On Running a Startup Accelerator

[This post first appeared on Medium]

About a year ago, I announced that I was leaving Twitter in San Francisco to move (back) to Montréal, where I would manage FounderFuel, a startup accelerator. This is a fantastic opportunity for me to continue working with ecosystems, support innovation, crazy creativity, brilliant hackers… 

A Brief History of FounderFuel

FounderFuel was launched in 2011 and modeled after what has now become the classic seed accelerator formula, pioneered by YCombinator and TechStars. The team at Real Ventures, seeing a need to help bring new startups to the next level, invested in the creation (and operations) of the program. 

Led by Ian Jeffrey until the Spring 2014 cohort (#5) it has a well established program, and partners, mentors and alumni network. And a great Demo Day tradition, which is as much a party and a celebration of the startup community as a pitch event. The quality of the pitches is one thing FounderFuel is recognized for. You can check it out yourself on the FF Vimeo page.

Taking Care of Business (and Working Overtime) 

When I joined last summer, I did not want to fix what was not broken. The one simple changes we made were the addition of a specific deal for hardware startups (100K for 9% instead of the standard 50K for 6%). My plan was to go thru a first cohort with the program as is, with a specific focus on the alumni network of co-founders, partners (sponsors) and mentors (in that specific order).

For me the co-founders who have been thru the program in the past are one of our greatest asset. “People first” sums up my philosophy (for founders, mentors and partners). Still working on aligning more resources for alumnis, that’s still a big goal of mine for 2015. Next up is leveling up our mentor network, putting in place better tools to track mentor/founders interactions (and outcomes).

The other tweak I had for the program was to make sure everyone understood really well that this was a 12 x 1 week program, not a big monolithic 3 months stretch… Teams establish weekly goals and we review them during our status update every Thursday. 1 to 3 goals, to be done each week. Helps with focus. Real startups ship.

Focus (Seeing the Forest and the Trees) 

Even if I had been mentoring since the early days in 2011, it was not until I worked full time as GM that I fully understood why there was so much focus on the pitch. I knew communication was key for startup success, but it wasn’t until I got working with John Stokes (partner at Real and catalyst to FounderFuel) on crafting the pitches with startups that I realized it was literally the blueprint of your business. A bad pitch is simply the outcome of a bad (or badly understood) business.

In the first weeks, we focus on 3 things: go to market strategy, long term value proposition and competitive landscape. Then with those in minds we tirelessly work with the founders to craft/sharpen/practice their pitch. It is often an identity crisis, at least for many co-founders. You know the old adage: diamonds are created thru pressure…

Learning on the Job (One Cohort at a Time) 

One of my biggest surprise was how much individual attention each team requires. I had this perception that “as a group” was a great way to move everyone forward, and it is, but it’s not enough. My role in coaching co-founders during our status update is quite often “chief unstucker”. What’s top of mind, what’s bugging you, what’s blocking you? Let’s find people, ideas, hacks, to get you out of that rut. Every team gets to schedule time directly with a few mentors, plus office hours every week with partners at Real Venture and experts made available for free from our sponsors.

One of my initial analysis, even before joining, after discussing at length with Ian who was just leaving and Emma Williams, program manager extraordinaire, was that there was a challenge with the process of running a program with fixed dates. I felt that meeting great entrepreneurs all the time and only having two short windows in a year to get them in the program was a bug of this system. I am now of a different opinion, I see how valuable it is to have the timing constraint both as a forcing function for teams and as a filter mechanism for us running the program. If we can’t come up together with clear goals to accomplish during the program, ie. significant progress, we should not work together, at least not now. It makes no sense in forcing a square peg in a round hole…

Questions, Questions (Where Do We Go from Here)

There are still a few open questions for me. I do feel we need to develop a “post accelerator” program (or process) to better help our founders. We also need to come up with better metrics, ideally standardized in the industry, to assess how well we are accomplishing our mission of accelerating success for startups.

There is also the challenge of right-sizing startups in a fast evolving market. I have been thinking about a FounderFuel X program, for more experience founders or repeat entrepreneurs. With more and more startups applying, 250 per cohort on average, and at a later stage, more traction and more maturity, the level of a FounderFuel startup in the Spring 2015 cohort is not the same as one from 2011. The bar keeps getting raised, startups joining our program are further along, raise more money, sooner, even during the program. Those coming in with the existing traction before FF of course get out of the program even more amplified. That’s the definition of acceleration.

We are also in a special category, since the accelerator was created from a fund, and not the other way around (as we see more and more these days). It was also built to support the Montréal and broader Canadian startup ecosystem from the get go, in parallel with the Notman House project and involvement in many events: Accelerate Montreal and Startup Festival being two major ones out of hundreds now happening in Montréal’s startup scene.

Collaboration (Lets Think This Through Together)

If you are interested in exploring some of these questions and sharing some of your own lessons learned, with your accelerator program, please do join us July 15th for a one day event that I helped designed to be an event I would travel across the world to attend, the Accelerator Festival.

Next year will mark the 5th anniversary of our accelerator. If you have thoughts on what works, what doesn’t, specifically at FounderFuel or at any other accelerator, I would love to read your insights. We are a startup ourselves, still learning, still working on product/market fit, still growing, still refining our core metrics. We don’t have a model with an exit strategy though, so I guess we will have to keep riding this rocket for the foreseeable future. It’s exhilarating and that’s how I like it!

Sylvain Carle 

Emma Williams
emmajjwilliams@gmail.com
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