It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times—to be a startup, that is. On the plus side, recent research from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation indicates that startup companies—particularly high-growth startups—are the most fruitful source of new U.S. jobs and offer the economy's best hope for recovery. On the other hand, newly minted ideas are fighting a sea of competitors for market share and funding, not to mention navigating Sarbanes-Oxley regulations and the still-cautious consumer spending landscape.
The best bet for aspiring entrepreneurs may just be a hookup. One that has staying power. Accelerators, those forums for getting hands-on help from experienced mentors, sourcing seed capital, and sometimes even providing a co-working location, can provide the resources to take a startup from concept to market a lot quicker than trying to blaze a trail independently.
Joshua Hernandez, a founder of Tap.Me, an in-game advertising platform, writes, "Although I had built three other startups and failed another two, I knew we would need to connect locally if we wanted to survive our business concept. The Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center (CEC) became an immediate forum for us to present our startup, which at the time was quite complex."
Hernandez just happened to live and work in Chicago. However, there’s still hope for aspiring moguls who aren’t anywhere near startup hotbeds like Silicon Valley. Fast Company talked with Rebeca Hwang, cofounder and CEO of YouNoodle, Inc. and a technology partner to the Startup Malaysia conference, Kevin Willer, the CEO of CEC, and Murat Aktihanoglu, managing director of the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator in New York City. Here’s what they told us about standing out, hooking up, and getting a brand-new business off the ground.
FC: What’s the best way to make your application stand out?
Rebeca Hwang: The best way to stand out is to have a compelling story and to articulate it efficiently. It's not just about a product pitch. The team, especially when coming from outside of the Valley, needs to be able to capture the story of the team and the idea in less than five minutes. The story should include information that increases the credibility of the team in the sector, an endorsement by highly reputable people in the startup community, and a compelling articulation of how the product solves a relevant (and potentially profitable) problem in the market. It should convey the passion and personal emotional investment of the team in this project. Finally, adding some color always helps. For example, many investors love to learn about aspects of the founders' personality or past accomplishments that might be indicative of tenacity, integrity, and brilliance, e.g.: I was an international champion in chess tournaments.
FC: How can you showcase your team most effectively?
Murat Aktihanoglu: By having a video. If you have all the cofounders talking about the product and excited about it, it’s much more effective than sitting down and filling out an application. An idea can change, but team is the most important part of the business.
Kevin Willer: There needs to be a lot of pre-work such as socializing: coffees, meetings, meetups, and business plan pitches. The founder needs to constantly be in the community raising awareness, energy, and traction for the business. Specifically with accelerators, it is important to find out who the partners and the people involved are and go and try and meet them through your network or find someone to put in a good word for you.
FC: How important is it to accept critical feedback from mentors/potential investors/other entrepreneurs?
Murat Aktihanoglu: It is very important to listen to all the feedback, but in the end it is their company they have to run it. No company should just take it all and change. They should synthesize and analyze and make their own decision.
FC: If the entrepreneur is not located in a startup hub such as Silicon Valley, what's the best way to connect with an accelerator? Is it worth moving for awhile to participate in such a program?
Rebeca Hwang: My recommendation is that the entrepreneur takes advantage of any opportunity to meet people who are located in one of these startup hubs. Competitions and conferences are great opportunities to meet international speakers and mentors. If at all possible, traveling to a hub is probably the most efficient way to get connected to accelerators.
There are programs that offer scholarships to global entrepreneurs to get a taste of Silicon Valley. For example, the Stanford BASES e-Bootcamp program invites 100 global entrepreneurs annually to an intensive immersion program in the heart of the Valley.
Murat Aktihanoglu: I’m personally against comparisons between Silicon Valley and New York and other cities. If you are a great startup, you will succeed, and there are many hubs that have emerged. It’s a great time to be a global entrepreneur because of advanced web tools for distributed teams. Investors are more than ever looking into global opportunities seeing how level the playing field is. Potential country risks are no longer blocking great startups from being funded by top VCs. However, if you are not near an accelerator, it might be worth just going over and joining a program for a few months.
FC: Should you get on board just to meet investors? What other benefits should you aim for when joining an accelerator program?
Kevin Willer: The end goal of participating in an accelerator is to go to Demo Day and raise money for your business. However, the real key and value to accelerators is bringing a good team that has a good strategy and idea and accelerating their growth to the next level through mentorship with advisors. Accelerators have an important and valuable aspect of community and help build awareness about your business to that community.
Murat Aktihanoglu: We thought mentoring and sponsors and driving focus was the most important thing a business could get from ER Accelerator, but something we did not expect was the synergy between the companies. They network and help with tech issues such as fixing bugs in programs. One company met an investor who ultimately passed on working with them. But that company introduced the investor to another business that he did want to fund. After our summer session, seven companies moved together into a new space to continue the collaboration.
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[Image: Flickr user Ton Ton Copt]