This time a year ago, I was in a similar position as many of you who are out there building startups. I was spending numerous hours working feverishly to apply to several startup accelerators, from Summer@Highland to University of Chicago’s Polsky Accelerator. Nervously waiting for decisions, I finally heard back from the University of Chicago’s Polsky Accelerator accepting us to fill one of ten spots in their first class.
Our startup, Kip Solutions, is a social media consulting firm for social causes. We had significant traction before applying to accelerators: we had raised $10,000 for a client in Cameroon, and were already featured by Inc. Magazine as one of the Coolest College Start-ups for 2012 and Kairos Society selected us one of the Top 50 Most Innovative Student-Run Companies.
During my first week at the Polsky Accelerator, I was most excited to be surrounded by some of the best startups in Chicago. Among the final ten were startups like Moneythink, which had just been featured at the White House, and Zipfit, which opened a store on the prestigious Michigan Avenue in Chicago a few weeks after the accelerator program ended, and is now opening a second store.
I’ve always been told that the best thing about being in an accelerator is being surrounded by individuals who are going through similar challenges. But now, nine months since the completion of the Polsky Accelerator and the recent acquisition of Kip Solutions, I can’t say being constantly surrounded by startups is the best way to accelerate your company.
Instead, here are my four tips to help you truly accelerate:
1. Ditch the startup networking sessions. Go to the networking events that your customers attend.
One of the most eye-opening moments for me while at the accelerator was attending the many “startup” networking sessions. I personally did not find them very helpful, because I realized that time is better spent going to network events where your customers are.
When I attended non-profit networking sessions (our core customer), our startup closed clients and dove deeper into our customer’s problems (which inspired us to think of better solutions). It’s also much easier to get face time with people we wanted to meet. At startup networking sessions, we were constantly fighting for investor time—a major downside. But at non-profit networking sessions, we stood out—it’s easier to do because we were often the only startup (or one of very few).
2. Be disciplined.
Startup lifestyle has the dual stereotype of both “We start work closer to the afternoon because we go to a lot of work-related events at night,” and, “We don’t sleep because we’re working all the time.” Every startup has their own culture, but what I’ve learned is that it’s important to commit 100% to the hours you say you’re going to work.
As a good friend of mine Kevin Rustagi, start-up Founder of Evolution of Noise Music and Design, quoted from R.A. Kearney, “If you don’t get anything done, you’re not going to get anything done.” It sounds like common sense, but I’ve observed how startups burn the day watching cat videos or surfing the web. Commit to a set number of hours where you disconnect from distractions and focus on getting work done. Be disciplined.
3. Surround yourself with those that have answers (Hint: it’s not other early-stage startups).
Spend time with those who can answer your questions. Moneythink’s Executive Director, Ted Gonder, often quotes from Jim Rohn that “You’re the average of the five people you surround yourself with.” As startups, we’re still trying to understand how our business models will work, who our real customers are, and how our products (or services) best function. It’s hard to find those answers when we surround ourselves with other startups that are asking similar questions and seeking similar answers.
I found it most helpful to surround myself with those who have already successfully addressed questions about business models and customer sizing. My co-founder and I had the opportunity to attend a CEO luncheon hosted by Inc. Magazine, and we were surrounded by some of the top CEOs in Chicago. That one lunch taught me more about how to shape my business than spending a lot more time with other startups.
4. Okay, but you should spend some time with startups.
Now, just because you’ll find a lot of your answers by surrounding yourself with your customers and already-successful founders and CEOs, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend anytime with other startups. David Chen, Co-founder of Strikingly.com (part of the Y Combinator Winter 2013 class), explains, “At YC, we don’t spend more than 6 hours a week with other startups.” Six hours seems to be the perfect amount of time to get inspired by the energy of actually being a startup—but too much more time than that could mean you’re not accelerating your startup as fast as you could be.
The best thing about all of this advice, and being a startup, is you don’t need permission to act. You can start accelerating now by following these easy suggestions.