The first accelerator, YC, was founded in 2005. The second, Techstars, was founded in 2006. Wikipedia has a good summary of the history of accelerators.
Now that we are 13 years into the accelerator journey, an accelerator is a well-established construct that is part of the global startup ecosystem. They have evolved over the years, and many new approaches have been taken.
The question of the efficacy of accelerators has regularly been asked over the past decade. A number of academic papers have appeared in the past few years exploring this. I was asked if any existed the other day by an LP, so following is a list of papers I am familiar with.
If you know of any others, please put links in the comments or send me an email with the info.
Accelerators and Crowd-Funding: Complementarity, Competition, or Convergence in the Earliest Stages of Financing New Ventures?, Smith, Hannigan, and Gasiorowski, 6/13
Accelerating Startups: The Seed Accelerator Phenomenon, Hochberg and Cohen, 3/14
Accelerators and the Regional Supply of Venture Capital Investment, Fehder and Hochberg, 9/14
Swinging for the fences: How do top accelerators impact the trajectories of new ventures?, Winston Smith and Hannigan, 6/15
Investment Accelerators, Bernthal, 8/15
Startup Accelerators and Ecosystems: Complements or Substitutes?, Fehder, 9/15
Do Accelerators Accelerate? If So, How? The Impact of Intensive Learning from Others on New Venture Development, Hallen, Bingham, and Cohen, 7/16
How Do Accelerators Impact the Performance of High-Technology Ventures?, Yu, 8/16
Who Needs Contracts? Generalized Exchange within Investment Accelerators, Bernthal, 11/16
Business Incubators and Accelerators: A Co-Citation Analysis-Based, Systematic Literature Review, Hausberg and Korreck, 3/17
How Do Accelerators Select Startups? Shifting Decision Criteria across Stages, Yin and Lau, 12/17
The Nature Conservancy and Techstars just announced a partnership to create the Techstars Sustainability Accelerator. Amy and I were part of the public announcement this week in Denver. Both organizations are important to us so it’s a joy to be involved in having them work together.
Amy and I have been supporters of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) since we started our relationship in 1990. So has my partner Seth and his wife Greeley, who is currently a trustee on the TNC Colorado board. A key shared value of ours is protecting our planet and we are huge fans of TNC’s science-based approach.
Over the years, we’ve been personally involved in a number of projects, such as protecting the Anchor River in Anchor Point, Alaska (the town Amy grew up in until she was eight.) Amy went to Tanzania and Kenya in 2009 with TNC to increase capacity of TNC non-profit partners. We supported an Anchor Point Fellow at TNC’s Berlin office and an internship in Australia through Wellesley College. Heather Tallis, TNC’s Global Managing Director and Lead Scientist for Strategy Innovation, generously participated in our August 2017 Anchor Point Fellowship in Global Leadership Conference. Amy is currently on the TNC Global Campaign Committee and on the TNC Africa Affinity Group for Women and Girls. We also support TNC’s work with indigenous women environmental community leaders in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. TNC’s global reach makes it a very exciting organization to support.
At a TNC event at our house in June 2016, I had a conversation with Mark Tercek, TNC’s CEO, around innovation. Mark joined TNC nine years ago after a long and successful career at Goldman Sachs. One of my favorite ideas of his is that we can ensure more financial resources go toward conservation by getting the world to fully appreciate the opportunity to invest in nature. We had a good exchange about a number of creative approaches TNC taking to conservation and sustainability and I started referring to Mark as Nature’s Investment Banker.
Earlier this year, Amy encouraged me to get together with Brian McPeek, TNC’s Chief Conservation Officer, who is based in Denver. She described the conversation around technology and innovation she’d had with Brian, and suggested that I should talk to him about Techstars.
Brian and I got together with the goal of batting around a bunch of ideas around what he was trying to accomplish. Without realizing it, he was describing the domain of things that Techstars has addressed for many of our corporate partners. We left the meeting feeling like the idea of a Techstars TNC collaboration could be powerful.
Brian and his team went deep on things very quickly, understanding Techstars and how a Sustainability Accelerator would work. Even though Techstars has expanded around the world, we’ve never expanded in Colorado beyond our Techstars Boulder program, which was the very first location in which we ran an accelerator. We’ve talked about doing an accelerator in Denver, but never had a compelling reason to do it. But with Brian and TNC’s involvement, doing an accelerator in Denver became exciting to us – especially given the focus on sustainability that clearly differentiated it from what we were working on in the Boulder accelerator. It’s now a reality and Mark does a great job talking about our goals and approach in his post about The First Tech Accelerator For Sustainability.
In the tech world, founders (and investors) are always talking about changing the world, with an implication that what they want to be doing is something important, meaningful, and long lasting. In the past few years, there has been increasing dissonance between these words and what results from so-called disruptive innovations, where what we are really creating are companies that improve online ad-targeted by 1%, or create yet another mobile app that distracts our attention from the physical world. This isn’t a denigration of those companies, but rather a comment on the disconnect between the desire to change the world against the reality of working on things that time and humanity will likely forget quickly.
There’s an obvious question:“Are there opportunities to not just do good, but to have big outcomes?” I have a deeply held belief that large and successful companies can be built while solving global challenges. It’s not just a feel good thing, but a powerful approach to creating companies. And, if you take it to its natural conclusion, we ultimately are looking for for-profit companies that can be themselves sustainable and important.
For any entrepreneur interested in working on things that improve our planet, there’s now a Techstars accelerator to add to the mix of things people are doing in the world. And I’m excited to be involved in the collaboration to do this between two organizations that are extremely important to me.
Recently, Amazon’s Alexa team and Techstars launched The Alexa Accelerator, powered by Techstars, Last week, a bunch of fun skills have been integrated into Alexa. I thought I’d give some a try. Cooper, my intrepid two year old super alpha golden retriever shows up around a minute into the video when I do my favorite Alexa skill, the Woof Woof.
If you have an Alexa, give these a try.
What is the Alexa Accelerator?
What is a start-up accelerator?/What is a startup incubator?
How do I / can I apply to the Alexa Accelerator?
Who should apply to the Alexa Accelerator?/Should I apply to the Alexa Accelerator?
What is the Alexa fund?
Where will the Alexa Accelerator take place?
When are applications due for the Alexa Accelerator?/By when should I apply…
What is Techstars?/Who is Techstars?
I love Alexa. Of all the various tech things I’ve bought in 2016, Amazon’s Alexa has become the most consistently used new thing in my world. I’ve even had a breakthrough on the home front as Amy now regularly says “Alexa, play …” We’ve got them everywhere and the Echo Dot that showed up in October is centrally located on my office desk at Foundry Group.
On Wednesday, Techstars and Amazon announced the Alexa Accelerator, powered by Techstars. Applications will open in January and the first program will start in July 2017.
Amazon, through their Alexa Fund, has been investing in companies that are using Alexa Voice Service, Alexa Skills Kit, or companies working on the science behind voice technology, including text to speech, natural language understanding, automatic speech recognition, artificial intelligence and hardware component design. Several companies we’ve invested in, including TrackR, Rachio, and Dragon Innovation now count the Alexa Fund as investors.
It’s exciting to me to see Amazon and Alexa take it to the next level with their partnership with Techstars. I expect that will add another reason for me to spend even more time in Seattle.
Yesterday Techstars announced the launch of Techstars Kansas City. This is a city-based horizontal accelerator similar to the ones we have in Boulder, Boston, Seattle, Austin, New York City, London and Berlin. Applications open in January 2017 and the program will run in July 2017.
I have a long history with Kansas City. I almost grew up in Kansas City, as the two cities my parents looked at when moving from Boston were Kansas City and Dallas (they chose Dallas.) In the mid to late 1990s, I was an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Kauffman Foundation working with Jana Matthews on “learning programs for high growth entrepreneurs.” During this time, Jana and I initiated a deep partnership between the Kauffman Foundation and YEO (the Young Entrepreneurs Organization). I spent about a day a month in Kansas City, during which time I developed a deep respect for the Kauffman Foundation, Ewing Marion Kauffman (Mr. K), and his value system around entrepreneurship and philanthropy.
In 2013 when Google announced that Kansas City would be the first city in the country to have Google Fiber, I bought a house in the first neighborhood that was being wired up with Google’s gigabit Internet. This was inspired by Ben Barreth, who was the first person to buy a house in the neighborhood and turn it into a hacker house. Lesa Mitchell, at that time at the Kauffman Foundation, found the house for me and did all the on the ground work for me. Later in 2013, Techstars and Sprint launched the Sprint Accelerator, which Techstars ran for three years.
As a result of this activity, Kansas City has become an important startup city in Techstars network. Earlier this year we started talking more about our long term view for our involvement in the Kansas City Startup Community and recruited Lesa Mitchell to lead the effort for us as the Managing Director of Techstars Kansas City.
I giggle with joy when I think about working with Lesa closely again. There’s a long list of things we did together when she was at the Kauffman Foundation, we share very similar visions for startup communities, and – well – she’s just dynamite.
I’m going to be in Kansas City on Monday for the Kauffman Fellows Reunion VC Summit and the 20th anniversary of the Kauffman Fellows Program. I joined the Kauffman Fellows board last month (more on that in a post soon) and David Cohen (Techstars co-CEO) and I are doing an event Tuesday afternoon about what Techstars is doing next in Kansas City. Come join us if you are in town and interested.
I got the following email recently, titled “Unicorns Without The Magic.”
“With the rise in venture capitalism it’s hard to say the word “start up” and not be offered an abundance of accelerator programmes, free office space, free apartments & a free bible of connections. I myself have felt the pressures of the world of start up wonders & the prospects of investment. Whilst finishing my finals at university, I created my own algorithm for a business model to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage in a digital space. Through this I’m now building my first digital ecosystem, but along with it I’ve been offered numerous places in accelerator programmes, numerous loans and a wave of unicorn magic dust that seems to be collecting in my inbox. I’m not complaining, but what happens if the purpose of a business is greater than ones own self interest and certainly greater than a VCs interest? Our purpose is to give other people the tools to create their own opportunities, which is not necessarily in line with most VCs sentiments. I know in the next five years my company will make a lot of money, but what I don’t know is how as a 23 year old entrepreneur to says yes to the right VC and no to all the magic dust.”
My short answer was:
“My advice is simple – if it doesn’t feel good / right, say no. Keep focusing on building your business. Don’t avoid the interactions, but use your filter – which seems well tuned and appropriate – to make sure you are only spending time with people who you want to spend time with.”
I was reminded of this by Fred Wilson’s post this morning Go East Young Man (or Woman). He tells Henry Ward’s story of the financing for eShares.
“We were 0 for 21 with Silicon Valley VCs. I never got close. Most of the big firms wouldn’t even meet. A few had an associate do a Skype call even though we were 20 minutes away.
After 21 meetings in SV, I took a Hail Mary trip to the east coast and met with 3 funds. All 3 invested.”
We see this all the time. Founders who are entranced with Silicon Valley VCs. They pursue them with no focus on anyone outside of the bay area, get rejected right and left, often by associates, and end up feeling like they’ve failed. Fred’s post – and Henry’s at eShares Series A – has a great punch line that reinforces the importance of a founder having an effective filter.
“Fundraising is simple: find investors that get excited about your company. It is a filtering exercise. Too many founders believe they have the wrong pitch instead of realizing they have the wrong audience.”
Special bonus points (and some 1990s nostalgia for you): Do you remember the other company named eShares which Fred previously invested in via Flatiron Partners? I sat on the board of with Fred’s partner at the time Jerry Colonna. (a) What did they do? (b) Who acquired them? (c) How much where they acquired for? (d) Who did they compete with and what happened to their competitor?
I have been talking, writing, and helping advocate for women in technology for a long time. While my most visible role is as chair of National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) since its inception in 2006, I’ve tried to be actively involved and supportive of as many initiatives as I can. My partners and I are focused on promoting diversity in our fund (here’s a run-down of our stats) and have recently back several female CEOs, with a few more about to happen. At Techstars, we’ve put a huge amount of energy into building a pipeline of female founders and getting women involved in Techstars in many roles, especially at the leadership level in companies and the program.
Six months ago, two Boulder entrepreneurs and angel investors approached me and my partners about investing in a new accelerator targeting women-led companies. We’ve known and worked with both Elizabeth Kraus and Sue Heilbronner and deeply believe that each are committed to the “give before you get” ethos of our startup community in Boulder.
Our respect for Elizabeth and Sue, combined with our passion for their objective, led us to invest personally in MergeLane, which has secured strong support from a tremendous group of mentors, investors, media, and the Boulder startup community.
In order to be considered for admission into the 12-week program, which begins on February 2nd, companies must have at least one female in a leadership role. The program is industry-agnostic, but startups need to have some level of traction. MergeLane requires only three weeks of residency in Boulder in hopes of accommodating founders that can’t relocate for a full three months.
The deadline to apply for MergeLane is December 15th. Take a look and apply at www.MergeLane.com.
FG Press recently released its third book, Accelerate: Founder Insights Into Accelerator Programs.
If you want to understand how an accelerator program works from the inside or are considering applying to an accelerator, this is the book for you. Luke Deering interviewed 150 entrepreneurs who have been through a variety of accelerator programs to get their insights. He originally did this as a Kickstarter campaign which I supported and wrote the foreword for.
When I saw the Kickstarter version, I asked if we could add to it, edit it, and publish it via FG Press. It’s out and I’m really proud of it. It has feedback from entrepreneurs who have gone through accelerators all over the world.
The book is divided into sections that cover topics such how to come up with an idea, advice on applying to an accelerator, tips for marketing and user acquisition early on, approaches to fundraising, and what the accelerator experience is actually like.
There are a number of case studies, longer form essays (but never too long), and lots and lots of short (one to three paragraph) real-life anecdotes. While I acknowledge the case studies are a little Techstars heavy, I think Luke did a nice job of getting a wide variety of examples from many different accelerators.
There’s also an accelerator directory, a good overview from Pat Riley, who runs the Global Accelerator Network, and lots of other goodies.
When we started working on the book, our goal was to make the hardcopy a beautifully designed book that could sit on a coffee table as well as being able to be used as a reference guide. The team at FG Press did a magnificent job.
You can order Accelerate from Amazon. If you run an accelerator or want to support something around accelerators and want to explore a bulk purchase along with a presentation, just email me.
Getting into an accelerator is increasingly difficult. While there has been a proliferation accelerators around the world, there has simultaneously been a dramatically increasing number of companies applying to accelerators. In my world, supply and demand never balances out, so if you are on the application side of this equation, it’s important to do everything you can to improve your chances.
UP Global, an organization that I’m on the board of which is the umbrella organization for Startup Weekend, Startup Education, Startup Digest, and Startup Week, has just rolled out a new program called Startup Next. I participated in an early version of it and am psyched to see it ready for prime time.
Startup Next is a five week program that acts as a “pre-accelerator” – something between a Startup Weekend and a Techstars. Over the five weeks, there is a weekly three hour session. Through a structured approach of group discussions, mentor sessions, and weekly pre-work deliverables, startups walk away with the skills needed to validate your business idea, a clear understanding of your customer development strategy, a completed market and competitive analysis, a MVP and, an investor ready pitch deck.
Once the five weeks are over, the best teams get to present their companies to the heads of various accelerators. This is being done in partnership with the Global Accelerator Network which is a network of over 50 of the top accelerators in the world.
The accelerator route is not for every entrepreneur, as there are as many different paths to building a startup. But if you want to go through an accelerator, it helps to stack the deck in your favor and I think pre-accelerator programs like Startup Next can be really valuable, not only in helping you fine tune your business, but getting you broad exposure to some of the best accelerators in the world.
I’m excited to see my friends at UP Global and the Global Accelerator Network teaming up on this. And look for some magic accelerator stuff from FG Press coming in July.