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Should you join a startup accelerator? Advice from a top EU accelerator

Published:  Jun 5, 2024
Paul Finch
Paul Finch

Should you join an accelerator? Is it a waste of time? How do you weed out the great ones from the terrible ones? What will investors think?

These are all questions I’m frequently asked as co-founder of Growth Studio – a startup accelerator that’s run over 70 programmes, helped 800+ startups and worked all over the world in almost every startup category – from deep tech to consumer, fintech to fashion tech, smart city to non-profit.

No doubt I’m biassed about the power of accelerator programmes. But equally, accelerator programmes are not for every startup.

If you want an honest view on what to look for in an accelerator programme, why join, when to join (and when not to join), read on.

What is an accelerator?

Accelerators are designed to help early-stage, growth-oriented companies rapidly scale by attending a cohort-based, short-term programme (from a few weeks to a few months). Accelerator programmes usually have a business theme or thesis – around a technology, a sector, or simply support on how to secure investment. And let’s be honest, often startups apply to an accelerator simply because they are short of cash and want the grant. Fine.

Joining an accelerator programme can benefit founders by helping them to:

  • Refine their products
  • Build their network within an industry
  • Meet mentors
  • Raise investment

Programmes often end with a ‘Demo Day’ to promote the cohort of graduated startups to investors.

Investing your time, effort and team into an accelerator comes with an opportunity cost. You will be expected to attend workshops and sessions, meet partners, and show absolute commitment and engagement. Your existing investors may also ask whether your time is best spent on an accelerator, versus focusing on your business.

So it’s essential to work out whether it’s worth your time and effort. Here’s how to figure that out.

How to decide if an accelerator is right for you

1. Be reflective

Before you start, ask yourself why you want to join one. Do you have a gap in your knowledge that a programme fulfils? Is it to meet partners and investors? Is it for the cash and office space? All are good answers, but first understand why you feel you need an accelerator, and then decide whether the time and resource investment is worth it.

Before you start, ask yourself why you want to join one. Do you have a gap in your knowledge that a programme fulfils? Is it to meet partners and investors? Is it for the cash and office space? All are good answers, but first understand why you feel you need an accelerator, and then decide whether the time and resource investment is worth it.

2. Ask yourself these key questions

Are you looking to:

  • Upskill or tool-up the team with knowledge to help fundraise, market and sell or launch to a new market?
  • Achieve a specific goal?
  • Validate your product with industry experts?
  • Get access to people or data you otherwise wouldn’t have?
  • Apply your technology to a new industry (e.g. Open Innovation)?

3. Have a clear focus and outcome

Once you know your why, apply for accelerators that match your specific requirements and ensure that the accelerator team has the experience to help companies at your particular stage of growth.

Join an accelerator with a crystal-clear goal of what you want and need to achieve by the end of the programme.

Here are some examples of our recent founder goals at Growth studio:

  • “Getting a bulletproof market-validated product”
  • “£1m in pre-sales”
  • “Letters of Intent and/or partnership with 3 corporates”
  • “A bloody good investor pitch deck and presentation”
  • “Launch our product to market.”

At Growth Studio, we make every startup set at least three measurable goals to hit by Demo Day so everyone is accountable. We find that the founders who have specific focused goals get the most out of their experiences and time.

It’s okay for you to have multiple goals when applying for an accelerator - that reach beyond the programme’s specific goals. Just make sure you are transparent with the programme organisers about your objectives and use your time wisely.

4. Identify the right programme to take your startup to the next level

There are hundreds of accelerator programmes on the market with new ones being launched almost every month. Some are great, many good, plenty awful. Do your homework and use these exploratory steps, so you don’t waste your time, or theirs.

  • Evaluate the match of you and your startups’ needs, as well the programme organisers’ expertise, partnerships and connections
  • Reach out to people from previous cohorts and ask about their experiences
  • Ask how much the accelerator partners and investors are realistically hands-on with the cohort (many aren’t)
  • Interview the Programme Team to understand what they bring to the table, what to expect of them, and what they expect of you
  • Raise any concerns in your first initial chats; you should interview them as much as they interview you
  • Build chemistry with the Programme Team

Ultimately we – as Programme Managers – want you to get value out of the programme and be successful, so it’s important you work together to plan a shared success strategy.

5. Be commercial

Sounds obvious, but consider the commercial advantages and disadvantages of joining a programme. How will your business measurably benefit from partaking in a programme? Is it more than if you didn’t join the programme? Could you – with three months of focus – have brought in more sales, leads, and investment for the business if you weren’t in the programme? Will the benefits outweigh the time investment?

6. Have clear roles and responsibilities

In a small team, everybody counts. Allocate one person to be the main attendee and one point of consistency. Attend all the sessions and take advantage of all of the support the programme gives you. Gathering all this knowledge will help you build expertise within the business and maximise the opportunities available by doing the programme.

7. Have fun

Seriously. Running a business is TOUGH. Surrounding yourself in this lonely stressful journey with a cohort of other Founders, a Programme Team who is gunning for you to succeed and is invested in your success is a good thing. Make the most of it; celebrate the little wins and share in each other’s success.

Top tips to get the most out of an accelerator programme

Be intentional
Choose the right programme, not just one that invites you. Go in with a clear, measurable goal to leave the programme with. Track it weekly.

Be entrepreneurial
work with the Programme Team to get introductions to investors and partners, and help them generate mutually beneficial stories and PR.

Go all-in
Immerse yourself in the sessions, mentors and workshops to maximise your skills, tools and profile. But call it a day early if you don’t think it’s a good fit for you and them.

Win Demo Day!
Start thinking early about how your pitch and presentation can stand out on the day. Invite people, investors and leads to see you pitch.

Help each other
A cohort that gels together will provide an untold amount of support, help and intros during the programme and long afterwards.

Avoid being a serial accelerator
No one should be in more than two for a business.

Growth Studio has just been voted by the Financial Times as Europe’s leading support hub for startup mentorship and 5th out of 125 European startup support resources. To learn more about how we support startups, check out our website.

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