Breeding ground for a startup: How to get the most out of accelerator programs

The modern market provides ample opportunities for new entrepreneurs to accelerate the development of their projects. They can find a business angel or a mentor, participate in a hackathon, or join a seed accelerator or a business incubator. On the other hand, having access to the best, the coolest and the most famous experts does not guarantee success. Alexandra Linnikova, co-head of startup programs at MGIMO Ventures, COO of and CEO of Startech.Base, has offered some tips on deriving the highest value from an accelerator program.

Alexandra Linnikova, co-head of startup programs at MGIMO Ventures, COO of and CEO of Startech.Base

The responsibility lies with the team

Once you’re a part of an accelerator, or under a business angel’s wing, it is important to remember that developing your startup is still the project team’s responsibility. It is the founders that should be concerned about getting the most out of the mentorship and other resources they get. Team members should make time to participate in progress tracking sessions, expert sessions, and attend other educational events.

Most accelerators, especially student ones, are free. As a result, some may not take them seriously enough. There are cases where teams join the program but are reluctant to put enough effort into it. They skip sessions or other events. This kind of attitude is best avoided because an accelerator really is a chance to test your business for strength, to get feedback on your product and refine it, as well as to meet potential investors.

It also happens that a startup joins several accelerator programs simultaneously; the team members simply do not have enough time to participate meaningfully in either of them. That is not the best way to go. Making the most of one program will do more good than a long list on your record.

A focus on teams, not individual founders

Attending each of the program events is important. Better still when the entire team participates, not only the founder of the project. This keeps everyone on the same wavelength and gives them a better understanding of what they are doing and why. The new knowledge derived from the sessions will help everyone grow and will ultimately benefit the project in the end.

The importance of offline events deserves a special mention. It often happens that the dates and times are announced very shortly before the event, but I highly recommend that the founder and other team members still try to fit them into their schedules. Firstly, programs usually invite eminent speakers to face-to-face meetings — key industry experts, representatives of investment funds and corporations. Even if you are just a listener, this may still be useful. Secondly, such events provide a platform for networking, for meeting important speakers and talking to them.

No experience ever goes amiss

Practice shows that good results are usually achieved by teams that are open to communication and ready to accept new experience and recommendations from their mentors. They are mature enough not to fuss over their product but are ready to change it, to experiment, to use out-of-the-box solutions or ask for advice. Teams certainly have every right to make their own decisions rather than follow the recommendations but, in any case, the experience of people who have watched many startups grow and have certain expertise, deserves attention.

Alexandra Linnikova, co-head of startup programs at MGIMO Ventures, COO of and CEO of Startech.Base

Prior experience is also important for team members: projects involving experienced employees often demonstrate the best results. If the current startup is not their first business project, or the team includes people from corporate top management, the project is more likely to be successful. It’s good if every member of the team has enough experience in their field. Naturally, most startups do not have enough money to hire experienced professionals, but you should at least try to get the best you can find.

A team of pros, not friends

A few important words about building your team. The accelerator staff will never tell the founder they have chosen the wrong people for the project. Still, each person’s professionalism and the wise distribution of roles are significant components of the team’s success.

It often happens that founders hire their friends and it kills the project. Customer service should be the responsibility of people who are good communicators and not just tennis partners or skiing buddies. Every member of the team should do their job. Marketing specialists must do marketing rather than talks with authorities, which is the responsibility of a GR manager. Projects that take off are often projects with well-built teams.

First-person perspective

Now let’s look at the evolution of several startups that went through accelerators and learn some advice from their founders.

“You can sell anything, even an idea

Scroll is a service for developing and launching online courses. The accelerator pushed the team to the stage of actively promoting its solution to major market players, multiplying profits and negotiating talks with investors.

Vitaly Pinigin, Scroll Co-founder and Development Director:

“I expected that I would just see many informative lectures and networking as we share our success stories and then part ways. I was surprised to see investors and the committee at the end. We were supposed to present our pitches. My advice for other projects would be to be prepared to speak, online and on stage, from the first day of the accelerator, the earlier the better. It is an incredibly important skill. Based on other teams’ experience, I realized that you can even sell an idea without a working product as long as you deliver you pitch effectively.”

“Nobody can help you unless you take action yourself”

ThermaTec is a project dealing with primary diagnostics of mammary gland conditions using a non-invasive 3D isothermal method. During the acceleration program, the startup attracted RUB 15 mio in investment, closed a deal on clinical research and equipment supplies to one of major chain laboratories and launched the design of a new precision thermometer.

Ekaterina Momot, СЕО of ThermaTec:

“To maximize the results of the accelerator, I would recommend being active during masterminds and asking invited experts questions. Nobody will say that your question is stupid or wrong. Answers will give you useful information. Take as much as you can from it. Overall, nobody can help you unless you take action yourself.”

“You can break through any wall”

TeamUp is a smart HR platform for automating staff search and building effective teams. Over the three months of the accelerator, the startup signed four new contracts, launched two pilots, tripled its profit, and continues to negotiate with major market players.

Stanislav Satykov, Co-Founder and СХО of TeamUp:

“Joining an accelerator allows structuring an enormous amount of information about your product, building processes from scratch or processes that have problems, and then you are equipped to scale up sales or launch sales with the help of trackers and experts. In my opinion, to achieve that, a team needs a driver manager, a technical expert and a sales guru. If you have them on your team, you can break through any wall.”

“Something may happen that will turn your idea upside down”

Junipro is a career support service that helps find jobs and map a development strategy in digital industries as well as speed up the recruitment process for partner companies by evaluating and analyzing candidates’ skills. The startup launched two new products during the accelerator, closed 16 deals and six partnership agreements with major companies.

Denis Bakanov, Co-Founder of Junipro:

“Make sure to participate in all events, presentations and workshops offered by the accelerator. Even if they seem weird, during this one-hour meeting, something may happen that will turn your idea upside down and push it in the direction that the market needs. It is, however, important to stay focused, concentrate on the primary goals and important tasks and avoid distraction. Don’t be afraid to experiment and make changes to the product if it can bring you closer to your goal.”

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