Gabriella Draney is the cofounder and managing partner of Tech Wildcatters, a new kind of accelerator that boasts a vertical specialization. Rather than accept startups of all sorts, the Dallas-based company focuses on B2B startups, which Draney hopes will make North Texas a top-three innovation hub within the next 15 years.
As part of our ongoing Fast Talk series on accelerators, we chatted with Draney about Mark Zuckerberg, Nikola Tesla, and why some "cheap" competitors don't have any skin in the game. Earlier this week, we caught up with Y Combinator, TechStars, and the cofounders of Stripe; tomorrow we feature SeedCamp's Reshma Sohoni.
FAST COMPANY: What sets Tech Wildcatters apart from other accelerators?
GABRIELLA DRANEY: What really gives us a leg up is our focus on the enterprise. We truly specialize in B2B. Instead of just randomly picking a vertical, we looked at the resources of our region. Dallas has the largest concentration of corporate headquarters in the world. Within weeks, our guys are closing deals with companies like 7-Eleven or Frito-Lay or American Airlines. You're sure not going to find that in Boulder, or even Palo Alto. We focus a lot more heavily on building a successful business rather than we necessarily do building a successful startup.
Are there benefits of going through a vertical accelerator?
One of the strongest things about the program is the peer group dynamic, where a lot of the people there are going through the same things as you are. There's definitely a community feel. And I think you're going to see a lot more vertical differentiators: for mobile or games and so forth. But as with any accelerator, it really depends on what you're looking for. Industry contacts? Specialized mentors? Great. But if you're looking for ideation, you perhaps miss out on some of the diversity of ideas [you find at non-vertical accelerators].
Why are so many accelerators popping up?
Because they have seen the success that we have had along with Y Combinator and TechStars. Like with any new concept, you're going to have the people who shake out on top. And at some point, those who are not doing a good job will be called out. Right now, it could be bad for entrepreneurs to go with a less proven accelerator. Hopefully, you're going to see the ones who are not doing a good job die off. So you can go with a new program, but you really have to do your own gut-check.
You know, one of the great things about the Ivy League is that a big brand comes along with it. But if you're going to small college or state school that doesn't have a big brand, what you put into it is what you will get out of it. I liken it to when I went to business school. I was going through a round of interviews for a scholarship, and they asked, "What do you expect to get out of it?" I said, "Listen, I'm coming here because you have a ton of resources and I plan to use all of them." I expected to take full ownership and use them to my benefit.
So if you don't get into one of the top-tier accelerators, you can still make a second tier program work for you.
But how can you evaluate a less proven accelerator when considering applying?
If it's a program that already has graduates, then the best thing to do is interview the graduates. If they haven't graduated a program yet, then you have to dig really deep into the people involved.
The mentors, you mean?
Well, look, somebody even told me this week that they were looking into different top-tier accelerators, and actually contacted some of the mentors listed on the sites. Those mentors were like, "I'm not really involved, but my picture is still there." That's cheap. You have stay away from that. We're not trying to push the biggest names in business. If you look at the backgrounds of our mentors, they are people who have taken companies public, had billion-dollar exits, but they don't need to be big huge names. Because although Texans say everything is bigger here, they tend not to be as self-promoting.
Do you get a sense that some of these new accelerators are just manufactured?
It could be a dangerous trend. You could get a lot of people who are doing this just to be part of the next hot thing. But you also have a lot of people who are really legitimate, but as I've explained, sifting through this can be very difficult. I mean, I've seen accelerators where the executive director has no skin in the game—no equity. I'm like, you know what? I invest in our fund every year. That's my son's college fund on the line, so I'm going to work damn hard to make sure it monetizes very well. If you're going to an accelerator, you want to know the founders are pregnant in the accelerator—and that they're not just doing it for fun or on the side and don't have any stake in the game.
Should all entrepreneurs consider going into an accelerator?
Well, Mark Zuckerberg would've been a terrible fit for an accelerator. He basically wanted to do it on his own. Certain people are the type to want to go off on their own. Look at a Nikola Tesla—he wouldn't have fit into any accelerator! The accelerator mold tends to be more about the community. So there's definitely a place in this world for people like Mark or Tesla—they're actually incredibly critical—but they probably wouldn't have been happy with the program, or more likely, the program wouldn't have been happy with them.
[Image: Flickr user Andre Bogaert]