will be hard to get people on board and even harder to keep them there.


Listen Closely

You will get a lot of feedback – endless amounts actually. Some you’ll agree with and some you won’t. That’s fine. The key is to listen thoughtfully and engage. Your job is to identify the important themes coming through the questions and act on them without losing your focus.

If you continue to hear the same questions over and over though, pay attention. If people are constantly asking you exactly what your product does, don’t blame it on your audience, realize that you are not connecting. You may be missing important pieces of the story, you may be burying people with detail, or using too many insider terms. If no one gets your brand or people are constantly questioning your business model, think hard about it.

Also, realize that, when you are answering questions, potential investors or mentors in the room are listening to the way you respond and considering what it would be like to work with you in the future. A founder who pivots so much that he or she loses their own vision is just as much of a concern as a founder who doesn’t acknowledge valid questions. On the flipside, a founder who can confidently handle a challenging question, answering from a deep base of knowledge, can really make an impact.


Make Decisions

It’s your startup and your job is to move it forward. There are unlimited opportunities for more user insight and concept refinement. Don’t get so buried in the potential to do everything that you get stuck and spin your wheels.

Identify the big questions you need to address – and be willing to commit to a decision and move forward. Set milestones and hit them. Not all your decisions will be right but it’s better to make the hard decisions and learn from the outcome. Every team needs someone who pushes them forward when the direction is unclear.

Get from idea to value proposition to concept as fast as you can, so you can start user testing– and don’t get hung up on the fidelity of the early prototypes. Even getting rough prototypes or pencil sketches into users hands can provide valuable insights and help teams move their products more quickly to the next level.

Since there is no chance whatsoever that your v1 is going to be perfect, take the pressure off yourself and figure out what you need to do to make it real – and remember it’s better to solve one problem really well, then to partially solve a long list of problems.


Build Something You Believe In

Between the networking, team dynamics, feedback and pitching, you can look forward to being very busy. It will be fun, frustrating and tiring all at the same time. There’s one secret that can make all the difference.

If you truly believe in what you are doing, if you care about the problem you are addressing and you really want to solve it, the rest comes more easily. You’ll make decisions faster, your team will be more aligned, you will connect with mentors in more genuine ways. You will be far more credible.

It doesn’t mitigate the hard work, timing and focus needed, but it will give you an internal compass to guide you along the way. You will be better able to see what changes really improve your offering and what takes you off track. Once you connect with the soul of your product, your story will have more impact and so will you. Never underestimate how far you can go with an idea you really believe in.

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