How to Accelerate Smartly

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Accelerating in business is like accelerating in traffic: you could get where you want to go faster but you’re much more likely to slam into a wall and ruin your chances of getting there at all. Last month I gave a talk at StartupBus finals about making decisions that were wrong for our actual business but were nevertheless attractive because we assumed they would make us seem like a more legitimate startup. We wasted a lot of time chasing validation at Exversion‘s expense and it finally got to the point where I started asking myself who really benefitted from pushing this idea that all startups need to take the same path into the world of venture capital. There are so many ways to be successful, I cannot overstate how important it is to pick an approach that fits your business and your industry.

Accelerators and incubators are generally thought of as the first step on the road to startup legitimacy. So much so that founders seem willing to give up a slice of their equity to push their business into a program without any real sense of what they expect the program to do for them. Joining an accelerator is the startup equivalent of going to college: you do it because you’re supposed to and because you’re raised to think that it will improve your odds going forward.

Unlike college, there’s very little evidence that it will.

Still, there are so many different kinds of programs now there’s bound to be one that fits your business. Now the two programs we got the most out of are accepting new applications. And guess what? Neither one of them takes equity. I have often joked that we are the masters of accelerators that give you no money. If you think the money is the most important part of joining an accelerator you won’t be in business much longer. I’m here to convince you that you don’t need the money, and to be frank you don’t even want the money either.

Friends of Ebay

Internally Friends of Ebay is always abbreviated as FoB, even though obviously the correct acronym is FoE. Fitting because your relationship with Ebay is kind of awkwardly undefined. Essentially FoB is just Ebay subletting their unused office space to startups that interest them. It’s a great program in that you get free, fully equipped office space including printers, scanners, conference rooms, a kitchen and private bathrooms. Lunch is free on Tuesdays, you can book a free massage on Mondays and you can usually secure the event space for your own events free of charge. Every month there would be a little ice cream party for people who had birthdays that month. If a speaker drops by to address Ebay’s workers, you get to be there too.

However there’s also a careful and strict separation between you and Ebay, perhaps for everyone’s benefit. Your key card will only give you access to certain parts of the offices at certain times, which means you can’t raid the snacks in Ebay’s kitchen or blow off some steam with a game of Street Fighter on their arcade machine. The isolation makes it hard to mingle with Ebay staff and find that mentorship they promise but you are invited to their Christmas party.

Instead you bond pretty tightly with the other startups because you are a little colony all to yourself. It ends of being a tiny WeWork that you get completely 100% for free.

First Growth Venture Network

We used to jokingly refer to FGVN as group therapy for startups. Every month we would all gather and talk about our problems, ask for advice and just generally commiserate with our colleagues. FGVN was exactly the right thing for us, at exactly the right time. We would come in feeling beaten down and lost but leave with a renewed sense of determination and purpose.

Plus, you know, they always fed us well.

FVGN days are full days, the first couple of hours are private discussion as a founder group, then you move to the event space where an elite mix of alumni, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and tech journalists have gathered for a panel discussion from an even more elite group of entrepreneurs, VCs and executives. I mean, where else can you eat strawberry shortcake with Alan Patricoff while listening to David Karp talk about the early days of Tumblr? Or the time we had a breakout session with David Draiman from Disturbed and I kept catching myself humming “Down with the Sickness” while he talked about his new app? Or the time Jacek turned around to hold the door for someone and it turned out to be one of the founding investors in Spotify?

Surreal things happen at First Growth.

But beyond the extraordinary experiences the ordinary experiences of FGVN are pretty awesome as well: the networking, free consultations from fundraising experts on everything from pitching to deal structure. Actually I think the most valuable thing about FGVN is the ability to just talk openly and honestly about what’s really going on. You don’t realize how valuable the opportunity to have feedback from someone who has no agenda is until you’re without it.

FGVN is also just a great opportunity to get to know the startup team at Lowenstein Sandler. The program is free because they want your business, but to be honest, they are among the best and most well connected startup lawyers around. By the end of the program we wanted to give them our business too!

A necessary trade-off here is that because Lowenstein makes their money providing legal services for VC deals, the content of FGVN meetings inevitably always seems to be about fundraising. Even when the formal topic is something else, discussions ultimately work their way back to fundraising. The audience is heavily skewed with VCs and every panel has at least one VC on it who seems to take every question and make it somehow about their investing strategy. Josh Kopelman is invited to speak A LOT and sometimes it seems there are more inside jokes and banter between him and Ed Zimmerman then actual advice for entrepreneurs.

The take away here is that bootstrapped startups will not get as much out of FGVN as startups actively looking for investors.

Apply Soon

Both programs are now accepting applications for their next class. These programs are open to startups at all stages (idea stage, pre-money, funded, etc) and take absolutely no equity. They were great experiences for us, so we encourage you to apply today!

Proposal: Building Scalable Data Infrastructure Without Geeks

Original image by Tom Carmony

Every year there’s a technical conference just for the nonprofit community run by the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network. This year we had so much fun talking data with so many great organizations we submitted a session idea to the community for consideration at the 2016 conference. We’re calling it: Building Scalable Data Infrastructure Without Geeks

The most important decisions about an organization’s data are often made before the organization has enough money to hire an expert. Most of the advice small, cash strapped nonprofits get on how to manage their data is “buy this piece of software”, and yet it is possible to set up a scalable, developer/analyst friendly infrastructure MacGyver style from tools the nontechnical staff knows.

If you like this idea, we encourage you to vote for it. If it gets picked we’ll publish a companion blog post here with plenty of resources and advanced topics.