Accelerators – The Founder Perspective

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I promised during a talk I did at the Accelerator Rally (thanks @ianmtl!) in MTL last month that I would lay out here a series of articles on where, as a founding CEO, I got the most value from our accelerator during and after, what I would change, and what I would tell startup founders going into a program, so this is part one of many.

DIVING IN TODAY: where we got the most value from the accelerator during and shortly after the program / THE HONEYMOON PERIOD.

I co-founded Playerize with Lyal Avery in Vancouver in early 2011, and after establishing some really promising early proof points, we got into the first cohort of FounderFuel that August.  Lyal and I had more experience than many of the other founders, Playerize was a solid idea, and we got quite a bit of positive attention during and after Demo Day.

Here I am on stage on Nov 8th, pitching to a crowd of investors and community on FounderFuel’s first-ever Demo Day.  Still one of the proudest days of my life, although Lyal still refers to it as “The Sweater Vest Pitch”:

Demo Day2

And, to take advantage of the fog of admiration you feel right now for that sweater vest, point the first:

ATTACK THE IDEA.

Sounds simple, but the big benefit is in making the idea strong in a big opportunity sense.  Lyal and I were initially building what would have been a profitable, but small-scale company.  Few in the community, and NONE of the GPs and VPs are interested in that, so the modifications that the accelerator partners pushed us to make in the program and the pitch prep transformed Playerize from a profitable lifestyle business into something with serious growth and scale potential, and we generated a lot of excitement in that theater.  Accelerators are good at taking your lifestyle business and making it a scalable VC-backed venture.

PITCH PREP.

Pitch prep is a no-brainer.  Every accelerator puts a lot into this, and the degree of success depends on the people doing the coaching and how intensive the process is.  Three quick points about pitch prep:

– The real value of the pitch prep is extremely concentrated idea-refinement.  After 10 weeks of being torn to shreds by the partners, we then spend 2 weeks of pitch prep making it actually hang together.  Demo Day is a business plan competition, played out in 30 slides.  (As business plans should be drafted – I’ll post on my method for this later).  The final weeks of the program probably contained as many mini-pivots as the first 10.  It’s not until you’re saying it out loud that you find out which elements support each other, and which are extraneous, negative, or downright fucking pretentious.

– I think too much effort is being put into the presentation layer of the pitch.  I’m not nostalgic for my hand-done keynote from 2011, but in some recent demo days I’ve been at, the standard for decks is so high, it’s obvious that at least half of the time invested went into working with a professional designer and iterating the deck, instead of refining the idea and talking points.  I challenge accelerators to limit Demo Day pitches to black-on-white bullet points.  Investors are smart enough to identify the good ones without cityscapes and shit.

– I think perhaps more startups should fail.  I understand all of the practical difficulties with an accelerator washing out part of every cohort, but that’s the reality in most groups.  Sometimes the pitch prep is almost too good, and the turds are well-polished.  Demo Day is for battle-hardened ideas, and any idea who doesn’t struggle through, getting better week by week, should probably get the tube-sock-and-bar-of-soap treatment.

INTROS TO CAPITAL.

Again, EVERYBODY does this.  The difference is made when the introductions carry personal weight from the partners.  It doesn’t matter how many VCs are in the mentor network, once you pass the “not an idiot, and listens to advice” tests, the next step in getting capital is a personal recommendation from someone influential.  Fundraising value in an accelerator comes not from access to investors, but PUSHY intros to capital.  I’ve had an investor say “if you’re not into these guys, I don’t know what I can ever send you”.  The difference is made when the partners spend personal capital to recommend you.  This doesn’t scale – they can’t vouch for every startup in every cohort – but it’s a blocker to fundraising.

MENTOR COMMUNITY VS FOUNDER COMMUNITY.

In general too much time and effort is put into the founder / alumni community.  If you’re YC, sure, the fact that I can bug the Dropbox founder is incrediballs while it lasts.  The value in that though, is that they’re operating at a scale you hope to achieve.  FounderFuel has a big, broad mentor network, and when I have a question about something like sales team compensation, I don’t ask a startup founder from my cohort, I ask the CFO of a 300-person company.  Just like the old saying of ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have’, get operational advice from people who are at least two levels beyond you.  I LOVE my cohort team, we’ve been through shit together, we’ve spilled the same blood in the same mud, and I’m eager for beer and gossip.  But the value is with the mentors on almost every practical question.

NEXT.

#2: Where I get value now that we’re an operating company

#3: Some suggestions for trailing better operator CEOs in accelerators.

Then I’ll get into Accelerator Hacks for founders going into a program.

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