I spent a summer at the Betaspring startup accelerator / incubator in Providence, RI, and it was basically the Best Summer Job Ever. More importantly, it immersed my team (Catapulter.com) in the entrepreneurial community and got us smart on startups incredibly quickly.
In short, an incubator or startup accelerator is a program where, upon acceptance, you join a class of other startups in a common office space and receive mentorship, legal advice, and if you’re lucky, a little bit of cash to get you started.
The main difference between an incubator and accelerator is that an accelerator is usually more time-sensitive, sort of like a “startup bootcamp” for a few months to help you figure out whether your company has legs or if you should “fail fast” and move onto the next opportunity.
(An accelerator is basically a type of incubator, so I’ll use the term incubator throughout this post.)
Please note: one of your founders must be technical. We were accepted to Betaspring in large part because my business partner and I had two great developers as co-founders. It would be very difficult to get into an incubator as a business-only team – because while you’re thinking about your business and creating your strategy, you should also be actually building it. Incubators aren’t pouring all their resources into you just to get some PowerPoint decks. (My post on why you can’t just outsource a tech business.)
What you get from an incubator:
- An ecosystem of entrepreneurs
- Mentorship across industries and disciplines
- Experienced leaders to guide your business
- A head start on fundraising
An Ecosystem of Entrepreneurs
One of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is:
“In entrepreneurship, if you don’t know, ask.”
And unlike other business communities I’ve been in, entrepreneurs truly feel a duty to help other entrepreneurs.
When you join an incubator, the first thing you notice is that you’re surrounded by a number of other startups who are at the same time both very similar to, and very different than you.
Most will be in a similar, early stage of development (give or take a year), be extremely bright and possess the entrepreneurial spark. However, as you get to know each member of the teams around you, you’ll realize that they come from very different places, and can provide an immense amount of advice.
At Betaspring, most of the teams were composed of super-talented coders or experienced entrepreneurs. As my role shifted from writing a business plan to hiring contractors, engineering project management and digging into the logic of our routing algorithms, there was always someone who had been there before to help me out.
In addition, while one of our co-founders was a telecom routing/algorithm animal, he hadn’t spent as much time developing for the web. Any time he had a question on web-ifying his work, folks who had already worked through the problems he was facing were only a thin, not-very-sound-proof wall away.
Finally, when the going gets tough (which it does, constantly), you have dozens of people to vent to, who understand, and can help you get through it.
Though you’re already surrounded by folks with experience, incubators go one step further, and bring in even more 1) successful entrepreneurs and 2) experts in the fields entrepreneurs need to know about.
While I thought being around other Betaspring startups was awesome already, our mentors really turned it up. From investors to marketing experts to CEOs across industries, we had the opportunity to learn from them in group sessions, and then speak informally as they hung around the office to chat with teams.
After the initial meetings, teams met regularly with their favorite mentors. We still keep in touch with many of our favorite mentors, and as our business moves forward, I know we’ll reach out to more.
If they’re doing it right, the leaders of an incubator pick out a brilliant cross section of the entrepreneurial community, and it is an absolute gold mine of knowledge, mentorship and friendship. (Fortunately, we learned this from experience.)
And the leaders of the incubator…face it, there are occasionally nice things about having a boss!
Besides the fact that they are often experienced, successful entrepreneurs and investors, the partners of an incubator keep you on track and push you. When you’re making all the decisions for the first time, sometimes you’d like a little guidance, you’d like validation when you’re doing the right thing, and you need a kick in the butt when you’re being an idiot.
Our partners did all of those things. Engineering-heavy teams tend to spend too much time on the product, and business-heavy teams tend to spend too much time planning strategically. It’s always great to get an outside opinion, especially from folks who personally chose you because they like your team and your business, who are up-to-date on what you’re working on and your vision, and who have a vested interest (their brand and money) in you.
Once you’ve gone through a few months at an incubator you’ll know whether your business is worth pursuing or not. If you’ve decided to move forward, you have a leg up on your less-experienced, less-well-connected peers.
- You get the stamp of approval of having been guided by a selective and value-adding accelerator program
- The mentors and experts you’ve spoken to all summer know your business well and may be potential angels, or know angels who may be interested
- There are multiple opportunities for Open Houses and Demo Days to directly pitch to investors, a large number of whom are excited to screen so much potential in one room at one time
- Your mentors, peers and partners will help you plan your future fundraising, figure out who to approach, and push you to execute
The biggest downside my team noticed is that, because there is such a variety of experience, in some cases you’ll find yourself listening to a mentor speak on a topic you already know inside and out (maybe even better than them!). But because startups are all so unique, there was almost always an interesting angle or anecdote to learn from. If not, you had just learned about your mentor and his/her business, and had a starting point for future conversation on something completely different.
You may also consider it a downside that you do sort of have a boss, in the partners of the incubator, and that’s just what many people are starting their own business to avoid. As I mentioned above, I felt that this was outweighed by the benefits and guidance they provided. It’s always good to have other strong voices and different opinions in the room, and at the end of the day, you’re still the owner and leader of your company.
SO, SHOULD YOU?
Obviously, this is a personal decision.
If you’ve already sold a few companies, you may feel that an incubator / accelerator is not for you. At the same time, the constant mentorship, connection-making across industries, and co-working with like-minded entrepreneurs who are willing to stop and give you a hand, make it pretty tough to believe you won’t learn anything.
If you’re new to entrepreneurship, I highly recommend it.
Personally, though I’d had some entrepreneurial experience in the past, my summer at Betaspring was like adding rocket boosters to my entrepreneurial career. Really immensely huge rocket boosters.
Where to find an incubator
View U.S. Seed Stage Tech Accelerators in a larger map
A few interesting resources:
- A great list of over 100 incubators/accelerators
- A list of incubators/accelerators by 2011 application deadline from Jason Calacanis
- Here is a post from the OnStartups blog’s Answers section
- Xconomy’s article and list
- And finally, a cool spreadsheet