Boston Accelerators: Navigating Your Options

Building Your Business, Fundraising

Every year the Capital Network hosts a panel discussion on Boston Accelerators in partnership with Morgan Lewis. What transpired this year was a lively conversation about accelerator options, making your startup stand out, and factors to consider when looking at financing terms. We’ve put together a summary of our favorite takeaways below, and would like to extend a special thanks once again to our panelists - as you’ll soon read, mentorship is an important success factor in the careers of many entrepreneurs, and hearing from accelerator professionals in our own community is an incredible learning opportunity.

The Panel

This year, we had panelists from five different Boston-area accelerators. They were: Asad Butt (a Partner at LearnLaunch Accelerator), Melissa Withers (Managing Director at RevUp by Betaspring), Robby Bitting (Director of Marketing at MassChallenge), Kofi Callender (Executive Director of Smarter in the City), and Ty Danco (Director of Techstars Boston). The panel was moderated by Dinesh Melwani, a partner at Morgan Lewis.

Big Question #1: What can I do to help my company pass muster? What exactly are you looking for that can help my chances of getting into an accelerator program?

This was the first question of the evening, and one that is at the forefront of most startups’ minds when trying to figure out how to navigate the world of accelerators. Unsurprisingly, the answers varied depending on the accelerator and their particular criteria for evaluating applicants. However, a few common threads emerged from the panelists’ discussion:

  • Focus on program alums. Have you spoken with companies who’ve gone through the program? What did they do to get in, and what did they get out of the program? Doing this will help you understand if the accelerator is one you should be applying to, help you strengthen your application with deeper program knowledge, and may help get you on the radar of the people who will eventually be evaluating your application.
  • Be Thoughtful and Concise. Figure out how to talk precisely about your company and what you need next. Aim to prepare a pitch that is simple, focused, and attractive to judges or mentors with lots of expertise but less time to read through applications. Understand your company math and operational realities. Absolutely do not submit an application video with the wrong accelerator name in it (yes, this has happened before…)
  • Be Ready to Commit. Commitment is appealing, and entrepreneurs who want to succeed in accelerator programs should be prepared to commit their time and work HARD. You should also make sure that this is clear in your applications. Half-hearted commitment will benefit neither your company nor the accelerator.
  • Be Coachable. Show that you are ready and willing to accept feedback and mentorship. Accelerator programs vary in terms of length, but no one wants to work with a jerk, even if it’s only for the short term…

Big Question #2: Where does accelerator funding come from, and what “costs of capital” should I be thinking about?
The accelerators at our event receive their funding from a variety of sources - for some, it comes primarily from high net worth individuals and partners in their relevant industries, and others receive a combination of corporate sponsorship, government funding, and foundation funding, and still others get money from LPs, partners, a note, and angels The accelerators at our event also don’t all have the same approach to equity taken, or for that matter, shared views on the “best” way to raise capital for your company. A quick “cheat sheet” on the equity question for our participating accelerator panelists is below:

MassChallenge

Equity Take: None!

TechStars

Equity taken: 6%*
*techstars has an “Equity Back Guarantee”, learn more

Smarter in the City

Equity Take: None!

RevUp by Betaspring

Equity taken: We’re different! We make cash investment & in our non-equity model, companies return investment as a % of revenue over time

LearnLaunch

Equity taken: Up to 6%

Why the different stances on the equity question? Our panelists shared some insight for their particular programs, including:

  • Bad Program Fit. In some cases, equity is just a bad fit for the program goals and isn’t taken for that reason - in the case of Smarter in the City, company growth and community enrichment (and eventually job creation) is the main priority.
  • Non-Capital Investment. Masschallenge describes itself as an investor in terms of the accelerator’s time and money, as well as your company’s future representation of the program.
  • Financing Comes in Many Forms. Equity requires an exit for equity holders to “cash in” on equity value. Equity can provide your company with capital without taking on debt. For non-exit oriented companies that are still producing a lot of value, a revenue-return model can provide another way to raise cash without diluting company ownership - RevUp by Betaspring has pioneered this method of financing amongst accelerators, where companies return investment as a percentage of revenue over a 36-month period.

Big Question #3: How do I choose a program?

Choosing an accelerator program should never be motivated by cash alone - as one of our panelists put it, what companies are really gaining access to with a good accelerator is a set of resources, and your ability to extract value from those resources will help you make a decision about which program is the best fit. In addition to the financing considerations discussed above, our panelists suggested the companies should take these factors into account:

  • Industry and Growth Stage Fit. Which industries does the accelerator serve? What growth stage do they target? How does the maturity of your product gel with your industry and subsequent appeal to accelerators?
  • Measures of Success. How are previous program participants performing? Is company success determined by revenue, industry impact, community impact, ability to successfully scale or other factors? 
  • Mentorship. Do companies get to choose the mentors they work with? Are you ready to sort through and absorb the “fire hose” of information that a good mentor provides? Have you thoughtfully researched the quality of the program and mentors? Beware of predatory programs where founders may be put into the awkward position of being sold to by mentors (remember our advice in Question #1 about speaking with program alums?)
  • Location. Does the accelerator program you’re interested in have location requirements? Have you thought strategically about the community and network value that program participation in a particular city will provide?
  • Services Offered. Have you done your diligence in terms of investigating services that the accelerator program provides (i.e. contacts, databases, etc.)? Have you connected with enough program alums to make sure that your company has the right culture to take advantage of these services?

Final Thoughts

As our Boston Accelerators panel made clear, there is no shortage of program considerations if your company is thinking of applying to an accelerator. As any founder knows, your time is valuable, and successfully navigating your accelerator options means finding a program that is a strong match for both your company’s needs and what the accelerator is looking for from participants.

Liked what you read here, and looking for similar programming in the future? Consider joining the Capital Network, Boston’s largest active community of investors and startup experts.

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