Should our startup join an accelerator?

By Hayden Williams , written on December 27, 2013

From The News Desk

A few months ago I was catching up with my mentor, an experienced entrepreneur. I love getting together with other founders, especially those a few years ahead of me. It’s not unusual for me to walk away from such meetings convinced we should try something completely new with our startup, or reverse a previous decision. You’d have to ask my co-founder/CTO Paul which is more annoying.

This conversation was no different.

He asked how things were going with Treatings. I paused, reflecting in order to give him an honest answer. “Everything’s great!”

Remember that time I wrote that I was determined not to give the toothy “everything’s perfect” grin when asked about Treatings? I’m still working on that.

Anyway, I told him that we’ve been growing the user base of our local professional networking platform. Apparently startups aren’t supposed to operate like nonprofits forever, so I went on to tell him about how we’re testing our business model. Specifically, approaching employers in New York about having a Company Page on Treatings.

His first question was, “How are you finding customers?”

I proudly explained that often we’re referred into companies through employees already using Treatings. Underwhelmed, he noted the scalability challenges of reaching out to individuals on our site and hoping they can refer us to the proper person in their company. “Are you applying to any accelerators?”

“No, we’re not.”

“Why not?”

I mumbled that we wanted to be laser-focused on our product and business model. He’s a mentor for a local accelerator and believes that a top-tier accelerator would be invaluable at our stage. He highlighted how accelerators would be able to make introductions into the same venture-backed companies, those with hiring needs and cultures they’d like to showcase, we are seeking to help.

Despite that we had ruled out applying to an accelerator, I ran back to Paul thinking we should. As we thought through the merits of applying, here are some of our explicit and implicit reluctances:

Reject me six times, shame on you. Reject me seven times, shame on me.

One primitive reason why I had written off accelerators programs was a “we’ll show them” attitude. In the early months of Treatings, we sent a total of six applications to various accelerators. We got rejected from all of them. Our product was not in a great place for any of the applications. But, at least for the last few, we felt like we did an effective job of explaining what we envisioned for Treatings. We took the rejections as just as much a comment on our vision as our crappy prototype, and so were resolved to go it alone.

We’re no Martin Scorsese.

All of the accelerator applications we’ve filled out have required at least one video submission, introducing the team and product. One word for these videos: awkward. For starters, we have no good place to film them. The 10 x 12 bedroom we share doesn’t paint a picture of organization, maturity or a mind for design, all qualities I imagine are important in evaluating startup teams. Our bunk bed dwarfs the space and there’s a tornado of feathers, which spew from our comforters, spilling over the twin XL bed frames. The room screams snow-globe chic.

Our “office,” AKA New York University's Bobst Library, has had to make do as our backdrop for self-documentary. What this looks like is Paul and me sitting on the floor, shoulder-to-shoulder in the hallway, holding an iPhone in front of us. You’d have to ask the students what they think is going on as they step over the extended legs of two guys clearly not undergrads, filming themselves talking about how long they’ve known each other and blabbering about something called Treatings.

The video on it’s own isn’t a barrier to applying to these accelerators, but it’s not a pleasant proposition.

Bubble Boy

A look at my employment history reveals someone with a poor sense of timing. I sold knives door-to-door in 2004, missing the boom of door-to-door sales by a handful of decades. My foray into real estate was closer to the peak, as I bought and renovated a foreclosed property in 2005. Housing prices were peaking as we put the house back on the market and we were fortunate to get out as prices were plummeting. From there, the logical next step was to join an investment bank in June 2008, two months before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. After riding that wave, I co-founded a tech startup in 2012.

I don’t have the perspective to weigh in on whether there’s a “startup bubble,” or even what that means. But, I am wary of jumping to the next hot, or even worse, cooling, thing. It’s not hard to find articles denouncing accelerators and their impact on the startup community, although these are typically not aimed at “top-tier” programs.

Getting pulled in multiple directions

I’d say the most rational hesitation we’ve had to reapplying to an accelerator is the risk of getting pulled away from our product. I’ve spoken with alumni of reputable accelerators and if there is a complaint, it is from startups who entered programs at a stage when they were scaling and/or monetizing. They said it could be difficult maintaining product focus when there’s a revolving door of incredible mentors stopping by to drop off their two cents.

Mentorship is our greatest attraction to accelerators. Paul and I have always been intent on making original mistakes. What better way to avoid repeating other’s mistakes than to expose ourselves to the pool of peers, alumni and mentors associated with the best accelerators. We’ve just been trying to reconcile the immediate benefit of immersing ourselves in our product and user base with the long-term benefit of learning from people who have built and scaled successful businesses.

We decided we will test out the accelerator waters once more, armed with my blind optimism, which promises to rationalize the outcome, no matter what happens.

This is the 19th installment of a PandoDaily series that chronicles the experiences of a young entrepreneur as he bootstraps his startup.

Part 1, "The less-than-glamorous life of a young entrepreneur."

Part 2, "How to survive co-founding a company with a friend."

Part 3, "Starting a company and having a girlfriend isn’t easy."

Part 4, "Customer validation: from lean startup to craigslist."

Part 5, "Dealing with competitors without turning your product into Mr. Tumnus."

Part 6, "Why I gave up a cushy career as an investment banker to launch a startup."

Part 7, "The best way to take feedback: Keep quiet."

Part 8, "The embarrassment of premature VC-infatuation."

Part 9, "Don’t ask me about money! I’m a startup founder."

Part 10, "How a summer job selling knives helped me with my startup."

Part 11, “When social norms interfere with your startup."

Part 12, "It’s hard to tell which startups are simply spinning their wheels."

Part 13, "What do you tell people who ask how your startup is doing?"

Part 14, "A bootstrapped startup’s freelancer dilemma."

Part 15, "In lieu of investors, how we breathe down our own necks."

Part 16, "A bootstrapper’s survival guide."

Part 17, "Avoid networking events marketed like a crappy apartment on craigslist and other pro tips."

Part 18, "Don't call me Mr. Nice Guy (even if I am)."