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Startup Guides Published:  Jan 23, 2024 9 min read
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Startup accelerators, incubators and bootcamps: what are they and how do I choose one?

Suzanne Worthington
Writer
Suzanne Worthington

Senior Writer

Jonny Seaman
Expert contributor
Jonny Seaman

Investor Partnerships Manager

Anthony Rose
Expert contributor
Anthony Rose

Co-Founder and CEO

Startup trailblazers and soon-to-be founders, ever wondered if joining an accelerator is your express ticket to growth? Or if a bootcamp could be your secret weapon for upskilling fast? And what exactly is the difference between accelerators, incubators and bootcamps?

There are so many courses, programmes and resources out there promising to help you launch and grow your business, it can be difficult to know what to choose. Given the potential importance of your decision to join (or not join) an accelerator, incubator or bootcamp, we’ve put together this guide to help you. And after you’ve read this, take a look at our guide to the top UK startup accelerators

Contents

The pros and cons of startup accelerators, incubators and bootcamps

Picture this: a jackpot of resources, access to funding and mentors, a VIP pass to a buzzing network of industry maestros. Your startup earns a golden stamp of credibility and you’re hobnobbing with investors and potential partners and customers.

Choose the right programme and that could be you. Startup accelerators, incubators and bootcamps are growth catalysts, helping propel your company forward faster than you ever dreamed.

But before you rush to sign up, let’s take a look at the flipside. Many programmes take an equity stake (or ask for the option to take equity) so you’ll need to be prepared to part with a slice of your startup in exchange for joining. Accelerator life can feel like a high-stakes game, with ludicrous timelines and added pressure. Your freedom and autonomy as a founder could take a backseat to the programme’s rules. And of course, standards and success vary wildly. Choosing the wrong programme could turn out to be a set-back rather than a shortcut.

Jonny Seaman

Accelerators and incubators offer mentorship, prestige and sometimes even investment capital to help you grow. Being a founder can be a high-stress and often lonely path, so an added benefit of joining a programme is you’ll be surrounded by a cohort of fellow founders going through the same journey as you.

A good accelerator will give you a support network, people to bounce ideas off of, a combined network and a place to share what works and doesn’t. Make sure you do your research thoroughly and join a programme that’s right for you and your startup.

Jonny Seaman

Investor Partnerships Manager,

SeedLegals

Startup accelerators vs incubators: what’s the difference?

Sometimes you’ll hear the labels ‘accelerator’ and ‘incubator’ used interchangeably. What they offer can be similar but in general, accelerators and incubators differ in their focus, approach and the growth stage at which they support startups.

Usually, incubators prioritise nurture and support for very early stage companies, the ‘zero to one’ phase (from the expression popularised by entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel in Zero to One). You might already have an idea or be ‘pre-idea’, or be looking for a co-founder.

In contrast, accelerators usually emphasise rapid growth for startups in the ‘one to five’ phase: companies already in operation and aiming to scale.

For a summary, see the table below 👇

What is a startup bootcamp?

And how are bootcamps different from accelerators and incubators?

Adding to the support programmes available for startups, in recent years we’ve seen more startup bootcamps emerging. These are short-term programmes that aim to give you intensive training and mentorship to accelerate the growth of your company.

Startup bootcamps can appear similar to both accelerators and incubators but they differ because bootcamps usually focus on a specific topic or skill such as fundraising, scaling or preparing to join an accelerator.

Here’s a summary:

Startup incubators vs accelerators vs bootcamps

Incubators

Accelerators

Bootcamps

StageEarly-stage ideas or startups literally just starting upEarly-stage startups already in operation, companies scaling upEarly-stage startups
AimsTo guide you through the initial stages, helping you develop your ideas into viable businesses

To help you find and start working with a co-founder

To help you scale your startup quickly

To prepare you for a demo day, where you pitch to potential investors or partners

To rapidly upskill participants in a specific topic or skill such as product development, marketing or pitching

To prepare you for a specific task such as taking investment or joining an accelerator

DurationUsually offer longer-term support, sometimes over several yearsUsually short, lasting typically three to six monthsFrom a few days to a few weeks of intense learning

Not all accelerators are intensive, lengthy, full time programmes for small cohorts of selected startups. Our friends at Hotbed run free six-week lighter touch accelerator programmes to help founders expedite their growth to prepare for fundraising.

Perdie Alder, Co-founder and CEO of Spice Startups / Hotbed says:

“Hotbed programmes are delivered virtually and designed to be ‘low time commitment, high reward’. Our mission is to help you connect with the right people, stay focused on growth and prove you have the traction needed to fundraise. We know you need to spend most of your time building your business, so across five hours a week, we bring in seasoned founders, investors and domain experts who share insights, practical tips and best practice.”

“Hotbed programmes are free and cohort sizes are large (50+ founders). Some join after completing more intensive accelerators like Techstars. Cohort members take away more knowledge, many new connections, and access to a community of like-minded founders who they stay in contact with long after our programmes have ended. Find out more at hotbed.co

How to choose an accelerator, incubator or bootcamp

Thinking about joining a startup accelerator, incubator or bootcamp? Here are some factors to consider:

  • Focus
    What’s the programme’s niche? It could be tech, social impact, a specific industry or something else. Find out if their expertise matches what you need.
  • Resources
    Does the level of training, mentorship and industry connections match your startup’s aspirations?
  • Track record
    Read case studies about previous participants to evaluate the success of the programme. Does the approach align with your startup’s goals?
  • T&Cs
    In exchange for participating, what does the programme expect from you in return? It could be an equity stake, investment or an option to invest. Scrutinise the programme’s terms and conditions carefully to make sure you’re happy to accept them. Some programmes take a more substantial equity share in return for more resources, while others offer lighter terms but with fewer resources. Find an appropriate balance of what-you-get for what-you-pay.
  • Networking opportunities
    Find out about the programme’s connections within your industry. Could they open doors for you in terms of partnerships, investment, access to customers and more? The mentors, investors and fellow entrepreneurs you meet via the programme could turn out to be invaluable.
  • Potential future collaborations
    How does the programme keep in touch with alumni? Is ongoing support available after you complete the programme? How interested are they in your company’s long-term success?

To find an accelerator, incubator or bootcamp that’s right for you and your startup, nothing beats word-of-mouth recommendations. Ask your existing network for their tips, read reviews, ask your mentors and do plenty of research before you commit.

Grow your network
If two heads are better than one, then many heads are awesome. Join events where you meet founders, advisors and mentors to add useful people to your network. At SeedLegals events (online and in person), you can meet other founders, share experiences and make connections. Sign up free
Daniel Gill, Founder and CEO, Augnet

Before you join an accelerator, be clear on what you need. After completing an MBA, I founded Augnet and joined the university’s accelerator – because we needed the free office space!

Next, we took part in accelerators run by a global social network and by a UK high street bank. We were either being sold to, or being used to boost the accelerator’s PR. Not the best use of our time.

One benefit of joining an accelerator should be access to mentors. That happened for us when we were awarded an Innovate UK grant. The government matched us with high profile, senior people in our sector who were brilliant. Some of them are still with us as informal advisors and advocates.

More recently, we joined a PwC accelerator to prepare for our Series A. The PwC team worked hard with us on our pitch and their ‘seal of approval’ worked like a charm: over 50 VCs attended our pitch day.

I’d warn any founder against joining an accelerator asking for shares or cash. Be clear on what you need from the programme – and make sure that’s what you’ll get.

Daniel Gill

Founder and CEO,

Augnet

Avoid these mistakes when you join an accelerator

When you successfully gain a place with an accelerator, the success of your business isn’t guaranteed. Here are five mistakes to avoid to make sure you gain as much as possible from your experience with the accelerator:

  • Not defining your goal(s)
    Are you clear on what you want to achieve from your time with the accelerator? If not, you’ll struggle to use the resources effectively.
  • Not asking for customised help
    There’s lots to learn from general advice for startups but every startup faces unique challenges. Be ready to explain what you need help with so the accelerator directors and mentors can give you tailored advice.
  • Over-relying on the accelerator
    While accelerators offer support, you’ll need to maintain a very active role in your startup’s growth, making the most of the accelerator’s resources alongside driving innovation and progress independently.
  • Ignoring networking opportunities
    Actively engaging with other founders, trainers, mentors and the accelerator’s wider network is an important part of being a member of the accelerator community. Make the time and find the energy to network – it can lead to valuable connections, partnerships and insights that could benefit you and your startup significantly now or future.
  • Not planning for when you’ve left the accelerator
    It can be tempting to focus only on the time you’ll spend with the accelerator but make sure you plan well in advance for after you’ve left the programme. For longer-term success, think about how you can sustain growth and continue to make use of what you’ve learned with the accelerator and the contacts you make.

During and after your time with the accelerator, you’ll need to continuously learn and adapt to make your startup a success. Make the most of your time with the accelerator by proactively engaging with the community, clearly communicating what you need, and incorporating what you learn in your strategic planning.

Alternatives to joining an accelerator

If joining an accelerator doesn’t quite align with your plans, here are some alternatives to explore:

  • Talk to customers
    What’s the problem your company’s product or service is trying to solve? Are you doing this in the best way? Mock up designs and test them with customers. Decide if you’re on the right path or whether you’ll need to pivot.
    💡 To make the most of your research and testing, read The Mom Test.
  • Apply for government grants and support schemes
    Could your company apply for a grant? These grants often come with less severe equity requirements, so you can make the most of financial backing while maintaining your ownership stake.
    💡 To search for current opportunities from funders such as Innovate UK, Research England and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, visit the website for UK Research and Innovation
  • Grow your network
    Search for events in your area or online where you can meet founders and investors. Each new connection brings not only their knowledge, experience and the potential to collaborate but also an entire network of their own contacts. As you build your network, the results can start to snowball: your visibility increases, leading to more introductions, connections and opportunities.
    💡 Sign up to receive our regular SeedLegals events listings
  • Set up strategic partnerships
    Who could be an ally? Forge partnerships with other startups, established companies or industry influencers. Collaborate, support each other and share resources.
  • Find a mentor
    Seek out an experienced guide who can offer advice, connect you to their network and share tried-and-tested strategies. This could be someone already in your network, someone you meet at a networking event or someone you approach via a website such as LinkedIn. Mentoring is an important part of the support offered by most accelerators but of course it’s possible to find a mentor yourself.
    💡 Top tip: Don’t mention the M word. The word ‘mentor’ comes loaded with connotations of a formal, long-term commitment. Instead, simply ask your target if you can buy them a coffee and ask them some questions.
  • Find resources online
    A simple web search will turn up thousands (or millions) of resources to help answer any of your questions. Be discerning about which resources you trust, and make sure the advice given applies to where your company is located.

Anthony Rose, Co-founder and CEO of SeedLegals says that while accelerators can be useful, they’re no longer essential for startup success:

“Years ago, accelerators were a super valuable way to learn the craft of being a founder because there was hardly anything available on the internet. Now, there’s a huge amount of resources out there. Get started with SeedLegals articles, watch our videos and join our webinars.

“After you’ve educated yourself as much as possible, assess what you still need and decide if you can get that from an accelerator. For example, more connections, a co-founder or introductions to investors.”

Your journey, your choice

As Jonny Seaman, Investor Partnerships Manager at SeedLegals explains, finding the right accelerator is like choosing the right university:

“It’s important to find the right course that matches your skills (sector), matches your approach to work (culture), and surrounds you with likeminded people (fellow founders). Just as prestige universities can add kudos to your CV and open doors, there are prestige accelerators which can add polish to your pitch deck.

“Just as university isn’t the best path for everyone, many startups become successful without joining an accelerator. But choose wisely and they can help you get to the next level.”

Want more accelerator inspo? Check out our guide to top UK startup accelerators

Talk to the experts

Whether you’re hitting the accelerator, finding allies or embracing a solo journey, SeedLegals is here to support you. If you’re hiring a team, fundraising, sharing equity or need legal advice, we can help. To get started, take a look around our website or book a free call with one of our experts.

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