This is a guest post by Ann Stewart Zachwieja, COO of Globig. a MergeLane 2016 Accelerator participant.
Those of you leading a startup will recognize the driving pace. There is no such thing as a 40-hour schedule or free weekends. You solve problems in your dreams, Slack ideas to your teammates at all hours, and lose track of conversations with friends while silently refining your elevator pitch. Every moment is precious and there are never enough. Slowing down for anything is clearly not an option.
Or is it? Is there anything that merits stepping back, evaluating, and slowing down the pace of your company’s growth while actually adding more onto your already overflowing proverbial plate? That’s the sort of question startups will ask themselves when they consider applying for an accelerator.
At Globig, a Boulder Colorado startup, we found ourselves having that debate – should we take the time to apply to an accelerator? As we thought through this question, our team had a series of gating ‘debates’ on our way to an answer. MergeLane, the Boulder-based accelerator for companies with at least one woman in leadership, seemed like a natural consideration for us – if we could possibly take the time out of our busy schedule. And that was a big ‘if’.
We did ultimately decide to apply to MergeLane and were fortunate to be part of the 2016 cohort with 9 other exceptional startups. Here are some of the important gating questions we asked ourselves before we put together our application. They are most likely similar to those you will ask yourself and your team if you are thinking about applying to an accelerator.
Gate #1: Is our business mature enough for an accelerator?
One of the common terms in the startup world for measuring a company’s viability is ‘traction’ – the ways in which a company is showing growth. Traction could be revenue, visitors to your site, orders, signed deals, or other measures showing that you are safely beyond the ‘I have a great idea’ phase. Traction is a prerequisite for most accelerators, as they are looking for companies who are already far enough along the path to demonstrate they are onto something. MergeLane has a number of ways in which they measure traction. If you believe you can demonstrate some form of it, that shouldn’t stop you from applying or getting more information on what qualifies.
Gate #2: Do we need outside help? What can they teach us that we don’t already know?
It happens that at our company, we not only have what we consider a viable idea with traction, we also have many combined years of subject matter, corporate, and startup experience. We have successfully run product, sales, and marketing groups for large and small organizations, managed product lines, built B2C and B2B businesses and services, have published authors and poised public speakers, and even have a lawyer on our team. Could we really learn enough to make it worth intentionally slowing down our business growth for 12 weeks?
It is the rare company that has nothing to learn, even teams with combined years of experience can use help.
Here are some of the ways we learned new things at MergeLane:
Talented mentors: As with any accelerator, MergeLane assembles a group of exceptional mentors based on the companies who will be in the cohort. At the beginning of the 12-week program, teams met with over 60 potential mentors in order to find the best fit given each team’s needs, mentor backgrounds and interests, and good chemistry. The mentors are hand-selected to advise, challenge, support and offer connections to their mentees. It is not an overstatement to say that this is the sort of one-on-one attention that most startups may not ever get on their own. And there is always something to be learned from very successful and diverse business people who have offered up their precious time to help your company succeed and be attractive for investment.
We were constantly asked the hard questions: At MergeLane, our assumptions were constantly being challenged and we were in an environment where that was encouraged, supported, and where a structure was provided with different ways to ask and answer the hard questions. If you are driving so hard that you don’t take a second or third look at your underlying assumptions, you run the risk of heading farther down a false path than you should.
Team-building and self-awareness exercises: No matter how well your team gets along, there are often ways in which you act and interact – that you may not even be aware of – that will keep you from being as effective as you can be. While large companies with deep pockets have the resources to put their teams through team-building programs, not many startups will earmark already scarce funds toward doing the same. And again, what startup has the time to set aside for meaningful team building? And in this case, I do not mean beers and frisbee golf on a Friday afternoon. Legitimately good fun, but not the sort of thing that will help you really understand each other, deal with conflict, and identify potential issues.
MergeLane uses a number of programs and techniques from the very beginning that will teach your team how to be more effective and make better decisions. The training you get is worth thousands of dollars and is part of your MergeLane experience. Your team will learn something it can use immediately and continue to refine over time.
Other members of the 2016 cohort: MergeLane brought together a diverse set of startups from across the US and one company from Hungary. The 10 teams brought experience in areas such as non-partisan online voter guides for all elections, mobile learning apps, technology for the taxi cab industry to rival Uber, and cyber security. There were different perspectives, different experience levels (and experiences), and different stages of growth. Everyone was encouraged to give advice, feedback, guidance, and support. Not surprisingly, the teams are still in contact and continue to share in our successes and struggles.
Elevator pitch to demo day: If you’ve been in fundraising-mode or presenting at pitch competitions, you may have a refined elevator pitch and a tight deck. If you aren’t there yet (and even if you are), MergeLane and its team of experts will take you from a 2-sentence elevator pitch (that could be rough around the edges) to a 7-minute multi-media pitch polished for presentation in front of hundreds.
Gate #3: Can we spare the time with our already aggressive timeline?
Ironically, this is the sort of question that will signal to an accelerator that you have a real business. You have a schedule, plans, and your company requires your full attention. The question really is: Will an accelerator experience ultimately put you ahead of where you would be if you’d stayed the course?
In our case, there is no question that we came out ahead of where we would have been. We got more focused, made some significant and meaningful adjustments in our business plan, and used all of the resources provided to us during our 12-week program and beyond. We continue to grow and improve, and take advantage of the incredibly supportive community of fellow cohorts, mentors, and of course, the MergeLane team.
Gate #4: Is it hard?
Ok. We didn’t actually ask ourselves this question. Of course it’s hard! But then, you didn’t decide to start a company because you thought it would be easy, did you? For us, joining MergeLane was worth the time and equity investment.
-Ann Stewart Zachwieja, COO of Globig.
Applications for the 2017 MergeLane accelerator for high-growth startups with at least one woman in leadership are open. Apply today.
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