I will be the first one to admit it. I failed at my first startup. My co-founder and I never figured out our monetization strategy. Which is ironic given that our product consisted of online and offline courses to help women acquire basic personal finance management and investing skills.
Failure is good. I learn from mistakes. This mantra led me to sign up for startup school. By this, I refer to enlisting in an accelerator program. Various programs are on offer: Entrepreneur First, Antler, Founders Institute. Prior to enrolling, I had carried out background research by talking to a director at Entrepeneur First in Singapore. I also made it to the final round of Antler Singapore. But then, I did not get admitted. I applied for admission to the Founders Institute. And got in.
This was the moment the actual learning started. I am sharing my insights below. I hope this helps you decide whether joining an accelerator is for you or not.
Learning #1: Be ready to put in a lot of hours.
The Founders Institute claims you can complete the three months program in in addition to holding down a full-time job (= 40 hours). Expect to invest 20–35 hours into an accelerator program to meet the rigid program demands. In the beginning, participants are required to reflect on their motivation, on emotional resilience and coping mechanisms when the going gets tough.
Learning #2: Don’t question the assignments too much.
As an accelerator cohort member, you cannot afford to question the nature of the assignments too much — simply because dwelling on questions such as “does it make sense to create a mailing list for my supporters?” or “why do I have to incorporate my company two months into the program?” will take away precious brainpower. Brainpower and the ability to focus is everything when you are trying to complete your assignments.
Learning #3: Only join an accelerator program if you are a team player.
Back in April, I joined the Founder Institute Zurich cohort for two weeks. Every participant gets assigned to a working group. Working groups have to elect a president. These change every trimester, so in theory, everyone gets their turn. Presidents organize the bi-weekly calls, submit meeting notes and ensure everyone stays on board. During the very first call, one member of the working group preemptively stated he did not want to be president. Needless to say one cannot afford such an attitude. You have to be a team player. Your team members are your family during this intense time period. Sounds cliché, but it’s true. They will cheer you up when you are down, hook you up with their (LinkedIn) contacts and most likely volunteer for customer problem interviews (should they fit the target customer profile).
Learning #4: Pitch, pitch, pitch.
Pitching skills are essential for any startup founder. You have to convince others of your idea — be it angel investors or clients or your best friend. Receiving feedback is good — in particular when it’s early days and you have a very vague business concept. I tend to excel at moderating workshops and know how to capture an audience. That does not mean my pitches are convincing. Taking an hour or longer to film a one-minute startup pitch is normal. I had to put in a lot of time and effort to get my pitches right.
Learning #5: Ask your customers the right question.
The biggest mistake my former co-founder and I made consisted of asking the wrong questions. Most crucially, we did not ask: How much would you pay for this service? I will be eternally grateful to the Founders Institute for incorporating the customer development module as one of the earliest ones in the curriculum. It made me appreciate how essential it is to early on validate whether my business idea can generate revenue. If you think your business model should be based on a monthly subscription model, but your target customers tell you they prefer one off comission-based fees, you need to pivot.
Learning #6: Give back.
Programs like the Founders Institute rely on mentors who provide their time for free. Mentors join one of the weekly calls, talk about topics ranging from branding to go-to-market. They rate your pitches and provide you with feedback. Some of them even take time out of their busy schedule for one-on-one mentoring. The type of mentoring provided by experienced entrepreneurs was invaluable to me. To return the favour, I continue to help other aspiring entrepreneurs — by putting them in touch with my friends, professional contacts, or simply by encouraging them to keep going.