Ali Partovi prides himself on the many relationships he has built throughout Silicon Valley as a highly successful entrepreneur and investor. For example, two years ago, Partovi launched a program through his nearly five-year-old networking organization and associated venture firm, Neo, wherein he connects computer engineering students he helps to vet to fast-growing companies like the design software Figma.
Partovi does it to build goodwill. He knows students sometimes become founders and that company executives might be more inclined to make room for Neo in future funding rounds if Neo has helped them win the war for talent.
But Partovi is now putting some of those company relationships to the test. How? Through a three-month accelerator program taking place this summer for just 20 teams that will end not with an investor demo day but with a presentation to top engineers who might be willing to throw in their lot with a promising brand-new outfit.
It’s an accelerator that’s focused on hiring and not fundraising and could, in some cases, put Neo in the category of foe and not friend.
Partovi acknowledges it’s a “valid issue and it’s one that we need to put more thought into solving.” He also says that “each person is their own individual with their own journey” and that “if somebody is at a company where they’re unhappy, it’s not doing anyone a service to try to prevent them from seeing their options.”
Certainly, it would take a bold company to cut off access to Partovi for opening Neo’s doors wide to engineering talent. He has co-founded numerous companies, including LinkExchange, which sold to Microsoft for roughly $250 million in stock in the late ’90s. He also has a solid track record of investing in talented founders, including Mark Zuckerberg and Drew Houston.
For his part, Partovi doesn’t view his accelerator as a threat to growth-stage teams so much as to other accelerators and, seemingly, Y Combinator in particular — though he speaks in general terms about the competition.
“It’s hard to find anybody from a top university or a top tech pedigree applying to an accelerator,” asserts Partovi. Partly, he believes, it’s because “other accelerators have pivoted to focus on the developing world and to pursue quantity over quality.” Neo’s goal, he continues is “not to beat any of these existing accelerators,” he adds, “but to reimagine the accelerator to make it relevant again.”
Whatever the case, it’s easy to appreciate why promising teams would be drawn to what Neo is putting together.
In addition to the hiring help that Neo is promising, it’s offering the teams that it accepts access to a four-week residential campus at an “all-inclusive mountain retreat in Oregon,” which does not sound terrible. It is offering up to $625,000 for a maximum of 5% of their company and with a $20 million “floor” valuation (more on that here). It is also giving every founder a small share in every other startup in the batch as an incentive to help each other.
Not last, Neo is giving the teams access to some heavyweight tech veterans, including Alfred Lin of Sequoia Capital; LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; Notion’s marketing chief Camille Rockets; investor Brianne Kimmel; Lin-Hua Wu, who is a VP of global communications at Google; and actor-investor Ashton Kutcher.
Partovi notes that the “VIPs” involved in the program are diverse because the program itself counts diversity as a pillar. (He says that since inception, 49% of Neo’s capital has funded companies led by female or underrepresented minority CEOs, which far surpasses broader industry stats.)
It’s worth noting that, as with YC, Neo is willing to be flexible around how “set” or not an idea is. Neo’s accelerator is also willing to accept founders who have no idea, as well as solo founders, says Partovi.
Where it won’t budge, he says, is on having at least one strong technical leader involved, whether it’s the founder or a three-person team with a strong CTO on board. “No matter how awesome your business idea is, and no matter how charismatic you might be, recruiting a technical partner is probably the hardest part of starting a company, so that’s a key qualification, Partovi says. “It’s also the thing that we have the most experience and credibility at assessing.”
As for the biggest selling point of Neo’s accelerator plans — the promise that it will help startups recruit engineers — Partovi is persuasive in explaining why, in today’s fundraising market, it might mean far more to founders than help with fundraising.
“Right now, if you’re leaving Figma or Stripe or even just graduating from MIT, you can fundraise by changing your Twitter bio to say you are starting something new,” notes Partovi. (We wrote recently about the willingness of VCs to write checks to people with no idea at all, based on their education and employment history.)
“Literally, you do that and within a week, you’ll probably have a term sheet.”
With Neo, he says to “imagine not a Demo Day but a pitch day that’s more like a career fair, where you get to present to hundreds of star engineers and where, instead of walking off stage to a dozen meeting requests with potential VCs, you walk off stage with a dozen meeting requests [from] potential candidates to join your team.
“That,” Partovi says, “is the real pain point for startups right now. That is something that, even people who are already funded, when they hear it are like, ‘Oh, wow, I wish I’d had that.'”
For startups interested in applying, you can do that here. Note that the cut-off for applications is coming up in just less than three weeks, on March 21.