Welcome to the startup accelerator
Observing and interviewing different participants in startup accelerators I have felt a sort of isomorphism: Startup accelerators becoming more and more similar, mimicking each other without necessarily questioning the practice and simply applying someone else’s rules like the duration of the program. Over the time it seems a certain set of guidelines, an institutional logic, for startup accelerators has developed.
Let me introduce you to this fictitious, made up, mashed up startup accelerator:
Situated in an old, renovated loft in the heart of Berlin lies the office and co-working space of our startup accelerator. On the third floor of a former factory, we find a big open office space inviting and comfortable equipped with old wooden desks, traditional high school style chairs from the 50s and high speed wifi for the many people that will populate the space in a few weeks’ time.
Our startup accelerator in Berlin belongs to a network of accelerators that are operating all around the world and have been set up by an experienced and now famous entrepreneur who has been giving speeches on his success at conferences and even published various books. The accelerator sees its mission in accelerating startup businesses and through a six months intensive training discovering interesting ventures for the own and partner’s portfolio.
In the office the desks are organized like little islands, four or five desks grouped around each other throughout the room. In two of the four corners glass cubicles have been built in. Both feature a desk, many chairs and an erasable whiteboard: Meeting rooms. The glass structure lets light in and out – transparency even in the most intimate meeting spaces.
Other than work stations there is a kitchen with a big fridge, decorated with many stickers and magnets holding together pictures of smiling people in their twenties, calendars and many restaurant delivery menus. Next to the fridge two microwaves on a long picnic-style table crowd the room. The coffee machine is the newest of all the equipments and with the array of mugs on display next to it, seems to be an asked-after equipment in the kitchen. Next to the kitchen counter there is another space that opens up, facing away from the office space, yet a part of it. Here the walls are decorated with black boards showcasing the latest announcements and the current calendar and a big white board with the names of companies and some numbers underneath it. The room itself is rather empty. Only a ping pong table, folded, and stored away in the corner and some EUR-pallet with big cushions indicate that this space is dedicated to fun.
On the other side of the work space, next to the main entrance to the loft lies a closed room with a big screen at one end next to a speaker’s desk on an elevated stage and countless chairs in the corner. We will call it the Station, as it will be meeting and transfer point during the acceleration phase. The right side of the room is marked by windows, from floor to ceiling, that look out on the rooftop terrace. Here, the walls are bright, it is a more traditional meeting room. There are no motivational posters, fridges stocked with Club Mate, Fritz Cola, Bionade or other trending organic drinks or football table that could lead us to think about startup culture. A simple conference room that will serve its purpose a few times throughout the program’s curriculum, giving space to group presentation, pitches in front of possible investors and workshops with the whole team.
For now it is still quiet in these rooms, only the accelerator’s organizing team is working along with a few alumni startups from the last batch and some freelancers who have paid for their desks for the month. The accelerator’s team, though small in numbers, is working hard. The small structure, lead by our CEO Paul consists of Julia, in charge of marketing, public relations and events, Tim, coordinator and office manager, Eric, busy with the technological part and Anna, the financial analyst. For the critical phase of selection of the startups the organizing team is aided by a group of Startup Scouts and by a jury of selected businessmen and women. Later on, during each batch, the organizers invite coaches for marketing, technology and pitches and have mentors that accompany the startup founders in their journey.
Paul is a seasoned serial entrepreneur, who has lead various products and teams in different countries and has thus gained extensive experience in setting up business, scaling and internationalizing them. Through connections to the accelerator’s headquarters he has come to know about the opening of this new chapter two years ago and has taken on the challenge on expanding the accelerator’s reach to Berlin, giving life to the brand in Germany and creating a whole ecosystem of entrepreneurship around the accelerator.
Julia, has joined the team two years ago at the same time as Paul, starting from zero when no one knew of the brand and office space for the accelerator had yet to be found. She has worked for different agencies in Berlin, at the intersection of public relations and events and knows how to tell a story and show it in presentations, in evening galas and at tradeshows. At the accelerator she is in charge of public relations, marketing and events to reach out to startups, be the accelerator’s voice and organize all internal and external events during the acceleration phase.
Tim spends most of his time with the startup founders in the loft. Closest in age to the founders and with the role as coordinator and office manager, he has established a tight and personal bond to the participants in all batches. Tim coordinates all workshops, mentoring sessions and office activities between startups and accelerator, is a shoulder to lean on, a competent ping pong player and avid rooftop afterwork beer-mate. Even though he too has a strong background in business and has gained important experiences as an entrepreneur in our accelerator his strength lies in the emotional partnership he creates with the startup founders.
Eric is an expert in technology: A self-taught computer scientist he soon discovered his real love for hardware and is now spending his evenings tinkering at the connection of internet of things. He met Paul a few years ago working together on a project and was called by him to join the team last year. Eric is busy in the selection and product-focussed phases of the acceleration and is a sparring partner to the startups’ CTOs. Since he as a specialist is in high demand he oftentimes travels back and forth between international office and different chapter cities.
Anna is new on board. With a background in investment banking for a leading institution and a university degree in quantitative sciences she has joined Paul and his team early this year in selecting the startups, analysing their potential and drafting up the legal papers for the contractual parts. Like Eric she works half-days in the accelerator’s loft and in the international office of the accelerator and jumps from selection to demo phase between the different cities.
As spring comes the preparation for the next batch starts. New people are recruited and set to the task of finding new startups that would suit the batch’s theme. These new hires, called ‘Startup Scouts’ thus set out to scout the web looking for promising startup companies in a certain sector. Other than on online platforms like f6s, angellist, crunchbase or Linkedin they are actively networking at events about technology, entrepreneurship and basically wherever they go. The remaining team is busy calling up mentors, venues to hold the selection, introduction and demo day and getting back in touch with the database of investors. Paul is traveling from conference to conference all around the world, giving speeches, listening in on pitches and serving as juror on different panels. Julia and Tim, our public relations and marketing team, are busy getting the word out about the upcoming application for a new acceleration period, while Anna and Eric are currently closing up another round in a different city for the accelerator network.
Two months before the next batch starts, the time for applications is over and the interested projects are evaluated by the team. Eric looks at technology, Anna at financials, Paul at the business, Julia at marketing and Tim at the human capital and together each gives their feedback and they select twenty startups of the many that have sent in their application. These twenty startups are invited to come in to the Berlin loft and present their product live in front of a jury. Out of these twenty projects the jury will then chose ten to be accelerated during the six months period filled with workshops, mentoring and work sessions.
For the Selection Day, Julia and Tim have been busy sending out invites to judges, preparing the office spaces and organizing lunch and afternoon coffee for the participants.
Startups fly in to Berlin from all around the globe, attracted by the accelerator’s brand name and its reputation for putting budding entrepreneurs in contact with sharp-eyed and witty business angels or even venture capitalists. For most startups the accelerator’s reputation and in consequence the standing they hope to gain, credibility and trust in front of employees, business clients and investors, is the most attractive of the offers the accelerator promises them.
Startup in the early stages also hope to learn a lot through the various workshosp, mentors and classes that they will be able to access once in the program. Being together over half a year with fellow entrepreneur will be a valuable learning experience, so they hope. For startups in later stages the investor network and the success the accelerator has in funding alumni businesses weights much more and the mandatory classes or meetings are seen as a necessary evil and sometimes a distraction on the way to success.
So it comes that on this day, the twenty startups all come together. Paul opens the stage and gives the startups a warm welcome. He tells them about the journey of the accelerator group, about this chapter here in Berlin in particular and tells them how hard the selection and competition was and how honored he is to accompany a few of the startups here on this journey of entrepreneurship. His aim is to make the founders at ease, to have them relax a bit and get accustomed to the atmosphere before pitching – So he hopes to hear the best they can deliver. After his talk the group takes a small break, has coffee and croissants and in the meantime the judges that have been invited come in. Paul and Julia welcome them, give them a name tag like the one the startups are wearing on their tshirts or sweaters and offer them to take their seats in the front of the stage. The seats have been prepared with a bottle of water, a clipboard and pen and a printed description of the twenty startups that are about to pitch.
Paul takes the stage again, the music quiet downs slowly and he asks everyone to take a seat. Then he presents the judges one by one: Industry experts, fellow entrepreneurs who have sold their company and two other executives of the accelerator. The show begins with Paul calling the first startup founder on stage. Each founder will have ten minutes for presentation and question and answers and can divide the time up as they wish. In the course of these ten minutes the judges make up their mind about the business, its idea, model, team and execution and decide whether they would offer them the acceleration or not. At the end of the presentation, Paul takes the stage again and thanks everyone for their participation. The event is then dissolved with Julia and Tim collecting all sheets filled out by the judges, the startup founders walking out of the building, some going to the pub next door to have an early afternoon beer, others travelling back home directly and even others, from Berlin, going back to their office to resume the normal work-schedule and the judges and accelerator team members moving to the conference room where a catered lunch is served. Here they discuss the presentations, bring together their feedback and decide on which startup shall be accelerated and which not.
For our accelerator the most important factor of success is the team. They do not believe a business run by one person can be successful and they look for a team that has been working together in the past, that is balanced in their competences and that seems to collaborate smoothly. Secondly they are looking for a technological product that is scaleable, a business that can grow without the need for a parallel growth in headcount or other fixed costs. All in all eight startups are selected by the judges. No matter the phase of their development, these eight startups will all receive the same investment offer with the same conditions and invited to participate in the accelerator for the next six months.
Just a day later Tim sends out an email to the startups with extensive feedback, both to the eight startup founders that have been accepted in the program and the twelve that have not been admitted.
Start of the program
After all organizational matters like acceptance of the offer, application for a working visa for those entrepreneurs coming in from outside the European Union and signing of legal documents have been taken care of, the startup groups arrive in the office. Within a few hours, the desks that were empty, the whiteboards that were pristine and the coffee mugs that have been almost catching dust in the kitchen are transformed by the life that is brought in the office.
Tim has distributed stickers, notepads and headphones with the accelerator group’s logo on all tables and as the groups come in after another tells them to just take a seat where they want. By 10 o’clock most tables and chairs are taken up, macbooks and a few window’s notebooks crowd the tables and heads are bobbing up and down to the rhythm coming out of the headphones.
Just as he had for the Selection Day Paul asks the group to gather together and gives yet another welcoming speech, this time focussing on the harsh selection day, the great businesses and the grand opportunity they have to learn and grow together for the next six months. We’ll be like family, he stresses on various occasions. The eight teams come from six different countries, from the United States of America, from Spain, from the UK, from Germany, from India and one even from Nigeria and in the following hour they take the stage and present themselves, their product, their story so far and their team. The rest of the day is dedicated to getting to know each other and so the teams are split up into five different groups and mixed of all startup teams together. They spent the day walking around the city in a treasure hunt that has been prepared by Tim and Julia. They want the teams to discover Berlin, to try German food and most of all to have fun with each other. A day of ice-breaking, one could call it. The team members are mostly young males in their twenties, all have gone to college and graduated in their respective home countries with a technological or business degree and then worked for a few years before setting out to start their businesses. With the exception of one startup team, it is the first enterprise, the first time to start a business and for some it is even the first time to live abroad. Only the two German teams speak German and so among each other they speak English, with varying accents.
A week has passed, the teams have been busy at work, everybody has found a good place to work from and a comfortable chair to sit in and almost all names have been memorized. The awkwardness from the first days seems to have faded: Not all teams are there at 9 o’clock in the morning, coffee mugs are not placed in the dishwasher right after the last drop has been drunk and the tone has changed from a hushed library atmosphere to a more lively coffeeshop background chatter and clutter. The kitchen smells from lunch permeate the room even in the afternoon as people prepare coffee and cakes, the sound of many cell phones can be heard and oftentimes ringtones are confused and even the desk arrangements look a bit different, not as geometrically and neatly arranged as in the beginning.
Now that the startups are settled, Paul has thought to organize a mentor matching day, called mentor madness: The accelerator team invites all mentors at once and organizes a speed dating evening with all participating team members to get to know each other and find possible matches. For this purpose Julia and Tim have invited this year’s mentors, have set up detailed schedules, organized a buzzer and stopwatch for timing, printed out numbered stickers for each participant and called up a catering service to organize a barbecue on the rooftop.
As the official start of the mentor madness is 7pm the startup teams have a normal day of work ahead of them. Tim sends around a list of the 20 mentors that will join them in the office for the evening and includes a photography, a short bio and a link to their online profile for the startup founders to take a look at their possible matches.
Before the mentors arrive, the teams are wondering whether to clean up or not. There are cardboard boxes of the new screens they have bought to be taken out, coats and sweaters to be stored away and even two big suitcases to be hidden. Mugs and glasses and plates and cutlery is brought to the kitchen, trash is taken out, desks are arranged and chairs are tested for comfortableness. At ten to seven there is a queue outside the bathroom. As the mentors arrive – seemingly coming from work equipped with now wrinkled shirts and tie, a bike helmet and notebook bags – they are greeted by Paul, Julia and Tim and given a lanyard with a name tag and the schedule with ten minute intervals. Eric and Anna in the meantime are in the lounge area, cleaning up the cushions that have fallen on the ground and storing away the moveable ping pong table.
In the Station the speed dating has been set up. All of the participants, founder and mentors, have a different number and order so that they can rotate from one table to the next to get to know each other. Some of the team members have decided not to participate, and let only their CEO do the talking, they are still working in the office space wearing headphones so as not to be disturbed by the crowd. It gets loud in the small room, doors and windows are opened and people start to talk even louder to be heard. Some people do not understand each other as it is so loud and have to repeat the questions or answers again.
As young and old – as mentors are mostly in their fifties, experienced business women and men – sit opposite each other they exchange business cards, present themselves and most of the time the mentor takes the lead asking the younger partner questions about the business, about the start, about current metrics, about the plan for the future, about competitors. One team has brought their computers along to show a live demo of the platform, another team has printed out their milestones to talk about the future and another team seems to have agreed to explain through drawing as both founders have taken out notepads to visualize their ideas.
After the first ten minutes are up, Tim sounds the buzzer and asks the right side of both tables to get up and move one seat further along. The routine starts back again as mentors and possible mentees introduce themselves and exchange contacts. Some mentors are actually investors, leading funds and looking for new ventures, some have worked with the accelerator before and funded alumni companies, some work in marketing or other financially unrelated fields of partner companies, some in sourcing or technology in the same industry, some are experienced entrepreneurs who have made a name for themselves and others are stars in the startup scene and there to see and to be seen. Interestingly a few of the mentors are mentoring not just our accelerator but hold this role for other accelerator programs in Berlin, too.
The conversations seem very casual and since there was little information for both sides, neither one seems to be prepared. Mentors are making up questions on the go, founders do not go into much detail and repeat the sentences they have used on the selection and introduction day. Some pairs even talk about the weather, about the slowly approaching Berlin spring or with the Spanish co-founders about the differences and tensions between Madrid and Barcelona.
With the last buzz of the timer, Tim announces the end of the speed dating evening and hands the microphone over to Paul, who takes to thanking the mentors for their disposition and wishing all good relationships. He also announces that the barbecue has been prepared: “The carbon is hot and the beer is cold” he says, “Let’s head up to the roof terrace to enjoy the sunset and chat some more”. With this the group dissolves, some head straight up to the roof, others stop by the bathrooms and even others go back to the office stations to leave their things, call on their mates who have stayed working or exchange a few words in the team. On the rooftop there is already a line in front of the barbecue, next to meat and sausages, vegetables, bread and cheese have found a place and many salads are on offer at the nearby buffet. All fill their plates, take a drink and sit down in little groups to chat some more.
With a soft jazz sound in the background, the smell of good food and a sunset view over Berlin the conversations between mentors and mentees flow. The matchmaking successfully ends with hugs and pats on the shoulders, phone numbers directly saved in the phone registry and promises of next meetings.
During the following weeks the startups come in to the office when they please, work on their projects and have intermittently update meetings with Paul and Tim. Now that each startup has at least one mentor, these conversations have also been picked up. Depending on the startup’s need and the mentor’s experience, knowledge or connections they come together to meet in the office, are invited to attend workshops, exchange emails to get in touch with the mentor’s friends or meet after work for a drink to talk in a more relaxed atmosphere.
The days are structured by the startup team themselves, by their own work sprints, by meetings they have with partners or customers and oftentimes also by the time zones they work in.
One day a week however is reserved for workshops. At the very beginning of the program, Tim has shared a google calendar with every member and blocked a time slot of two hours on Friday afternoons. This time is reserved for workshops: For learning from other people coming in to the accelerator’s office.
The startup teams select one member out of their teams to assist in those workshops, it seems every Friday there is a different delegate. When one team sent their CEO another one drew straws to chose the person to take part in the Friday session held by a German investment fund to describe their ways of selecting new ventures, of determining valuation and of working together towards a profitable exit.
On the Friday this investment fund presents their portfolio and way of working the group of young entrepreneurs sits in the Station office. It’s after lunch and a few have gone down to the coffee shop across the street or to the kitchen to get a coffee. They flock in to the room with their notebooks, cell phones and a few with a notepad to write on. TIm brings the speaker in, welcomes him and introduces the format of thirty minutes of presentation and thirty minutes of question and answers. So the presentation starts. David, of team X, comes a bit late, excuses himself and sits down at the far end of the long table. He opens his notebook computer, sends a chat through slack channel, checks his email inbox for news and when seemingly nothing interesting has happened since he last checked he opens his browser on facebook and scrolls through his news feed. Pictures of young men and women at the beach, newsletter articles that have been commented on and funny videos of cats and baby goats..he passes his time scrolling infinitely while the presentation is still going on. Other team members use their phones, some scribble in their notepads. Meanwhile Tim has left the room and is working at his own desk.
The presentation goes on, uninterrupted by questions or by the group’s lack of interest and when the time for an open discussion comes the room remains silent at first. Team members look down or at their phones. Soon though TIm comes back in and in the name of the accelerator gives his thanks for the presentation, for the interesting insights and the great hints for startups looking for investment. He proceeds to ask the startups whether they have any questions.
As the session winds down the group hurries back to their workstations, sink down in their chairs and immerse themselves in the world going on on their screens. By now it’s almost 3pm on Friday afternoon, the week has come to an end and there still seems to be a long list of todos before the weekend ahead.
Phase 1: Work on product for a first MVP
On a regular workday, with no scheduled meetings or events through the accelerators, the startups are all busy in their own worlds. As everyone has their own chip card to enter the building they come when they please, sit at their group desks and organize their work internally. Some have used the whiteboards on the wall to organize their works in sprints, follow scrum methodology or create giant kanban boards to keep the tasks in check. On Monday morning one of the groups goes out to have breakfast together and there they structure the week ahead, another team has the tradition of having lunch together each Friday to do a general update of the company’s situation, transmit product changes and to create a cohesive group feeling. Other teams are looking to these two teams and picking up such rituals as can be seen as the phase of the accelerator moves on.
In the office through the organization in desk islands the startup teams are rather separated from each other and only meet in common areas such as the kitchen, the Ping Pong area or in front of the printer. And of course, at organized events such as the workshops in the Station or after-work drinks on the rooftop they come together and mingle.
“How is it going for you guys, David? Were you able to get that contact?”
“Nah not really, we are still waiting for XY to get back from his holiday.”
“Oh, man, it’s been really slow.”
“Yeah. tell me about it….shrugs his shoulder. What about you guys?”
“It’s going smoothly, I think. Ricardo has been coding night and day, I hope we’ll be able to ship the product soon. Oh by the way, this week our third cofounder is coming from Madrid and we are having a barbecue at our house. What are you up to on Sunday?”
“Nice! Sunday sounds good!”
Weekly evaluation rounds – Basecamp
It’s Monday morning: The desks are slowly being crowded by the team members and the coffee mugs are one by one moving from the kitchen to the individual desk spaces. The office that on the weekend was so quiet is now buzzing with energy. As 10 o’clock approaches people flock into the Station, take a chair from the pile and arrange them in a circle. It’s time for the basecamp – a weekly meeting with all startup founders to give an update on the current status, the next steps and possible problems. One by one the founders introduce the current status of their enterprise, the variations in KPIs like new revenue, engagement or churn compared to the last weeks, next tasks and possible problems. It is an open round, led by Paul, in which all are asked to participate. When problems that need longer assessment or advice arise, the startups are asked to stay a while after the basecamp and talk in detail with either Paul or someone who can help solve it and find a solution.
The program moves on
Meeting with mentors, fireside chat with group and successful serial entrepreneur and Phase 2: Go to market strategy structure the coming weeks.
Beer & Thursdays
“Aren’t you coming up, guys?” Julia walks through the office space and invites the working people to stop, take a break and join her, Tim and Paul up on the roof terrace. The program has been running for about a month now, the weather is getting sunnier and all founding team members have arrived. Tim has taken this as occasion to organize a barbecue for them all together: Music, beers and good food will surely get them talking to each other, exchange some ideas or tips and share problems with one another. He and Paul have tried to stay close to the teams and such are good occasions to talk informally outside of the strict meeting room, excel format setting.
At 7pm most plates are filled with steaks and sausages and grilled vegetables and salads and they are sitting in little groups on the terrace.
Bergfest presentations – Midterm evaluations
Not all is fun and not all evenings can be spent with barbecues, beers and beats on the rooftop terrace. The acceleration phase is halfway over and the organizing teams wants to mark this event for the startups – not to celebrate it but more so introduce the next phase. After having focussed on the product and the go-to-market strategy starting this event the startups are asked to focus their energy on fundraising, on preparing their pitches for Demo Day.
Phase 3: Preparation for Demo Day with outside coaches coming in and an even stronger focus on the CEO
Longer days at the office
The days at the office are getting longer, at 8 o’clock, even before Anna has found her way to the office a few of the teams are already busy working on their pitch presentations. During the day the coffee mugs are washed by hand since the washing cycle of the dishwasher doesn’t seem to keep up with the many coffee drinkers in the office. The Ping Pong table is dusty, empty bottles are crowding the floor around the trash cans in the common areas and the workstations of the individual startups and on the desks, next to notebook and cell phone more and more shirts, shoes and sweaters can be found.
The meeting rooms are full at all times, founders walk up to Tim asking him for a slot and many of them get fed up and move to coffeeshops in the surrounding Berlin area of the loft. Even on the weekends the teams come in to work and take up the couches to nap or sleep during the day instead of going home – Demo Day is approaching fast.
Demo Day & After party
The venue selected, the introduction and moderation is made by important people and many investors are present. A great PR event for the startup accelerator.