When we look back in 20 years and ask ourselves “What killed the accelerator?” the answer will likely be “too many accelerators.”
In recent years, scads of new accelerator programs have launched across the country in hope of mimicking the success of the grandfather of accelerators, Y Combinator. All they need to succeed is one Airbnb or Dropbox, which together make up 75 percent of the value of YC’s $10 billion portfolio.
But it may be too late for that. The over-proliferation of accelerators has already damaged the category, leading to lower quality applications, lower quality companies, and an all-around dismal view of the category. As I wrote last fall,
“With at least 100 such programs churning out thousands of startups a year and the expectation that 90 percent of them won’t return their money, the seeming launch of a new accelerator program each week is a valid concern.”
That’s why Greenstart, which runs a greentech-focused accelerator in San Francisco, has decided to kill its program. “The most promising startups don’t really want a 90-day bootcamp,” says Mitch Lowe, Managing Partner. “If you’re struggling to raise money or truly just at the napkin stage, there are a lot of benefits to accelerators. But if you’re a little further along or have choices for capital, you want an investor that can dig in and be a partner over the lifetime of the company.”
Greenstart will turn its program, which has graduated a few classes totaling 13 companies, into a studio-investor hybrid focused on design and green tech. New York-based Betaworks has a studio model which focuses on consumer-facing media and tech. Science in LA has a similar model, as does Max Levchin’s HVF project. Lowe emphasizes that Greenstart’s program is an experiment. “We’re trying to merge a design shop with a venture capital firm,” he says.
Greenstart’s accelerator originally launched to help green-focused startups differentiate themselves through strong design. He cited the example of Nest, the smart thermostat which is now valued at $800 million. “There are 100 smart thermostat companies out there. Ten years later one broke through without even emphasizing the green part because of the aesthetics and simplicity,” he says.
Greenstart’s accelerator aimed to help more companies achieve that sort of mainstream adoption. Greenstart hired David Merkoski, executive creative director at Frog Design, who built a 10-person design studio to help its companies.
A few things happened in the program’s early batches. For one, Greenstart’s designers wanted to work with the companies for longer than 90 days. “We realized it was an artificial construct,” he says. “It’s better to be a lifetime partner and join boards and roll up your sleeves and get really involved.”
And secondly, the term “accelerator” just has a bad rap of churning out crap companies. A degree from Y Combinator still carries weight with investors, but one from other programs do not, Lowe says. As I wrote earlier this year, an accelerator is only as good as the companies it can attract. Greenstart wanted to work with more developed companies that were ready for their design resources, and most of its applicants just weren’t that.
Part of the quality problem is unique to green startups. VC’s aren’t exactly clamoring to invest in energy-related tech startups in this investment cycle. The difficulties with raising capital in the category means the early failure rate is higher, no matter how “lean” they are. Young companies that do survive have bootstrapped it to meaningful revenue and customers. They’re more seed stage than napkin stage, and they don’t need a 90 day accelerator program. But they do need design services.
This gives Greenstart a slight advantage in deal flow. For good companies, cash is a commodity in the venture world. Just last week NVCA’s former head told Sarah Lacy that venture capitalists had worked themselves out of jobs, and the success of companies on AngelList and a host of new crowdfunding sites prove that out further. Firms that understand this have begun offering more services like in-house recruiting and PR to portfolio companies.
Greenstart’s new studio model will allow it to move away from the “one size fits all” model many accelerators take with investments. It will keep deals in the range of $250,000-$500,000, with a mix of cash and design services for equity, and the ability to follow-on in future rounds. It will structure its fund as an evergreen fund, where investments are held and investors can buy a stake in the operating company.
Of course, a cynic might say that too many pivots to the “studio” model might give it the same bad rap of accelerators. Either way, Greenstart at least has a distinct purview with green tech and some staying power with its $7 million fund, which it will likely add to this year, Lowe says.