How To Make The Most Of Your Startup Accelerator Program Experience

Editor’s note: Lyle Stevens is the CEO and co-founder of Mavrck.

Seed accelerators have been around for 10 years now and their popularity doesn’t appear to be waning any time soon. Sure, criticism for the programs themselves and the proliferation of different programs around the world have taken some wind out of the sails, but primarily, joining an accelerator program – or rather, being accepted to an accelerator – is still considered valuable and an endorsement of the concept and business model.

The best accelerators are incredibly competitive – Y Combinator and TechStars have application acceptance rates as low as 1 to 3 percent. Luckily for my company, we were accepted to the 2014 TechStars Boston class. I want to share how we did everything we possibly could to get the most out of TechStars in the short time we had under their umbrella – and how any startup can replicate those best practices in their own accelerator or incubator.

Our methods aren’t for every company, but hopefully you can learn from some of our strategies – specifically what worked and what didn’t.

Being honest and welcoming feedback will help you grow faster.

From the beginning, I had the mentality of “where do we begin, and how do we take advantage of every opportunity this presents to us?” So we made sure we went in with smart goals that accelerators are fit to help achieve, otherwise, they can offer more value than a company can possibly take advantage of.

For instance, we prioritized every goal in a similar structure, driven by a timeline such as: We need to reach X customers by X date; raise $X by X date; launch X product by X date; recruit X roles by X date; validate business model X by X date; validate target market X by X date.

This required that we create an entirely new time-management strategy. If you don’t plan ahead, accelerators will dominate your time with mandatory meetings, workshops and events. You will surrender your life to the accelerator schedule for three months.

Personally, I found that I needed new best practices in order to keep up. I stepped away from the barrage of emails in my inbox. Instead, I checked and answered email in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening, and got my inbox to zero messages each night.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this did not affect my relationships with any constituents – all were pleased to hear from me within one business day – and if I needed to answer someone faster than that, they reached me on my cell or in person.

I also stopped committing to meetings more than two weeks in advance where possible unless I knew there was nothing else that could trump the importance of that meeting (e.g. a customer pitch). Speaking of customers, I placed more value on them than investors during our accelerator period. Crazy, right?

Raising money typically dominates the agenda of companies that apply to join an accelerator. Don’t get me wrong, accelerators are very helpful with introductions and exposure to investors. However, the best chance at turning those intros into dollars is by maximizing customer traction.

We used our accelerator and its access to data points to know how much traction we needed to be considered investment-ready. Otherwise, the intros appeared like a waste of time and equity that we couldn’t afford.

We strategized who attended every meeting, their role at the meeting, and what the expectations of that meeting were to ensure our time and equity was best spent. We divided and conquered the meetings accordingly.

For instance, I spent 90 percent of my time as CEO on meetings that resulted from the accelerator. My other co-founders spent 50 percent of their time on accelerator activities that were only relevant to their role, and non-founding employees spent 20 percent of their time. It helped us prioritize, reach goals and create a company structure and battle rhythm during the short and unconventional time period at the accelerator.

Raising money, closing customers, recruiting employees, etc., is exponentially harder if you don’t have a solid company story and pitch.

This battle rhythm was fluid and dynamic so that we could capitalize on accelerator value that is very often delivered ad-hoc and with last-minute schedule changes or drive-by meetings. Since I knew that I was responsible for keeping my team accountable, but wouldn’t always be physically present, I established a weekly meeting cadence that could be replicated for any product-based startup –

  • Daily standup: A quick 2-3 minute rundown per employee, each stating “what I accomplished yesterday, what I’m focused on today, and anything I’m waiting on from others.”
  • Weekly priority meetings: 60-90 minutes prioritizing what needs to get done that week related to driving metrics and company objectives.
  • Regular objectives and key results (OKRs) and metrics reviews: Establish company-level objectives for the accelerator and three key metrics/results for each team member per month. Keep employees committed to focus and, if progress is stalled, spend time figuring out why.
  • Weekly sprints / daily SCRUM: If you have more than one person writing code, develop your product using sprints with a weekly sprint-planning meeting, sprint review and demo out to the rest of the team. As the team grows, also schedule a daily SCRUM meeting just for those building product.
  • Weekly 1-on-1s: Accelerators are intense and take a toll on your team. Schedule 15-30 minute 1:1 with each employee every week to allow them to voice concerns and discuss challenges.

All of this on top of accelerator-related meetings and appointments? If it sounds exhausting it’s because it truly can be. But being organized makes the long days and hard work that much more valuable. It helped to know that my accelerator classmates were going through similar experiences – learning as much as possible while we can, while also trying to keep up the success that got us here in the first place.

For some reason, there can be unnecessary competition between some of the accelerator company CEOs and co-founders – but it’s so important to get past that quickly because not only can they be sounding boards for what is sure to be a whirlwind experience, you can actually gain value from hearing their perspectives and experiences. Many CEOs in my program helped each other arrive at the best answers much faster than we would have on our own.

Another incredible sounding board that is gained from accelerators is from the pool of mentors that are offered as resources. I took advantage of this and chose various role-based and “go-to-for-anything” mentors for myself and my teammates.

Hustle every day as if there is someone else working 24 hours a day to take it all away from you.

Mentors that have specific expertise are invaluable to the various roles in your company – product, sales, etc. As the CEO, my “go-to-for-anything” mentor was always there to offer broader advice, and I continue to feel really comfortable discussing anything with them – whether it’s scaling strategies, hiring and culture, or my personal work-life balance.

Above all, your time in an accelerator should be an honest one. There is a certain pressure before you’re accepted to maintain a certain perception of success. But once you are in, use the time to perfect your pitch, share your company’s downfalls and challenges, and receive feedback. It might seem like you spend too much time doing this, but use this time to get the critical criticism that you need.

Raising money, closing customers, recruiting employees, etc., is exponentially harder if you don’t have a solid company story and pitch. Being honest and welcoming feedback will help you grow faster.

There are no participation trophies when it comes to startup accelerators, and the hard work isn’t over once you are accepted. Hustle as hard during the accelerator as you did to get into the accelerator. Don’t coast on the reputation or “validation” that comes with being part of an accelerator. In fact, the expectations placed on CEOs will only increase once you’re in, and continue to grow post-accelerator.

Bottom line: hustle every day as if there is someone else working 24 hours a day to take it all away from you.