Once in a while, we'll blog about experiences that can help tech startups and tech entrepreneurs make sense of this complex environment we all work in. Following our meetup on accelerators, we decided to talk to Ciprian Borodescu, CEO of Appticles again, because he really shared some interesting insights that we believe are valuable for anyone looking to join an accelerator. Ciprian's startup was just accepted in Wayra, Telefonica's accelerator in Munich, so his previous experience with Startup Bootcamp will certainly help him make the most out of this new challenge.
The interview below contains some much needed advice about how to explore all the possibilities that an accelerator offers you, but also some mistakes you could avoid at every stage. Enjoy!
1. What are the main points to cover in your startup accelerator application?
Ciprian: Obviously every accelerator has its own application form and you just need to fill that in, but I would put emphasis on team and market because ultimately this is what they will be looking at: a big potential with a team that is able to execute.
Mistake: focusing too much on the idea.
2. What indicators and details can you use to infer if an accelerator is appropriate for your startup�s profile and objectives?
Ciprian: It�s true that accelerators are choosing the start-ups, but vice-versa is true as well. I would look at the value of mentors in an accelerator program � because that�s mainly the reason you�re going through one. You�d want to shape your business-model so you need mentors with experience, preferably in your area of interest that can become advisers and add value to your startup.
Mistake: My opinion is that if you look at how much money they give you as being the main criteria for selecting an accelerator, you�re up for a bad start.
3. What are some goals worth pursuing while in an accelerator?
Ciprian: I wish I knew this back when we got selected to Startupbootcamp: you need to ask for help. That�s why you�re here and that�s why they�re there. Help could mean: feedback, intros to other people, advise, money, etc. But I would do that considering that those mentors are actually entrepreneurs themselves and very busy people, so mind that you�ll be getting a reply perhaps in a week time � if you�re lucky. Ultimately you�d want to have 2-3 of them as advisors in your startup.
Mistake: Chasing too many mentors, irrelevant to your startup. Not filtering the feedback you get.
4. What is the best stage in a startup�s development to apply and join an accelerator?
Ciprian: This is a really good question and to be really honest, although it was hugely beneficial for us, both as individuals and as a team, I have to say that we could have gotten more value out of Startupbootcamp if we would've been a bit more mature. Basically we had to learn everything business related at Startupbootcamp: when pitching you have to start with the problem you�re solving, the team is important (the idea can just help you), the market needs to be huge, pitching in front of hundreds of people, what is a business-model & other basic things. Looking back in 2010 we really lacked in the basic business notions and instead of just focusing on growing/accelerating our startup, we learned everything the hard way: pivoting, changing the project, getting hard feedback from mentors and not really managing to engage a lot of them during those 3 months.
So, I would say that the best moment you can actually join an accelerator is when you�re only focus is accelerating your startup and these days most of the good startups follow this pattern: they have a pilot and a bit of traction and they join accelerators just for that, to accelerate. Obviously you have a lot to learn during an accelerator program, but it�s important to really learn those advanced things, not the basic ones. Ultimately this is down to the team value, of course.
Mistake: Applying when you�re not ready for an accelerator. I think that these days the competition for startups is much tougher that it was a few years ago, even before 2010. Back then you would see entrepreneurs being selected to Seedcamp that didn�t have the experience of today�s first time entrepreneurs. This only means that the value of today�s startups is growing, which is good.
5. How should a startup team prepare before going to an accelerator?
Ciprian: You have to have an agenda: what do you need? Feedback, advisers, partners, investment? Just focus on what you need and execute! Prepare before every meeting, even if this is just for a coffee. A lot of times startups will pivot, so be prepared/open for that too.
6. How do you optimize your efforts for maximum efficiency while in an accelerator?
Ciprian: I would be smart about it: I wouldn't chase everybody or anybody. I would select the mentors I want to meet. Also, not a lot of startups talk about this, but an accelerator adds value to the business operations, not that much to the development team. Although accelerators want a minimum of 2 people in house: one tech guy and one business guy, the reality is that if you really want to code something, as a technical guy, you can�t really do it � you can�t really concentrate because you have a lot of distractions. Maybe a good thing is just to have the business guy meet the mentor, not the entire team � this saves time for developing a new feature, perhaps.
Generally speaking you have this urge of doing everything. This is another mistake we did and it was not good for us. Stop for a moment and think what�s valuable to your startup. The reality is that there are mentors that will simply waste your time because they don�t have a clue about the automotive industry. Mentors are good but you have to discover/filter them.
7. How do you test the compatibility and strength of a team during the acceleration phase?
Ciprian: I could actually talk forever about it because I have us as an example but also other teams from our cohort. I think the first 2-3 weeks can make or break a team. Obviously you have a lot of risk involved if this is the first time you work together as a team because you�ll every step you make will be questioned, so the pressure is huge. It�s not easy to decide to change the project or to pivot. There are a lot of moments when things can go wrong, you have to communicate a lot and decide all of you why you�re there.
Mistake/Risk: Working together for the first time. Be careful how you manage the rest of the team, if you have part of the team back home.
8. What types of accelerator events should startups explore the most as opportunities to learn, grow and make themselves noticed?
Ciprian: I�m honestly not too happy about attending startup competitions but I guess it�s a learning experience and sometimes it helps to get noticed. It�s important to be able to pitch in front of a large audience. In my mind there�s only one good reason why you�d want to attend a startup competition: get noticed by investors.
9. How important are iterations in this stage?
Ciprian: I think iterations are mostly important at this stage because by definition you�re a startup because you haven�t really discovered your business-model. So obviously you have to try and try until something works.
10. What type of knowledge can you acquire while being in an accelerator?
Ciprian: We knew very little about business development. So we learnt a lot during those 3 months.
11. What are potential investors after when looking at startups in an accelerator?
Ciprian: I think investment is hugely overrated in an accelerator. There�s this pressure of getting an investment the minute you walk out the accelerator door. Evidently it doesn�t work like that.
Imagine this: when an investor meets you for the very first time you pitch him and he actually places you somewhere on a chart. That�s only one dot. You have to help him draw the other dots so he ends up with an upwards line. When that�s happening they have an internal alarm that will trigger their interest. This can take months or years, but it�s not going to be the demo day. It rarely is.
12. How can you take advantage of the accelerator�s atmosphere in terms of networking with other startups?
Ciprian: This is the second most important thing you experience in an accelerator. The level of energy is huge and it�s the best thing that can happen to you and your team. Teams can help each other and that�s awesome. Most of the accelerators kick you out after the program has ended and one of the biggest mistakes we did was to actually get back to Romania instead of renting with other teams a place in Copenhagen to continue our business operations. I know that we could have been in a different situation than we are today.
13. What types of benefits extend beyond graduating from an accelerator?
Ciprian: The network that you built during those 3 months. That is going to stick with you but obviously you have to do something about it.
Thank you, Ciprian, for taking the time to share with us all these useful pieces of advice. I'm sure that the entrepreneurs who will read this will certainly use your insights. Good luck at Wayra and we hope to hear good news about Appticles soon!