Today's guest post, first of the Investing in Innovation series, is written by TJ Muehleman, co-founder and CTO of We&Co.
The Investing in Innovation blog series highlights world-changing ideas and startups and is made possible by the Civic Accelerator, a Points of Light and Village Capital venture. If you would like to have your civic-focused startup considered for inclusion, please inquire here.
As a graduate of Atlanta Village Capital and a soon-to-be-graduate of Georgia Tech’s Flashpoint, We&Co has the unique perspective of having gone through two different accelerators. So, I didn’t hesitate when I was asked to offer up my thoughts on what to keep in mind when doing an accelerator program.
For a young start-up, having the guidance, networking and opportunities that a program like this provides is invaluable. It’s also an opportunity to check your ego at the door. It’s staggering the sheer number of times we’re challenged on what we’re doing, asked difficult questions about our business model or told we’re this side of crazy for pursuing what we’re doing. Participating in an accelerator can also be maddening, frustrating and make you want to pull your hair out. So yeah, you get the best of both of worlds.
With that short intro out of the way, here are five things to keep in mind before entering an accelerator:
- Prepare for brutally honest feedback. Yup, if you’re looking for kumbaya moments and unicorns, an accelerator ain’t the place for you. The role of an accelerator is to get you to challenge your assumptions, test them against the market and dump anything that is not working. And do that very quickly. The programs we’ve been part of have done a darn fine job of telling us how crappy our ideas are. How stinky our hypotheses are. How difficult it’s going to be to turn this “experiment” into a real business. They’re not telling you these things because they don’t like you; rather, they’re telling you because you need to hear it. Prepare yourself.
- Move fast. Real fast. See number one above. You will not have time to marinate over decisions, give yourself three months to build the coolest new feature or six months to let the market mature. You have a very limited window of time to see if the market “pulls” you in a certain direction. So figure out how you can break your tests down into discrete parts that can be validated (or most likely invalidated) in a few days, or a week at most. Look at your development calendar in day- and week-long sprints to see if you can push smaller features out.
- Take advantage of mentors and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Entrepreneurs are a proud bunch. They think they have all the answers and can solve every problem on their own. This is definitely something that plagued us early on (well, all the time). We didn’t ask for enough help. The beauty of an accelerator program is you’re surrounded by smart, capable people who have gone through this before. Ask for help. Get them to set up meetings for you. Tell them exactly which problems you’re encountering and ask for feedback. If they weren’t interested in helping, they wouldn’t be there, right?
- Don’t forget who you are. This is something I’ve seen time and time again. Your job is to find a problem and fix it with your company. Your job is not to let every piece of advice sway you this way or that. This is a dilemma few if any really talk about when it comes to start-ups: everyone and their mother will tell you which way to go. Pivot here, pivot there, pivot everywhere. But your internal compass is the most important thing you need to listen to. Find a few key advisors you know and trust and listen to them. Everyone else, politely take their feedback and weigh with a grain of salt. Because, ultimately, it’s up to you to make your company work.
- Have fun. Running your own gig is a blast – don’t forget that. You will have crappy days where everyone tells you your idea stinks. Customers will turn you down. You’ll lose a big contract. A few months back, we were having a really tough time and it showed. One of our biggest champions told us pretty plainly, “you guys are a bunch of downers. Get your s**t together boys.” And he was right. We’d stopped having fun and it showed. Remember: things will suck, but stick with it. Keep a positive attitude and do things that are fun.