Today, I got a message from an old friend, asking about applying to startup accelerators. He recently left a job at a large Internet company for the startup life, and with his co-founder have begun to build some prototypes. They have also begun to consider startup accelerators like TechStars as a way to take their fledgling venture to the next level in a short period of time.
Here's what I told him: If you can get in, accelerator programs can bring wonderful benefits. You get some funding, mentors, office space, publicity, and access to experienced investors. The people I know who have made it into Y Combinator, MassChallenge, and TechStars are generally very positive about the experiences and the opportunities that came from being a part of these programs.
But here's the other thing: The application processes around some accelerators can be a huge distraction. My first startup applied to several accelerators in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, and made it to the interview stage of one of them. In the weeks before the scheduled interview, I found myself engaged in time-wasting activities such as writing emails to directors and various influencers every few days, lobbying companies that had gone through the program in years past, and spending time on things that could be construed as progress ("talked with a potential investor!", "discussed an opportunity in xyz!") to share in my email updates. These activities had little or nothing to do with progress on product or getting customers. Not only did we fail to get the nod from the accelerator, we wasted valuable time and effort on things that ultimately did not matter to the business.
I learned a lot from this and other experiences that ultimately led to the failure of the company. I also developed a belief that accelerators aren't for everyone. I have been running my second company, i30 Media, according to a different set of principles based on what I call a "Lean Media" framework. In addition, I have no interest in applying to accelerators. It's too distracting, and the needs of the company are different. I'm not looking for funding, which is the focus of many accelerator programs' "Demo Day". i30 Media is not only growing (Online Content Marketing In 30 Minutes, by author Derek Slater, was released at the beginning of this month) but it's also profitable. I see a path to growth and success that does not require the help of accelerators or VCs.
Nevertheless, accelerators are hugely important to some companies. I told my friend he was doing the right thing by learning how to code and experimenting with different online products. I suggested that he take one of these ideas to the next level in a very short period of time -- either by getting lots of traction on users (if it's consumer) or getting paid customers (enterprise/B2B). This is not only the type of progress that accelerators want to see, it's also vital for the future of the company, regardless of whether or not they end up participating in a startup accelerator.