Don’t go it alone: Incubators and accelerators help build lifelong relationships

Launching a company is hard work. Even experienced founders don’t know what they don’t know, and having some structure and a group of like-minded people can help you refine your idea and get the product off the ground.

One way to build that camaraderie is through incubators and accelerator programs. Speaking at TechCrunch Early Stage Boston last week, Matt Segneri, the executive director at the Harvard Innovation Labs, highlighted the importance of finding peers and mentors to go with you on your startup journey, and incubators and accelerators can help build those crucial relationships.

It’s easy to spin your wheels as a startup founder without help, and connecting with a startup-focused group is a good way to find people who are in a similar position, Segneri said. His organization has been around for about 10 years, serving 3,300 venture founders from 150 different countries, so he knows from whence he speaks.

However you do it, whether an incubator or an accelerator, you are generally very early with your idea, and that’s OK. That’s the purpose of joining one of these programs.

“Essentially, these [programs] are just ways to support you at a really early stage of your startup,” Segneri said. “We’re working with folks who are pre-idea and pre-venture, but I would say for most of these, save the university flavors of incubators, these are really efforts where you [may] already have a venture, but you may not have product-market fit, you may not have any revenue, you may still be figuring out your business model.”

Regardless of whether you participate in an accelerator, an incubator or a competition, Segneri says the greatest value you get from these programs is the ability to build relationships with people you will carry with you throughout your career. And the idea is to build these connections and friendships instead of trying to go it alone.

“So this is fundamentally saying, how do you transform entrepreneurship from the solo sport that it is for many folks in the room to a team one,” he said.

Segneri said that when he has talked to people who went through the Harvard program over the years, he hears this same thing over and over again. “What they say is that being in a community with fellow founders, the folks who are burning the midnight oil, 10 p.m. on a Friday in the space, are the folks they still call on years later, whether they’re in the same industry, whether they went to the same school, whether they live in the same geography, because you build that authenticity and trust, and the relationships in these particular types of programming that allow you to call back on those later.”

Ultimately, though, it’s about finding like-minded people who can help you get from idea to execution. “For founders or joiners or folks in the room, this is incredibly hard work and the more that you can find other people and support structures and incubators and accelerators to sustain you in it, that is really important,” he said.

These programs provide structure and accountability, and people who tell you when things aren’t going well, but Segneri acknowledged that sometimes actually what you need is time and support from some people to compel you to keep going when things are looking grim.

“Because in all this work, you’re building something new,” he said. “It’s something unforeseen that someone hasn’t been able to do before. And so at heart, that’s what I think incubators, accelerators, all these things are. They’re ways to sustain you in this relentless pursuit of building a company or a nonprofit or launching something new that matters — and so lean on them to the extent they help propel you forward.”