16 tips for creating a successful startup accelerator programme

After selling a business earlier this year, I was asked to run the Fintech Wales startup accelerator programme. I had a fantastic experience as programme director for two cohorts. It was fun, exhausting, and massively rewarding. But, going in to this process I was aware that a scary percentage of startup programmes that tout themselves as accelerators really don’t deliver the goods. They offer free desk space, some generic talks that would be better suited to a florist or landscape gardener, and a handful of “perks” that are really just sales opportunities for the company providing the perk. It’s really sad the amount of founders I’ve spoken to over the years who think that a programme they attended was a waste of their time and energy. I didn’t want to be involved in anything like that.

After a lot of research, preparation, and planning, I delivered two programmes that got great results. We even won an award. The anonymous feedback from both cohorts of founders was overwhelmingly positive, with both programmes achieving Net Promoter Scores of 100.

So, these are some of the things I learned on the way. They are tips about how to save time and resources, provide a better result for the startup founders, and the types of workshops and talks you should be prioritising.

Fintech Wales Foundry cohort #3 - credit: Owain Roberts from FinTech Wales.
Fintech Wales Foundry cohort #3 – credit: Owain Roberts from FinTech Wales.

Be humble

You can’t possibly be an expert on raising investment, coding languages, product management, AND go to market strategies (and if you ARE an expert in all of these, then you should probably be out making your own fortune!). So if you are asked something you don’t know, don’t bluff it. Say that you’ll find out, or organise a relevant workshop with an expert. That’s much better than giving them bad advice that you’re not sure about. You’re there to curate the insight and experience for them. Not to know absolutely everything.

Be challenging

Running an accelerator is broadly a personal skills job. It’s about how well you can build a cohort, get them working together, listening to experts etc. But I think the number one skill is being able to challenge them, and make them question all their assumptions, while still keeping their energy and belief high. The reality is that most startups fail. And the number one reason for that is that they build something that the market doesn’t want. But a HUGE percentage of founders are blind to this. A major part of your job is help them understand this, especially if they look like they’ve fallen in love with their product, not the customer problem.

Side note – in all the feedback I’ve received in mentoring and startup programmes over the years (I always ask for anonymous feedback from cohorts), the thing that comes up time and again is their gratitude that I really challenged them, and did it in a friendly and constructive way.

Interviewing is (mainly) just an asshole-check

Unless you have a big team, you won’t be able to spend lots of time interviewing shortlisted candidates, and therefore won’t be able to dig into them and their model as much as would be ideal. You’ll have to make sure that you capture the pertinent data in the application. I was usually only able to do 15-20 mins for each interview call. The job here is simply to find out if they’ll work well with others, and listen to feedback. Make sure you challenge them (in a friendly way) on something they seem to be sure about, and see how they react. This will tell you a lot about the type of person they are. Know-it-alls who think they’ve already got it all figured out will be toxic in the classroom, and are a waste of your time and resources.

Ask to see their cap table or shareholder list

You can see a lot about the history of a startup by looking at the shareholders. Have they given away 30% to a friend of their Dad’s who helped them with their incorporation paperwork? Has one of the original founders left, taking all his equity with him? Are the founders already massively diluted because they gave away 50% of the business for £50k? Seeing who holds the shares in a company can tell a story that will help you understand the business more completely. Plus, all of these scenarios (which are all from real life examples) will make it difficult for startups to raise investment in the future, hampering the likelihood of them growing.

Me, enjoying one of the pitch practices – credit: Owain Roberts from FinTech Wales.

Don’t bother with perks.

OK, technically speaking – don’t waste loads of time pulling together loads of perks. It can be massively time consuming, but they’re actually relatively rarely used. If you have partners (e.g. lawyers or accountants) who offer free time Keep a Google Doc / Notion / Airtable sheet with a list of perks available, and update as you go. But mainly be reactive. Go source them if you’re specifically asked. Otherwise just utilise the many free lists of perks that are already out there (e.g. https://www.f6s.com/deals)

Be clear about what you’ll offer in advance.

Startup founders’ time is incredibly precious. If they spend days/weeks/months on a programme that doesn’t deliver what they thought it would, they’ll be rightly pissed off. They will also start to disengage if they don’t feel they’re getting value from the programme, and nothing kills the energy of a programme than half-empty classrooms. Where are you going to “take” them that they wouldn’t or couldn’t have got to without you? What precisely will you do for them? Make it clear.

Be specific about who you want to join your programme

Be clear about who you want to join your programme. Stage, location, investment, sector etc etc. If you’re in a major startup hub then you’ll be able to be really focused about who you accept because of the number of startups you’ll have to choose from. BUT, if you’re in a small town or city, and have limited startups in your catchment area, then you may have to compromise a little. There’s only so many pre-seed, fintech, B2B SaaS, businesses in North Wales, for example.

Understand the motives of your stakeholders.

Running an accelerator programme comes with a lot of pressure and responsibility. Founders are looking to you to help them take their startup to the next level. And they should be your primary concern. But there also the host organisation, sponsors etc. I was lucky that the FinTech Wales team are a collaborative, flexible, and open bunch. But with various partners and sponsors involved, it’s really important to ensure that you understand what every organisation sees as success. A single 15 minute update call with all partners is a good thing to get into the habit of doing.

Use webinars to inform people about joining the programme.

When you announce that you’re taking applications you’ll get a lot of requests from founders for more info, or queries about whether their particular startup is likely to get selected. Where you can answer in one or two sentences then do so. Otherwise, set up a handful of 30 min webinars, and direct people to sign up for them. Spend the first 15 mins setting out why your programme is brilliant, what it aims to achieve, and why they’ll benefit from joining. Then use the rest of the time for Q&A. You can then archive the best one on Youtube for future viewers.

Jim from Credit Canary, smashing his pitch on investor demo day – Credit: Owain Roberts from FinTech Wales

Pay (some of) your speakers.

Budgets for accelerator programmes aren’t always huge. And usually speakers offer to come in to speak for free. And that works fine for speakers that come from “essential” businesses that hope that some of the cohort will go on to be customers, or who come from big corporates. So Dave from Deloitte or Lisa from Local Accountants probably don’t need paying. BUT you may have local freelance experts who aren’t so clearly going to get future work from your cohort. And you’re asking them to do for free what they would normally get paid for. So, even if you can only offer them a token payment of £100, then do it. It’s not everything that they deserve, but it will go some way to acknowledging that you value their time. Especially if you want them to come back and do it again in the future.

Build in time for founders to peer network.

Your founders won’t just learn from the experts and you. They’ll be able to learn from each other. Build in time for them to just hang out together, and chat. We did the usual social dinners and drinks, but one thing that worked really well was to encourage them to be in the “classroom” 15-30 mins before the first talk of the day. They were fresh, energised, and in work mode. So they talked about their businesses to each other, offered advice, and shared things that had happened since the last time they’d spoken.

Remove the obstacles of asking “stupid” questions

It’s easy to not want to ask for clarification for fear of looking stupid. We’ve all done it, even though we know there’s no such thing as a stupid question. One way I tried to remove this fear was to gamify the asking of questions. If a speaker used an acronym in a talk without explaining what it stood for, the first person to ask got 5 points. It means that nobody knows whether they’re asking to get the points, or because they didn’t know. This applies to all knowledge that’s assumed. It works surprisingly well. Very quickly nobody actually cares about the points, and it just becomes a bit of fun. And, ultimately, might help out someone in the room who is too shy to ask.

Create an online form for potential suppliers and partners.

As soon as you announce the programme you will be inundated with contact from service providers who want to get in front of the startups by presenting workshops, or offering freebies. Most of it will be a sales tactic. Some of them will have real value to offer. But all of them will want to “jump on a quick call with you to tell you about what we offer”. This can be incredibly time consuming. Instead, create an online form and direct all such enquiries there. It will save you a LOT of time. Include questions about what the outcomes of any proposed talks or workshops are, and whether it’s specific or relevant to your startups. Because if it’s just the same old workshop they trot out as a sales tactic to every other industry, you can be sure it’ll be borderline pointless.

A weekly online catchup with some of the founders from Cohort #2 of The Foundry

Focus on stuff around validation, go to market, business development etc.

Sure, you’re going to need to have the odd workshop about tax and accounting, but the research clearly shows that having lots of this more administrative stuff in a programme negatively correlates with successful programmes. In reality, most of that stuff can be googled. That’s not to say that I’m advocating not using accountants. I’m just saying that there’s no point worrying your founders about higher rates of tax if they haven’t even worked out if they are solving a big enough problem to be worth focusing on. I talk in validation in a lot more depth here, with my process for validating your startup. If you can help them get to this point, you’ll have done more than 70% of other startup programmes. Really focus on always be helping them move closer every day towards product-market fit.

Use ex and current founders

Some of the most useful (and popular) sessions I ran were Q&As with founders who had been there and done it. They’re normally busy people, so I don’t ask them to prepare a talk. I just ask them to come in and answer some questions, because it requires no prep. I usually spend the first half of the session asking them questions in an interview format, and then opened it up to Q&A from the cohort. Ask them questions about specific things they did to understand their customers, things they got wrong, lessons they learned, and things they would/wouldn’t do again. How did they grow, and why did it work…? These sessions also have the added bonus of networking the local ecosystem, and putting the new startups on the radar of experienced founders. Note ex founders often have more free time than current founders who are still in the daily grind, so treat their time and availability accordingly.

Be an ex Founder

Finally, the single biggest tool I had in my toolkit was that I was an ex-founder who had started, grown, and sold a startup. I had personally laid awake countless times at 3am wondering whether I would be able to make rent. I had made every mistake that I was trying to stop my cohort making. I had felt the pain of failure more times than I can remember. And that gives you a huge insight into guiding founders.

However, if that’s not you, then don’t panic.

You don’t have to be an ex-founder to run a great programme. But it does mean that you should use as many ex founders as you can to get that relevant insight into your current cohort of founders. Continue to be humble, and be clear that your role is to facilitate pathways to knowledge, rather than trying to be the font of all knowledge.

I hope you found this post useful. If you need help designing or running your next startup programme, drop me a line via this page.

Thanks to Paul Smith (currently building Teamhouse!), for his usual brilliant help and insight when I was first considering taking on the project. FinTech Wales for being a great client to work with. And Eamon Tuhami who was instrumental in helping me design and develop the first cohort.

2 responses to “16 tips for creating a successful startup accelerator programme”

  1. Great insights and takeaways for others here – fantastic generosity of you to share your reflections and well done again on the success of the two cohorts (plus thank you for the invitation to be involved as a mentor for a session) 🙂

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