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Glossary of Terms

Here is a list of common terms and acronyms used in startup accelerators and mentioned throughout this book.

Accelerator: A short curriculum-based program for startups typically taking place over 1-3 months.

Amazon Web Services (AWS): The cloud computing platform from Amazon who are actively involved in many startup accelerator programs.

Batch: A group of startups participating in startup accelerator programs. Sometimes also referred to as batchies.

Cohort: Same as a batch, it’s a group of startups in a single program. Similar to a vintage of a wine.

Elevator Pitch: A quick startup pitch – given its name because it should be no longer than a ride in an elevator.

Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR): A serial founder who joins an accelerator or venture fund part-time while they work on their next startup idea.

Key Performance Indicator (KPI): An important metric withina startup used to track progress. For example, new user signups, monthly revenue and so on.

Incubator: Similar to an accelerator but taking place across a longer program time frame. Incubators also typically invest larger amounts of capital than an accelerator and take more company equity in exchange.

Mentor: An industry expert who meets with startups in an accelerator. This usually takes place in the form of group talks and individual office hour sessions.

Point of Contact: A designated member of the accelerator staff assigned to each company. It’s who they meet with most often and where they start when they have a question.

Wantrepreneur: Low-quality founders without much experience who are trying to break into the startup scene. Often going about it all the wrong way, or doing it for selfish reasons.

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ALUMNI AND FOLLOW UP

Having personally conducted a few thousand accelerator screening interviews I can tell you that startups often ask:

“What do you offer in terms of alumni support after the program?”

It’s a fair question after all, especially in the case where your accelerator program is taking equity from the companies. Founders want to ensure that you won’t ‘ghost’ them after the program ends and that you’ll continue to provide value. Some of the best programs in the world are very well known for the resources and network they provide to founders even years after they exit a program.

Regardless, and from my experience, once a program ends it’s very much like high school. You don’t ever hear from up to 75% of your accelerator ever companies again. That’s because one of two things happen. Either the startup gets well-funded and scales like crazy, or they sputter out and die. In these two cases, they are either too busy to need alumni support or too out of business. In the former case, you’ll have trouble just getting an email reply from them. And in the latter case, well, there’s not much to talk about!

Programs that end up running many batches, however, will still build up a not-insignificant number of companies, founders, investments and other things to manage. Let’s learn a few ways to approach this.

Program wrap up

First, before our little birds leave the nest, let’s talk about how to close an accelerator program.

Measuring your program’s success

Practice what you preach to the startups when it comes to gathering user feedback. As program managers, you should also be surveying each startup at the end of the program. It’s recommended to use a very simple Net Promoter Score (NPS) as a minimum. Gathering your NPS score for each batch will allow you the easiest way to track your own performance. With each new batch, you can see if your program quality is improving or in decline. Spoiler alert – it should be getting slightly better each time.

What’s an NPS Survey?

Even if you didn’t previously know about NPS you have no doubt been presented with a survey yourself. Brands, especially large multinational and service-oriented businesses, often use this framework. It helps to quantify user sentiment and determine who will evangelize something in a format that most can agree upon. As you can imagine, word-of-mouth marketing and evangelism are very important for startup accelerator programs. So this format works well to measure your program in this regard.

NPS focuses primarily on your biggest promoters. Disregard those who show low to medium interest in your brand.

You can also send a longer survey gathering additional information but as a warning, the more questions you put into a survey the lower the response rate. I’ve seen accelerators send surveys that looked more like complicated government applications. So use your own discretion and be mindful of the time-poor founder’s time. An NPS survey and an open feedback field will probably be a sufficient amount of info to collect at the end of the program.

SURVIVAL PRO TIP   Send your founder surveys immediately after the program while the experience is fresh. Additionally, the longer you wait after Demo Day the less likely you are to get responses. Founders get busy again, or out of business before you know it.
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DEMO DAY SUCCESS

Demo day is the cherry on top of your hopefully successful accelerator program. It’s a chance for startups to show off their progress (AKA recent acceleration) and connect with investors. For investors, it’s a chance to connect with early-stage startups before they get too far along (aka too expensive). It’s a very symbiotic thing and all Demo Days generally follow the same format more or less:

  • Introduction to program
  • Thanking of sponsors
  • A series of 2-3 minute startup pitches
  • Break
  • The remaining 2-3 minute startup pitches
  • Mixer and investor matchmaking

Some say that startup Demo Days are simply a dog and pony show. And let’s face it they’re not totally wrong. There is much pageantry and embellishment of hockey stick growth charts going on after all. Still, it’s a tried and true format so I would recommend including one in your program.

You are of course welcome and encouraged to innovate or individualize your Demo Day in some way. This helps with audience engagement and future attendance as well. Even for the most seasoned investors, it’s tough to sit through 10+ pitches back to back and not get a bit exhausted. So do what you can to keep them in mind in terms of event pacing and additional content.

As an example of a not so-great Demo Day that I once attended, there was over 1 hour of pre-programming and ‘words from our sponsor’ before we got into the many many startup pitches. This was a large program as well so the demos went on for several more hours! This, along with a lack of breaks, was more of a marathon than a pitch night. I even saw one poor investor leaning his head back and passing out before it was all over. Be sure to be respectful of attendee’s time, especially the investor’s time.

I’ve also personally tried to make Demo Days a much more fun and entertaining event. I am an American after all. This has included everything from creating original video content, having comedians on stage and an Oprah Winfrey like moment where we placed small gifts under every chair in the audience. I even went as far as to have a rock band play at the halfway point. Let me tell you, there’s nothing better than blasting a bunch of suited up investors with face-melting guitar solos and lead singer backflips to keep them awake and engaged. To this day some of them still tell me it was the greatest Demo Day they ever attended.

So as you can see it’s not just the startups doing some pageantry to pull off a great Demo Day! That all being said, as a program director your mission for Demo Day is simple. Get the startups as many leads as possible. That’s all Demo Day is – a lead generation machine to help your startups secure funding. Try not to lose track of this as you’ll have a lot of stakeholders involved in your event and at the end of the day, you serve the startups. Of course keeping program sponsors and everyone else happy as well. Good luck!

Working with investors

Now to the important part of Demo Day. Parting investors from their money!

First, it’s important to understand and accept that investments are almost never committed to right on the spot at Demo Day. The one exception here being Y Combinator where investors practically shower the startups in offers and term sheets. For most other programs however that is not the case. Demo Day is more about lead generation both for the investors and founders themselves.

You can, however, do a few things to ease the process for both interested parties. Much of this work should be starting well before Demo Day takes place, during your program. Build a list of your key investors and start inviting them to meet the startups right away. It’s helpful if they can see where the company was at the beginning of the program, to compare progress once Demo Day comes around. I’ve found that investors that participate during the program through mentorship and office hours are more likely to invest in batch companies. They also tend to make for better investors. [1] 

For programs, I’ve also created a small list of what I call ‘friendly investors’. These are a few investors that may or may not invest in my accelerator companies. It’s actually better if they’re not going to invest, as they’ll be even more honest. They often also have some close attachment to the program/fund or perhaps to the program director. It’s well understood that they’ll make time to hear pitches but also give *very* candid and honest feedback. Even when that feedback can sometimes be negative, or as we like to call it, ‘tough love’. These types of investors are incredibly helpful to get in front of your startups before Demo Day, to iron out the kinks in their pitches. You can even tell the founders that these are your friendly investors, to help ease some of the stress they might be having over pitching.

As you get closer to Demo Day, start building your even larger investor list. Try to think of everyone you can who might be relevant. In some cases, this might also include corporate partners, press and local startup community leads. When it comes to investors themselves they are tricky to lock down into a date. After all, these are people who spend a lot of time traveling and in other pitch meetings. So you can’t notify them soon enough of when your Demo Day is coming up. I recommend sending ‘Save the Date’ notifications and calendar invites at least 60 days before your event takes place. Don’t be afraid to follow up several times to confirm attendance. After all, come Demo Day, if you don’t have a good selection of investors in the audience your startups will be severely disappointed.

Some programs like to keep their list program companies secret to investors during the program. Perhaps this might be a way to encourage attendance at the Demo Day itself as it provides so-called exclusive access to the startups. I don’t agree with this approach however, and as such recommend sending lots of materials, your startups’ contact info and other assets well ahead of Demo Day. Investors like to read up beforehand and record the startup’s information in their own CRM (Contact Relationship Management software). This I feel can help to increase the chance of investors approaching startups they like at the event. Even better, sometimes investors and founders will start emailing each other prior to Demo Day. That’ll make their first meeting and following meetings just that much more efficient.

The day after Demo Day

When this day finally comes, both you and your startups are likely to be breathing a sigh of relief. You have both made it to the end of the program and it’s time, as it were, for the little birdies to leave your safe nest and venture out into the big big world. Before they do however it’s good to ensure they are maximizing their opportunities from Demo Day.

In startup investing there’s a certain excitement after you first meet a startup you like. Since this often happens right after a Demo Day, it’s your startups’ best chance to capitalize on it. So it’s recommended to have your founders not relax too much after Demo Day and instead strike while the iron is hot. That is to say, they should start reaching out to contacts made at Demo Day and book meetings as quickly as possible. With each passing day, there’s a chance the investor will lose interest or worse, get distracted by yet another Demo Day. So you want to capitalize on their interest quickly.

Additionally, in many programs you have startups coming in from other parts of the world. That also means they are likely heading back home soon after the program wraps. So, in this case, they have limited time to get those investor meetings booked. They also have a slight advantage as the investors have limited time to book a meeting before they go. Have your startups use this in their outreach emails as so:

“It was great to meet at Demo Day last night! We are in town for just next week. Possible we could come by Monday or Tuesday to discuss further?”

Regardless of if the startups are local or not, you want to advise them to push for meetings quickly. As we have discussed, Demo Days are primarily a lead generator for your startups. Any salesperson will tell you the slower you close a lead the less likely it will close at all. So give them one last accelerator boost in this regard to get those meetings on the books and hopefully soon funding will be in the bank.


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RUNNING A VIRTUAL ACCELERATOR

If you would have asked me years ago if it’s possible to run a high value accelerator program entirely online I would have told you absolutely not. The heart and sole of a good program is all about the experience of being together and the spontaneous opportunities to help founders that arise during the program itself. It’s a bit of a fluffy thing to say but the best way to describe a good accelerator program is call it a serendipity engine for growth. And those serendipitous moments are tough to impossible to replicate online and over video meetings. So I generally did not believe that virtual programs were worth the effort both for program managers or the founders themselves.

Then COVID-19 happened.

The global pandemic has had a massive impact on accelerators around the world. Especially the leading programs located in Silicon Valley. After all one of the biggest values they could offer was bringing founders from around the world to the mecca of startups, even if just for a brief moment in time. For the time being that’s not possible and even in the future I foresee that programs will adopt a hybrid form of in-person and online curriculum.

This is both good and bad for program managers and the startups. On the good side it makes programs more accessible as founders can attend them from anywhere in the world. No travel required which can be expensive and take them away from their teams. On the bad side it’ll be more difficult to work with founders and keep them engaged. After a year of helping programs made the transition online let’s review a few things I’ve learned.

Transitioning to Online

Thankfully the startup industry was well suited to make the ‘pandemic shift’ as our industry was already living and working online before it was trendy. We knew how online collaboration tools worked and were eager to leverage them more extensively in the work that we do. However that doesn’t mean such a transition was an easy one to make.

Where I’ve seen most programs struggle with such a transition is when they try to replicate their entire in-person programs to a purely virtual format. While the online tools these days are robust they still, and I assume always will, fall short replacing the value of in-person teaching. And make no mistake, as a program manager you are a teacher and the startups are your students. You can perhaps take some solace in knowing your job is easier than say the grade school teachers who have had to manage a Zoom room of 25 young rambunctious children.

Keeping founders engaged

Let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that most online meetings are dreadfully boring. Now imagine you’re a founder who has video meetings all day to run their business and now on top of that they have yet more video meetings, webinars and mentor sessions they must take part in for your program. Quickly they develop what has become known as ‘Zoom fatigue’ and it is down right exhausting.

Previously when leading programs and teaching sessions it was easy to tell who was engaged and who wasn’t. You typically had a group of founders sitting right in front of you where it was possible to ‘read the room’ and gauge how well the content is resonating with them. That’s significantly more difficult to do over video. 

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KPI Tracking and Growth

When you ask founders why they want to join an accelerator program they usually only give two answers. First is the access to mentors and investors, followed closely by the fact that they want help with growth. It’s an area that most founders struggle with. Growth in a startup not only has the biggest impact on their business but also their likelihood of a successful fundraise . To that end, we start by helping the founder understand,  track and measure their KPIs and finally run experiments to activate growth.

Easier said than done of course. Most early-stage startups don’t know their KPIs. They have limited data sets and they’re generally awful about tracking things. So we have to roll things back a bit and help them simplify in this regard. This is done by forcing them to pick and focus on one main KPI (key performance indicator). In startup-land, we also sometimes called this OMTM or The One Metric that Matters. This is great for use in an accelerator program because in a short program you don’t have time to help them improve *all* their KPIs. Better to just focus on a key driver that impacts the business and/or will present well at the upcoming Demo Day.

I recommend having each company’s POC (point of contact) establish this KPI during the first sit down meeting during the program. In some cases, founders will know which metric they want to pick and in others, you’ll need to coach them on. During that meeting, or as part of the onboarding, provide them with a shared Google Sheet. You can download the template for this at http://accelerator.guide.

To start they enter their OMTM as specifically as possible. It should be highly measurable and preferably a metric that can be influenced during the program.

Examples of good accelerator OMTM:

Examples of bad accelerator OMTM:

  1. Enterprise sales contracts (takes too long)
  2. Government contracts (takes even longer!)
  3. Facebook fans (vanity metric)
  4. Press hits (takes long and is unpredictable)
  5. Amount of code shipped or new products launched (hard to measure)

Next, have them enter exactly what this metric is today. You may find in some cases founders don’t even know the data point! If so, help them to locate and be able to measure this KPI more effectively. We also want them to predict what the metric will be at the end of the program. As a word of caution, it’s actually very hard to effect any metric even in a 3-month long program. Things always take longer than you would expect and don’t forget the founder will be busy with the other curriculum you have planned for them. So here’s a chance for both POC and founder to be realistic in their forecasting.

Finally, we also give the founder the option to enter in some other goals. These should be more about qualitative goals and personal development. These goals also give the POC something to talk about during each sync meeting and for the founders to share with each other during the weekly group KPI review session.

Here’s a version of the template:

Company name: <startup name>
KPIProgram StartProgram End
<Insert metric name (OMTM)><add metric today><what you expect metric to be when the program ends>
   
Results  
   
Other Goals<insert your qualitative goals> 
 <insert your qualitative goals> 

Once completed it might look something like this:

Company name: Sassy SaaS Thing Inc.
KPIProgram StartProgram End
Weekly free user signups100 Weekly Signups200 Weekly Signups
   
Results  
   
Other GoalsSetup a better CRM 
 Learn Google Adwords 

The above examples are meant to be public, shared documents across all founders in the batch. This is both for easy management but also to encourage some transparency between batchmates. You shouldn’t have any companies in a single batch who are competitive with each other. At the same time, these early-stage startups don’t really have secrets valuable enough to not be shared with the group. At least not when it comes to their current metrics.

So as the weeks go on we use the same sheet, creating a column for each KPI sync meeting that occurs. During the meeting, this sheet is put up on a projector and each founder presents his or her tab separately. After each presentation, there’s some time for the program staff to provide feedback. Be sure to also solicit the batchmates to contribute here as well. It’s a great way to get some cross batch collaboration going.

Company name: Sassy SaaS Thing Inc.
KPIProgram StartKPI Sync 1KPI Sync 2KPI Sync 3KPI Sync 4Program End
Weekly free user signups100 Weekly Signups    200 Weekly Signups
       
Results 105120145175 
       
Other GoalsSetup a better CRMDONE   
 Learn Google AdwordsDONE   

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Motivating Founders

One could write an entire book on motivating founders and in fact several actually already exist. Perhaps the best example is ‘Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell’. [1] So I’ll do my best to summarize how to specifically motivate founders in an accelerator program.

The most important method for motivation in these programs is accountability. This falls mainly on the founder but also the program director or in this case more specifically the POC (point of contact). For the founder, you motivate them by helping to guide their business, setting goals and challenging them to complete tasks. This is best done on a weekly iterative cycle, with small deliverables. The POC then meets with the founder weekly to discuss how their last week went and what they plan to do next week.

Naturally, founders will have a million excuses for why they didn’t complete deliverables. As POC, it’s your job to help knock down blockers and push them to complete. Y Combinator is known to be ruthless in this regard. Their POCs accept few excuses and really push the founders when they don’t follow through on what they committed to. It’s tough love but it’s the only thing that works with early-stage founders.

A few examples of weekly tasks might be:

  • Send (10) outbound sales emails offering a demo
  • Onboard an intern to support you during the program
  • Start building an investor pipeline

I also encourage you to end each week with a batch-wide group forum, where the founders present the results from the week. I normally position this as a weekly KPI review session. Learn more about these meetings and how to structure them below. This helps support accountability in the batch as each founder will know how to present their week’s achievements in front of their peers. If they failed to focus on their KPI for the week that creates some shame within the batch. At the same time, the program manager should be using that moment to help them remove blockers and enable them to come back next week with more results. You’ll also see these meetings prompt a lot of group feedback and general founders-helping-founders type vibes.


Did you read it? What is your recommendation/takeaway from the book?

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Program Curriculum Calendar

Having experimented with several different formats for program calendars and curriculum I’ve found that having thematic weeks is typically the best approach. This makes it easy to schedule the relevant mentors for that week and helps the founders mentally prepare for both the current week and the weeks to come. It also allows the founder to optimize their team’s travel needs if the program takes place outside of their home country. For example, the founder can include marketing team members for the weeks where growth marketing is covered. For heavily technical weeks the CTO can take a larger role. When the content is not relevant for them they can then skip some of that time to address the day to day needs of the business.

In terms of program length, the most common structure is a 3-month program. Although it’s possible to run programs on a shorter cycle, say 1 month, these shorter programs are typically less impactful as it’s too short of a time to show any significant results. They are a good match for a ‘pre-accelerator’ program, but to really go deep you need at least the 3 months. Programs that are longer than 3 months run the risk of founder and staff fatigue and less engagement in the tail end of the program. Those longer programs are more of an incubator format.

Additionally, there are several weekly recurring sessions you should consider for your program. They include:

Pitching (group session): Every team should pitch to a group or staff member every single week. Crafting a good pitch takes a lot of time and the only way to get great is to do it hundreds of times during the program.

POC Check-in (private session): Each team should meet with the POC from the staff at least once a week just to update and ask questions. Here’s where you help them address any blockers they’re having in terms of growth, fundraising or staffing.

KPI Session (group session): Get each founder to present their weekly KPIs and/or growth successes every week. This is a chance to hold founders accountable and motivate them to focus on the most important things they can do in a program to grow their business faster.

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Typical Week in an Accelerator

Before you start filling out your program calendar, it’s recommended to first consider what a typical week looks like. For both your own sanity and to help the founders find a rhythm you’ll want to have some predictability to each week. This includes what type of sessions are on which days and ideally these should be scheduled consistently throughout the program.

MondayMorning Standup and Batch Check-in
TuesdayExpert Talk/WorkshopPitch Prep Session
WednesdayGet out of the office day
ThursdayMentor Office Hours
FridayKPI Review SessionSocial Dinner
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Day 1 Kick-Off

The first day of an accelerator program is a lot like the first day of school. A bunch of young (and sometimes not so young) founders flowing into your office space, Doe-eyed and ready to learn while meeting their batchmates and awkwardly figuring out where to sit. It’s a good day in the program and everyone is feeling excited about what’s to come. The staff has typically been running around frantically to set things up and are finally starting to see the fruits of their hard work. Make the first day a great day for everyone and allow plenty of time for them to settle, get to know each other and get acclimatized  to the surroundings. There’s no need to rush everyone into the program curriculum and start grinding away on this first day. Better to ensure everyone is happy and knows where to find things.

The first-day agenda may look something like this:

08:00 – 11:30Arrivals and get settled at your desks
11:30 – 12:00Program Introduction
12:00 – 1:00Batch Group Lunch
1:00 – 4:00Meet your POC (Point of Contact)

As you can see it’s a very light day, program wise. If you have any founders who have flown in internationally, they’ll greatly appreciate this as well! Make sure to have someone greet everyone who arrives, and help them get settled. Get everyone seated, on the WIFI and with some coffee or snacks as they settle in and meet the rest of the group.

At some point before lunch you should consider doing a quick program introduction. This is where the Program Director should gather everyone and officially kick-off the program! Emotions and some tensions are likely high at this point so use that to make it exciting. Everyone should feel like they’re part of something great and have worked hard to get to this point. Don’t worry about going into every detail of what the program is just yet. There will be time for that later. Instead, set some ground rules and introduce some of your processes. It’s also good to do a round of introductions with each founder or company so that everyone starts to connect names and faces. That’ll also help as you lead into a group lunch and batchmates have a little more to talk about. This can further be facilitated by doing some icebreaker sessions. Here are two ideas for that:

Drawing each other: Line up two rows of chairs facing each other. Ask the companies to sit next to their teammates as they’ll be interacting with the person seated directly across from them. Give everyone a piece of paper, a pen, and something to lean on such as a clipboard. Once they are sitting there and ready, tell them, “Now draw the face of the person  sitting across from you”. This will typically result in some gasps and giggles. It’s a fun exercise and a challenging one. For non-artists, this is actually very difficult! Although the point of the exercise is not to show off your artistic skills. Give them 5 minutes to complete the drawing and then ask them to take turns presenting their masterpieces to each other. This will generate some great discussions about each person and their background.

What’s in the bag? Split your founders up into several groups, have them sit in a circle and ask them to bring their backpacks and/or purses. Go to each group and select one bag and then dump the contents of the bag into the center of the group. Then ask the group to go through the items and try to figure out whose bag it is and what type of person the owner is. The owner themselves must sit there quietly without revealing anything about themselves or the contents of the bag. Give them 5 minutes for this, then ask each group to present their findings.

For the remainder of the day, founders are still getting settled, although things might be a bit more hectic for the program team. Use the time to set up meetings where each company sits down for 45-60 minutes with their POC (point of contact). This is a chance for them to introduce themselves and field any immediate questions the founders have. It’s also a great time for sharing with the founder how to best work with their POC.


Finally, you might be eager to set up a social night on the first day, but I don’t recommend it. Save the first team social night for the first Friday of week one. On day one, everyone is likely to be a bit overwhelmed and those who have traveled in that day will be both tired and jet-lagged. Let everyone get out early and get to their housing and settle in.

  ** SURVIVAL PRO TIP **   I recommend having a small swag box waiting at everyone’s desk. This can include things such as stickers from your program, t-shirts and hoodies, an information sheet, swag from partners and other things. It’s a very small gesture but has a big impact on founders. As a program marketing bonus, and due to their excitement, they’ll be eager to add your program’s sticker to their laptop right away.
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Onboarding

Just like when you market a startup’s product, you can never onboard too much. This doesn’t have to wait until your program kicks off. Before the founders arrive you should be collecting information from them and providing it as well. The more of this you can get out of the way ahead of time the less it’ll bog you down during the program itself.

Information to request in advance:

  • Investment-related and due-diligence requests
  • Founder contact information and emergency contacts
  • Dietary restrictions
  • Team size attending program to help you space plan
  • T-shirt and hoodie sizes for swag
  • High-resolution startup logos to include on your website and other materials

Information to send in advance:

  • Program calendar
  • A general FAQ with questions that keep coming up
  • Information about the local region for founders traveling in
  • Housing recommendations
  • List of your partner deals so they can start applying for them
  • An awesome welcome email to make everyone feel excited and informed

It’s also recommended that your program operations people reach out to each company and set up a meeting. This time can be used to discuss things such as arriving and accommodation or visa related questions from international founders. It’s also a great opportunity to understand the founders’ expectations for the program.