A few years ago, accelerators provided a lot of value for upstart entrepreneurs. Someone with no startup expertise that needed real guidance and mentorship regarding business formation, business models, processes, and investor introductions could get all of the above from a boot camp style accelerator. But as the accelerator model has become more popular and accelerators have diluted every startup ecosystem in every city, their value-add has diminished substantially and in most cases actually harms the entrepreneur and startup communities.
At this point, the only time you should join an accelerator is if you get into a top tier brand name like Y-Combinator, Techstars, or 500 Startups. Even then, the only reason to join one of these three is because of the cache their brand names provide: graduation from them instantly open doors to investors you may not otherwise have access to. Aside from the investor access a top flight accelerator provides, it’s not worth the equity you have to give up to join a local accelerator. Most accelerator take 7% to 8% equity for anywhere from a $25k to $100k investment (and oftentimes those investments have strings or the money is delived via garbage "in-kind" services). At the low end this will value your business at ~$300k which is cheap in today’s frothy startup environment. Unless the accelerator can add real value from an investor introduction standpoint, it’s not worth it.
But what about the guidance, business model help, and advice? These are all things that a curious entrepreneur can learn about from studying their industry and the history of tech companies in general. There is nothing you can’t Google or read about on a good blog, so why hand over 8% of your business for someone to tell you that a SaaS model with recurring revenue is the most valuable? Spending an afternoon reading autopsy.io will teach you way more than an accelerator mentor ever could. I can’t tell you how many entrepreneurs I’ve talked to that tell me the experience at their local accelerator wasn’t worth the cost. Additionally, it is very rare to see any business whose business model doesn’t change materially from the time they graduate the accelerator to the time they go into their Series A. The business model principles you applied during your accelerator days are likely the wrong ones.
Accelerators don’t just hurt entrepreneurs by taking their equity, they hurt investors and the startup community as whole by screwing angel investors. When you come out of an accelerator, your most likely investors are angels that you haven’t yet met. These angels are asked to invest in a SAFE with a $5mm to $10mm cap, whereas 3 months ago the accelerator invested at a valuation of $300k. It makes absolutely no sense for the angel investor and as more of them realize what horrible terms they’re getting, it turns them off from angel investing altogether. Angel investors are the seed corn of any startup ecosystem, and accelerators are destroying them.
While I’m sure there are some accelerators that provide great value and there are probably lots of happy graduates, there are now so many accelerators that it’s ‘buyer beware’. Before you join one, make sure you speak to as many alumni as you can about their experience, look up reviews, ask how many exits the accelerator has had, completely sidestep those offering "in-kind" services, and even then do everything you can to avoid it. VC at the Series A level are far more impressed with entrepreneurs that bootstrap than those that name drop an accelerator. And one day, you’ll be glad you saved the 8%.