A quick Google search of business accelerators and incubators will bring up a slew of different options all claiming to be the best service for small businesses looking to get kick-started or seeking help to grow. So how’s a firm supposed to wade through the options and know whether it’s what they need in the first place and then decide which one to apply for?
‘They’re such a fashionable thing, there’s so many and the quality is very variable,’ agrees Ben Fletcher (pictured below), the chairman of Growth Builder, a recently launched high-growth business accelerator. ‘I’d look at its track record, partly because the quality of an accelerator itself might not be the primary determinant of how successful you are,’ he explains.
‘It may be the other companies you meet – if they’re doing really interesting things and you meet ambitious founders who challenge the way you think about your own business, that can bring a huge amount of value. Look at the likes of Techstars, Entrepreneur First, Seedcamp; they have great alumni companies coming out.’
It’s also important not to view such programmes as a necessity. Jim Duffy, co-founder of Entrepreneurial Spark, says, ‘Business accelerators aren’t for everyone and they’re not the solution for every entrepreneur.’ You need to be sure you can invest the time and effort into the programme, so don’t apply without thorough research.
Once you’re involved in a programme, you need to commit to attending the meetings, events and using the services provided. ‘Lots of people think an accelerator programme is a nice badge of honour, but that’s probably the wrong reason for choosing an accelerator,’ Fletcher adds.
Steve Rimmer, founder of Party for The People, not-for-profit ticketing agency, took part in Impact Hub King’s Cross, a business incubator programme for social enterprises. ‘Be ready for an intensive programme,’ he advises. ‘You need to be prepared for that as it takes a lot of additional effort and time to commit.’
When sifting through the options, don’t just apply for the sake of it. ‘Using an accelerator as a security blanket isn’t the best idea,’ Fletcher warns. If you don’t get onto the ones you’ve identified as being best for your sector or most relevant for your aims, don’t just chuck your hat into the ring for any available option.
‘I did know one guy who went for the Microsoft accelerator specifically because he wanted to make sure his platform worked well with Outlook,’ he says. ‘He had clear reasons for doing that – with direct access to Microsoft and free office space which was brilliant for him, but that doesn’t mean everyone should go for a Microsoft accelerator.’
You need to be focused on what you’re hoping to get out of the experience. Cemal Ezel is the founder of Change Please, which trains homeless people to become coffee baristas and has carts across the capital. He joined Impact Hub King’s Cross because, ‘I wanted to commit my time to not only enhance our social mission, but to develop our business and management structure. As well as selling to the public, we are working with corporates and our corporate clients expected us to be financially sustainable before committing to a relationship with us.’ Opting for a scaling programme helped here. Spend time thinking about what you’ll get out of the programme. ‘It’s who can introduce you, not just to mentors, but to potential clients or investors,’ Fletcher says.
It’s also worth bearing in mind the length of the programme. While you may not want to spend too long away from your business, a very short accelerator session may not bring about the effect you’d hope to see. ‘I think one of the problems accelerators have is that they try to give people too much information,' Fletcher says. 'It can be a very short period of time so they try to throw loads of content at businesses.’
Incorporating marketing, operations, product development and mentoring in such a restricted time can be tough. ‘A lot of mentorship programmes seem to say, "Oh, we’ll connect you to this guy who’s really interesting for half an hour" and having a chat about your business can almost do more harm than good, because they have such little understanding of the business,’ Fletcher adds.
Ultimately you’ll want to assess where your business has weaknesses or needs work and how you can see a certain programme helping you address these issues. A good accelerator can open many doors, but they're not for everyone.