What Can Accelerators Learn From Startups?

What would the ideal accelerator look like for us, as  startup founders? This is a question that’s increasingly voiced by to-be accelerators. Ironically, it’s the initial set  of reactions to our thoughts that often highlights the most common struggle for accelerators - How do we develop (and understand) product market fit?

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In order to understand the irony, let us take a step back. A startup accelerator is a program to nurture early stage companies (i.e: companies that are pre-revenue or have a handful of paying customers) accelerate their growth. In many cases, these programs kick off by providing classes on fundamentals such as company formation, shares, vesting schedules, the works. After setting the foundation straight, it’s time to take the next step: exponential growth. Right? Actually, no... In many cases, startups enter an accelerator without having found a good market that they are satisfying, a thing we like to call “product market fit”.

The continuous search for product market fit is essential, arduous, and often fatal for any (early stage) company. Whether it be delusions of grandeur or being numbed by all the the times they get told their solution makes no sense, there is a common effect on many (first-time) founders. They stop listening to customers and start relying on their own “immaculate” understanding of the market to determine product market fit. In this case, the accelerator program and its experts will try to step in. Start diving into the company fundamentals; get founders out of tunnel vision mode; and prepare them to go exponential. It is truly an emergent process.

This brings us back to a question voiced by to-be accelerators. We - the customer - were being asked what the ideal program - the product - looks like by the accelerator team - the seller. Instead of understanding the customers’ needs, the seller was seemingly more focused on projecting their beliefs on our feedback. Ironically, an accelerator team which is struggling to test their own product market fit is teaching founders how to find theirs.

Don’t get us wrong,  we don’t blame accelerators for being in search of their “fit”. They should, however, be mindful that their customers are startups, not just the (corporate) backers who invested their resources. The product often serves as a launch pad or the last nail for a startup. So their sellers should do their utmost to listen to their customers in order to satisfy a good market fit.

We understand that your efforts to reach a product market fit might only be part of a 12 month project. Keeping that in mind, don’t forget to empathize with founders. They often have a 3 month runway to achieve the same fit, but with their dreams (and often self worth) hanging in the balance. Tick… Tock...

Koen Munneke is the Co-Founder of GROM, a Hong Kong based SaaS startup in Health Tech [shameless company plug]. He’s had the privilege of participating in 4 accelerators on 2 continents. As a result, he often gets looped into discussion regarding accelerator program development.

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