What is the problem accelerators are solving?

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There is currently a preoccupation with accelerators in the entrepreneur world resulting in a large increase in programs.  Arguably, the result of this frenzied growth is that ‘entrepreneurship’ is as commoditized as college. Unlike college, it is extremely hard to know which programs are adding value and which ones are wasting everyone’s time. This doesn’t mean investors aren’t in the know and they are favouring the programs they like – example, YC or TechStars.

It could become (or has already become) virtually meaningless to be an accelerator born internet entrepreneur so why would you give up 6-12% of your company to do it? For investors it is really hard to cut through the noise. I think this is because few people actually know why accelerators exist at all. In some cases I fear that the people that are creating new ones aren’t likely clear on why they are creating these programs either.

How does anyone know which ones work? What problem are they solving? What metrics should they be tracking in order to get better at what they are doing?

Defining the problem(s) accelerators solve.

There are three problems I think accelerators are trying to solve:

  1. Investors need to identify talent.
  2. Talent needs to find the right investors and coaches.
  3. Education system failure.

The first is a relatively easy problem to solve. It is hard for investors to identify talent at an early stage, accelerator programs offer a filtering tool for investors as they can take the top talent that applies and narrow it down to those that have the highest potential based the criteria of the particular program. If an investor trusts the filtering job done by the accelerator than that accelerator is providing value.

A suggested metric for this: measure how many alumni of a program receive funding, from what type of investor, and in what time span?

The second problem that talented people and teams have is finding the *right* investors and coaches. By the right investor I mean someone that will give you enough money and coaching that you can slowly de-risk your startup a little more and build momentum as you grow towards being a sustainable business. Founders need coaches to apprentice under while they build their company. The right investor is someone who will put in enough of their own money and time and they can help you get your business through the major milestones it faces. This likely means that party rounds are bad. What I think should be the goal are 4-6 investors and/or an individual (not a VC) has a 1/2 to 1/3 of the total round.

This should result in the person(s) who put in significant capital also have a board seat and have their sleeves rolled up ready/able to help.

A suggested metric: track who put in the most personal money in the round and are they on the board of directors or some other significant role in the company? How much time a week/month do they spend with the founders?

The failure in education is a much harder problem to solve. Is it the traditional silos that are limiting education or is it the expectation that you go to school to be trained for a job or a bit of both or something else? Is the failure the education system (K-12) or is it the students or both? In higher education you have environments that are designed to encourage independent thought that is backed by facts and thinking. You should be exploring and developing your networks.

At no other point in your life will you be surrounding with that much leading edge research and thinking. Just because a school doesn’t hand you your first startup with funding and office space does not mean the education system is failing entrepreneurs!

There is also already a process for very smart people to apprentice under others that have already developed their ability to take massive amounts of information and focus it on an outcome. It also happens to come with a filtering mechanism built right in that improves the likelihood that the person that finishes is relatively in the top few percent. It’s graduate school. The process is not perfect but it is a process that works.

Educating people is hard. Coaching people is harder still. If an accelerator is going to solve the failure of the education system in educating entrepreneurs it should take that part very seriously and not dismiss the education system as having nothing to offer.

A suggested metric: Does the accelerator have qualified educators and coaches that put in a significant amount of time (more than 1 hr a week) with each entrepreneur? Are there measurable outcomes expected on the entrepreneur? Are there consequences for not meeting expectations?

Accelerators should be more than marketing to the entrepreneur and placing them in a zoo for the public to see them in action. Education is serious business and it is about people’s future. Entrepreneurs need to have realistic expectations and enter with a clear idea of what they want out of the opportunity.

Everyone around accelerators is still learning about how to make them work and figure out for whom do they exist. It is an exciting time in education — just be sure to track stuff that matters while you run the experiments!

The Pending Talent Wars

 

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Did you know that accelerators are heading for a shake out? We’ve talked a lot incubators, accelerators and cyclotrons. And the proliferation of the accelerator model is generally positive, it started me thinking about a possibility for slightly different model. One that Kevin Swan posted an insightful comment on the talent shortage for Canadian startups. I don’t think I’m the first to propose this, but it starts to make sense. Incubators/accelerators don’t need to only hasten the formation, creation and ideation of companies. They are fertile grounds to accelerate people. And it’s not just incubators and accelerators, companies participate in HackDays to find talent.

Need proof?

Vuru acquired by Wave Accounting

Vuru founders Cameron Howieson and Yoseph West reached out to the Wave Accounting team for advice on building a free, web-based financial services tool. Over time, the two companies traded notes as Wave took on a an informal advisory role, and that led to a sense that Vuru’s talent and direction were something that would be well suited to the Wave Accounting mission. — Darrell Ethrington, Aug 21, 2012 in BetaKit

Vuru was a 2 cofounder team in the FounderFuel (full disclosure: I am mentor in FounderFuel and I now employed by Wave Accounting investor OMERS Ventures). They were building a “investment tracking tools aimed at managing personal finance, which is not something Wave currently offer[ed]“. It was a great fit, a team that had the entrepreneurial culture to make a difference at Wave and a product that filled a known product roadmap gap.

Algo Anyhere acquired by 500px

Ok, before Zach Aysan slaps me for being totally incorrect. AlgoAnywhere was not in an incubator or accelerator program. But they had raised a seed round and were building very interesting technology.

The 500px founders met Algo Anywhere at their Pixel Hack Day last year, and were impressed by what the team brought to the table. Algo Anywhere’s tech was originally intended to be sold on an SaaS basis, providing companies with the data crunching power of sophisticated recommendation algorithms, without the need for those to be developed in-house or hosted on a company’s own servers – Darrell Ethrington, July 9, 2012 in BetaKit

The interesting point here isn’t about incubators or accelerators. It’s about founders of early-stage companies looking for relationships and gaps in the market left by other players.

Pulpfingers acquired by 500px

It seems that 500px has been strategically acquiring companies. It looks like both Pulpfingers and Algo Anywhere were part of the PixelHackDay (see photo from TechCrunch). Which gives 500px access to see designers, developers working in their domain space. It’s a great way to round out the product roadmap, Pulpfingers was a iOS discovery application. And they aren’t alone. Hootsuite acquired Seesmic and Swift.

Built to Last versus Built to Flip

I’m not arguing that founders should be looking to build companies to flip. There is lots of conversation about building lasting value. I’m arguing that companies that have raised capital to scale are looking for alternative methods to acquire talent. Get access to the API, build a meaningful service, acquire shared customers and go forward, it’s Biz Dev 2.0 (as Caterina described back in 2006). What’s new to the game for Canada (well Canadian startups) is that for the first time since RIM we are starting to have web startups that are reaching scale and are able to acquire talent, teams and companies. The goal isn’t to look for a acqui-hire or a manquisition, but to look at where working with an existing company or API gives you immediate access to distribution or monetization that you might have to work harder to build on your own.

I’m betting that companies like Wave Accounting, 500px, Influitive, Hootsuite, Shopify,Freshbooks, Top Hat Monocle, WattpadUpverter, Chango, FixmoDesire2Learn, Lightspeed are all actively looking for teams that are building on their APIs or filling product gaps (it becomes a buy versus build decision).

If I was a developer or looking to get into an incubator program, I’d start looking at the hackathons and APIs that are aligned with my vision where I could accelerate customer adoption.

Events

APIs and Developer Starting Points

Find an API (be it local or otherwise) that aligns with your vertical, figure out if you can solve one of your immediate challenges (like distribution and customer acquisition). Maybe strike up a conversation with the product teams at shop. But build something that delights customers and users! Go! Now!

Who has something built on one of the above APIs?

Startup “ecosystems” in Canada are doing well but…

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Jesse Rodgers. Follow Jesse on Twitter . This post was originally published on November 21, 2012 on WhoYouCallingAJesse.com.

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The Startup Genome released another report mapping top startup cities but this time a bit more specific than it’s heat map from April of this year. Canada did well depending on how you interpret it with Toronto at #8, Vancouver at #9, and Waterloo at #16. In its previous report, Startup Genome ranked Toronto at #4, Vancouver at #16, and Montreal made the list at #25. Oddly Waterloo wasn’t listed in the previous ranking but made it into the top 20 in the new report while Montreal remained outside of it.

Focusing on my Ontario centric nitpick – the separation of the Toronto and Waterloo “ecosystems” when they are anything but separate is not going to give an accurate picture of Canada’s awesome startup communities. They are unique communities but their strength comes from how they work together in the same ecosystem. The emotional energy (and money) burned in defining how they are different is holding Canada back from an even better and sustainable growth curve. That energy is in the report.

In the report:

“Toronto competes for startups with regional competitors such as NYC, Boston and nearby Waterloo.”

Then in the Waterloo profile:

“In the near future, it will be interesting to see whether Waterloo is able to hold on to its talent base or whether it will be sucked into Toronto.”

Would you say that about Palto Alto sucking talent to San Francisco and vice versa? No. It’s the valley. A huge area that is far more developed but very similar to the Toronto – Hamilton – Waterloo. The problem, I think, is that at some point in the past when local economic development groups were competing on a similar scale for tax dollars (and manufacturing plants) they narrowly defined regions (Golden Triangle, Golden Horseshoe, etc) where everything above the escarpment is barbarians and the urban modern folk live below next to the cold blue lake.

There can be (and there are) distinct communities inside the larger Toronto – Hamilton – Waterloo ecosystem. Each community has its strength. Each success in the larger ecosystem helps the entire ecosystem.

The big problem the ecosystem faces (in Toronto):

Startups in Toronto receive 71% less funding than SV startups. The capital deficiency exists both before and after product market fit. Toronto startups receive 70% less capital in Stage 2 (Validation) and 65% in Stage 4 (Scale).

The ecosystem most likely lacks a sufficient quantity of all kinds of startup capital sources: angels, super angels, accelerators, micro VCs, VCs etc. As a result Toronto startups rely more on self-funding, or rounds from family/friends.

The other big problem (in Waterloo):

Waterloo has a funding gap (96% less in the second stage) for early stage startups before product market fit, probably due to a lack of super angels and micro VCs. There are high numbers of accelerators and much lower numbers of super angels and VCs than SV.

Solving the funding problem in Toronto also solves the problem in Waterloo, more companies that able to find the money and the talent to scale in either or both communities helps both or am I missing something?

Building a strong economy, community, and ecosystem isn’t a zero sum game.