Socratic Labs and the scourge of the sub-par accelerators

By Erin Griffith , written on September 4, 2013

From The News Desk

Over the holiday weekend, New Yorks' ed-tech community was a-buzz over an anonymous horror story posted by David Cohen, director of the TechStars accelerator program. It was a tale of an accelerator gone awry, starring an unpredictable managing director who put two companies through some major drama.

Something that juicy couldn't stay anonymous online for long. Commenters quickly determined the guilty party was Socratic Labs, led by managing director Heather Gilchrist. The author is Julian Miller, CEO of a company called Learnmetrics. At the heart of Miller's complaints about the program is that Gilchrist made a lot of empty promises related to access to mentors, fundraising, the co-working space, the demo day and resources.

Miller declined to comment for a story, and Gilchrist did not respond to a request for comment. Several participants and third party observers I spoke with said they'd witnessed the erratic behavior described by Miller's initial account.

Rather than respond to harsh accusations made anonymously, or have Gilchrist, who is a co-founder of the program, step down, Socratic Labs' response has been to change the narrative. Today Gilchrist posted an opinion piece on the ed-tech blog EdSurge called "Letters from the Socratic Labs trenches." In it, she responds without responding, via high-level "lessons" which address some of the complaints without the burden of admitting to wrongdoing.

In the comments section below her post, Gilchrist notes, regarding Miller specifically, "I officially have nothing negative to say."

Here's the gist of her response. Miller says companies didn't get access to the promised mentors? Maybe they weren't present at Socratic Labs' co-working space enough. (Since the initial blog post, the program has pulled its list of mentors from its site.) From Gilchrist:

The teams that showed up and worked alongside us every day got the most out of the program; they could turn to us at any time to ask for advice or request an introduction, and they got immediate responses. The teams who were present in the space also participated in more of the sessions we ran and were able to meet with folks who dropped in on short notice -- folks including Matt Greenfield and Frank Bonsal III, collaborators from other programs, school partners, and visiting founders passing through NYC.
And as for those complaining about Gilchrist's management style, which included personal insults, kicking people out of the program and inviting them back in, and sharing private correspondences with team members, according to Miller's account? Well, maybe those people just weren't a good "fit" for the program. According to Gilchrist:
We also learned that assessing “fit” isn’t just about whether the startup matches the incubator and visa versa: fit involves the whole community. Teams must fit together with one another, we must all fit well with schools and strategic partners, and teams must fit with their own co-founders. Now that we know how important these different “fits” are, we will create better mechanisms to assess them during the selection process.
Miller and his roommate, Edventory CEO Brian J Nichols, weren't the only ones who were not a "fit" for Socratic Labs. When the program launched, Farbood Nivi, and Rusty Greiff, who co-founded Gilchrist's last company Grockit, were initially listed as co-founders of Socratic Labs. They're no longer mentioned on Socratic Lab's site or its AngelList profile. ("I wouldn't say they 'left' as they were never there," one participant says.)

Likewise, CFO Doug Hayes left the program in June and associate director Marshall Buxton left in December. Rashida Prattis and Katie Vander Ark (daughter of edtech investor Tom Vander Ark) also left.

One startup was accepted into the program and initially listed as a member of the cohort, but decided to back out before signing papers. The company had concerns over the depth of experience and expertise in Socratic Labs and was not encouraged by the fact that their investment would came from an early stage venture firm (Expansion VC), rather than Socratic Labs. It signaled that Socratic had not been able to raise its own funds, which the company took as a warning sign. (Miller had expressed a similar concern over the funding source in the initial blog post.)

And if those who stuck around are still not happy with their experience? Well you can't please 'em all. Gilchrist again:

Some will love us; some won’t.
Gilchrist ends her column with advice from founders in Socratic Labs' first cohort.

Setting aside the he-said, she-said particulars in this situation, it has revived a now-common argument I've made several times on PandoDaily: There are too damn many accelerators, and most of them aren't very good.

It was almost a year ago when I argued an accelerator shakeout was due. If anything I've seen more programs sprout up since then.

This raises the question: Is Socratic Labs a symptom of the "too many accelerators" problem? Or is the Socratic Labs incident just one bad disagreement that went public and gave the whole category a bad name?

I'd argue it's a bit of both. Accelerators are becoming what corporate VC arms were in the late 90s. Not cool. They're a way to foster some generic idea of "innovation" with unclear motives and sub-par tools to do so. The more of them there are, the more watered-down the category becomes, and the less interest investors have in getting excited about them. Thus, my "kill demo day" idea. (And yes, Y Combinator is always listed as the one exception.) Socratic Labs' incident is just serving as evidence of something many critics already believe.

Can Socratic Labs survive this? Probably... The program's operations are in business until their backer, Expansion Venture Capital, a firm in New York led by Joseph and Ryan Melohn, the latter a former real estate investor, decides otherwise. Expansion did not respond to my request for comment.

But even if the program gets a bunch of quality of applications and has a successful second cohort of startups, its reputation, to a small community of ed-tech founders and even smaller group of ed-tech investors, has been damaged. And in the startup world, where transparency is rare and performance metrics are easily manipulated, reputation is the most important thing you've got.

Update: Gilchrist responded with the following:

I agree with you that there are too many accelerators, and that too many do the same thing or not much at all. That's actually exactly why we exist, and, moving forward, the accelerator is just one piece (IMHO, not even the particularly interesting piece) of what we're offering to various stakeholders in education, not just tech, throughout their early lives (up to 15 months).

Several of our companies are growing nicely, as are several other edtech companies I've worked with (led investments in, mentored, advised, or just made intros for), and I don't have the time to worry about what people I don't know think about me, particularly outside of my vertical. Sorry you feel like my reputation is damaged, but I feel pretty good that those who know me and know my work in edtech have been and will continue to stand by me. I know that's not terribly newsworthy, but I have to get back to work. Image via