Mini ‘Accelerators’ go global. Essentially ‘tasters’, they are all just a bit different from one another
Each of the many short start-up boot camps for entrepreneurs looking to create new businesses has a slightly different emphasis, so where might you begin? It depends on how solid is your experience, your idea or your work on it so far. (For more see Nesta’s The Startup Factories at http://goo.gl/XKjbK.)
‘Nairobi is becoming a hub for tech start-ups’, reports the FT; ‘at its heart is HumanIPO’s co-working space Startup Garage, which opened in February. Seed investor 88mph runs investment boot-camp weekends here – the best ten each receive $18,000 funding’.
Springboard, the leading UK ‘accelerator’ programme has been based on YCombinator and on Techstars in the US, and like them it is a 13-week programme; and while some new business development programmes have a longer time-scale (GSK in the UK and Rockhold in the US), Startup Garage is a one of a cluster of business development programmes which are shorter – some a week long; some of them only a week-end. Speed is of course compelling, and in to-day’s markets, essential; but which of these programmes focus more effectively on what aspects of the development process, and what might each learn from the others?
The first of these shorter programmes in the UK was Nesta’s ‘Academy’ – two single weeks of development, separated by a short interval, designed to help people start a new business rather than be without a job – with a guaranteed pot of funding at the end. This later became Starter-for-six, a successful week-long programme for young unemployed, which continues to be publicly funded in Scotland.
The second was Seedcamp, a week-long programme designed for entrepreneurs who already had a reasonably solid idea for a new business, that could be put to a large variety of mentors who would help the entrepreneurs to evolve and develop their ideas – by the end of the week into a marketable proposition, that they then had an opportunity to pitch to a collection of potential investors.
Doug Richards’s (he of the Dragons’ Den) School for Startups starts by bringing together possible entrepreneurs whose interests are in the same sector – at ‘Meet ups’, and he has been offering lectures in starting-up, of a day’s duration, at a number of universities. This format may help budding entrepreneurs to find partners, and to meet other people alongside whom they might work to develop their idea; as it might help to provide an injection of enthusiasm for their task. And there are others like it, including Minibar, Groupspaces, and Open Coffee.
Rob Fitzpatrick’s Startup Tool Kit’s focus is on enthusiastic entrepreneurs who may not yet have any ideas for a new business. It aims to help you to identify areas in which you might seek to find a business opportunity; and the University of the West of England offers similar support to budding entrepreneurs.
In any technical area, identifying a good issue, and suggesting worthwhile business propositions to meet that issue requires a familiarity with the field which is hard to achieve in a week-end. The BBC’s Watering Holes, a week-long programme, first sought people who had ideas for new programmes, and then brought them to a week of development in which they worked with producers, programme makers, audience research specialists and directors to develop a proposition for a programme into one that might be marketable to commissioning agents. White Bear Yard and Betaworks in the US are similar – in producing and managing their own startups by providing intensive support (and sometimes external productions where there is a fit with their expertise).
‘Lean Startups’ emphasises the need for speed by espousing the concept of ‘affordable losses’ – how much can you afford to lose before you need to turn the tide. And while many programmes seek to inject enthusiasm and hope and emphasise the need for commitment and dedication, Lean Startups might seem perverse in encouraging you to fail early and fail often, with rapid iteration and customer feed-back – possible over a week-end with internet based opportunities, but not for physical products or services. Finding an indicator that might trigger further funding (a mock-up/potential customers/an actual buyer) does not always match up with one’s predictions or one’s cash-flow. Other start-up schools include The Founder Institute and Startups@techHub at Shoreditch.
General Assembly in the US and now in Berlin, has been more about providing co-working space and ‘application-based, goal-oriented business education’. While similarities are often the magnet that draws people together, Watershed Bristol (and other incubators) look to ensure that their are some potentially fruitful differences among their incubatees; and working spaces need to be intimate enough for people to meet by chance – the best place often the communal ‘kitchen’. Plug and Play in the US, and Google and Talktalk in the UK are in the same field – of offering communal workspaces.
A component of many accelerator-type programmes is education about business, notably about finance, marketing and IP. 13-week programmes like Accelerator Academy and Bethnal Green Ventures both hold weekly meetings for their entrepreneurs which include lectures and teaching around business subjects, but a week of learning is hardly a substitute for a life-time; and a week-end can do little more than offer a few (sometimes misleading) tips.
If investors are attracted more by personality and achievements than by business ideas and propositions, it is hard to make more than a superficial assessment of the former in a week-end or even a week. Even gung-ho venture capitalists would think twice about investing $18,000 in ten people, as has Mr 88mph in Nairobi, after only a week-end’s acquain-tance; better to take a small option and fund say a week’s or a 13-week’s further programme, a way forward often favoured by wise entrepreneurs in any case.
Copyright John Whatmore June 2012
Nesta Associate The Centre for Leadership in Creativity