Life in an accelerated startup

Do more faster. That’s the promise given by the new breed of business incubators. Also known as startup incubators or seed accelerators. They give you access to business mentors, networking events and up to $25k funding in return for a portion of your business. I spoke with Rebecca from NinjaThat about how the accelerator experience changed her and her company

What is it like to apply?

Competition is fierce for the established three: Ycombinator, TechStars and DreamIt Ventures. TechStars accepts 1% of their applications, and DreamIt ventures accepted 15 of 500 applications.

After some encouragement by David Cohen, the founder of TechStars, Rebecca and her team made an application to four accelerators.

They discovered that accelerators weren’t looking for people who were building the next big thing.

Almost every accelerator we talked to, applied to, or even looked at makes a large percentage of their acceptance decisions based on team first

The team is more important than the idea. And to identify which teams, the first filter is video. Sometimes up to two video submissions are required before being accepted for an in-person interview.

Rebecca spoke about how it felt to be accepted after 6 months of applications:

It was sort of like Christmas morning. We had spent about six months applying, interviewing, waiting, and being rejected at that point. It feels good when a group of people much smarter and more experienced than you validate your idea.

More work compressed into a short space of time

Each team is working on growing their own business over a three month period until the final demo day. At demo day investors, mentors and peers watch silently as you pitch your business.

You’re expected to hit awesome milestones and you never want to let your mentors down during your weekly meeting, so you haul ass for three months and try to do everything you can. Literally, I was trying to accomplish three days of work in one day (including school work), everyday!

Your team is surrounded by others who are working even harder to make themselves a success and meet their milestones. Paul Graham, the founder of Ycombinator (YC) talks about the revenue growth that he expects to see from a startup

A good growth rate during YC is 5-7% a week. If you can hit 10% a week you’re doing exceptionally well. If you can only manage 1%, it’s a sign you haven’t yet figured out what you’re doing.

That 5% weekly increase translates to a 12x growth over a year. Rebecca did feel the pressure. But it affected her in a way you wouldn’t expect:

Somehow, and I honestly don’t know how, but I finished the semester with the best semester GPA I’ve had since I was a Freshman.

Rebecca commuted to the Philadelphia based TechStars as often as she could and worked remotely the remainder of the time. This is an unusual circumstance - most teams work in Philadelphia full time.

After the accelerator

Startup life doesn’t quite return to normal. After the accelerator period, companies typically begin their first fund-raising round.

This can be a pretty slow process, but at the same time you have to work 2x as hard to show traction

Without the weekly mentor meetings and with all the ups and downs that fund-raising can bring it can be easy to lose focus. It is important for startups to connect with a strong alumni network, which was one intent behind YC’s HackerNews.

Startup Accelerators can bring unexpected perks

One of Rebecca’s favourite customers was her own accelerator DreamIt Ventures.

Dana, the program manager, was having difficulty finding a photographer and videographer to capture Demo Day that didn’t bust her budget. She had been quoted everywhere from $1200 - $2000 for a day’s worth of work. I told her that was ridiculous and I could get her an insanely talented Ninja team to handle it for under $1000. Within an hour, we had three Ninjas in the Philadelphia area that were able to handle the all day event plus post-production editing for $800, total.

Rebecca said that one key to her success was finding balance.

Personally, I grew a lot. Prior to being a co-founder, I had to learn how to balance my personal and school life. Once I became a co-founder, I had to relearn that balance pertaining to work and school balance

Enough balance to meet the weekly milestones, complete coursework and remain social. When time lines are so compressed in the accelerator, the stuff we do that doesn’t really have an impact falls away.

If you need to hire a student, say Hi to Rebecca at NinjaThat.