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.