The TechStars “recipe” — patterns of a successful accelerator program

Software is eating the world and everyone wants (really, needs) to get in the game.

For software creatives and engineering-centric companies, participating in digital innovation and disruption is second nature.

But for the vast majority of people and organizations, IT has traditionally been treated like the slightly embarrassing nerdy uncle who shows up for Thanksgiving: he’s welcome to stay, but he has to sit at the kids table, and everyone raises their eyebrows when he asks for a second helping of pie.

As non-technical organizations wake up to the power of software-powered innovation, they quickly realize how hard it is to attract top-tier technical talent to full-time positions. Once they hit the brick wall of hiring, the smart ones step back and ask themselves:

“How the hell do I get hackers to care about my brand / my data / my problems?”

There *are* patterns for success here, but they aren’t found in the traditional recruiting playbook.

In the current market — where demand for engineering talent far outstrips supply — the most successful model for attracting elite software creatives to hard business problems is the “accelerator” model. Pioneered by Y combinator and TechStars, this approach is now being applied in dozens of cities across the U.S.

Big tech companies like Rackspace and Microsoft are now working with TechStars to apply the accelerator model to their business, and even non-tech players like Weiden + Kennedy (an ad agency best known for their work with Nike) are creating accelerators to bring software creatives into closer contact with their brand clients.

I just came from brainstorming meeting sponsored by a state agency with a mandate to deploy money (not a ton, but enough to make a dent) to catalyze software innovation in the public interest. I’m an unabashed advocate for the “TechStars model”, and I did my best to articulate what I believe are the key elements of the pattern as an input to the discussion…

The “TechStars Recipe”

  1. Scarcity

    The biggest single variable in a successful accelerator program is the quality of the class. Limiting the number of spots available and applying a rigorous screening model to all applicants are the bedrock of a quality program.

    TechStars has built such a strong reputation that it now screens >100 applicants for every spot, radically increasing the odds that the teams and companies coming out of the program are going to make a dent. Teams are screened for engineering talent, agility and openness to feedback; the actual problem they plan to solve matters far less than the skills and approach they can bring to it.

    Not every program will have the luxury of a huge applicant funnel, but maximizing awareness, enforcing scarcity and being disciplined about selection have a massive impact on a program’s effectiveness and quality.

  2. Urgency

    Deadlines brings out the best in teams and mentors. Twelve weeks is an insanely short time to create product, lock in on a go-to-market strategy, and make a case for outside investment. Knowing that a roomful of qualified investors will be waiting for you on Demo Day helps keep everyone focused on bringing it all together, and the level of sustained intensity created by a well-run program is incredible to see.

  3. Commitment 

    Lots of people say they want to be entrepreneurs; few actually make the leap and commit to the hard work of building a business. If you want your program to actually produce companies (and not just hobby projects), requiring a full-time commitment to the program is essential. This means no outside professional commitments, no mid-program vacations, and no remote team members.

  4. Proximity 

    For each class of companies, having a cohort of peers who have made a similar commitment and passed through the same rigorous screening process is both inspiring and energizing. Bringing all the teams together in a single workspace allows everyone to make the most of that commitment. It also ensures maximum leverage of the program’s mentors, presenters and leadership. Having everyone in one place maximizes the odds of serendipity, the chance interaction between people and ideas that create breakthroughs.

  5. Leadership

    Like any great company, an accelerator program is only as good as the people running it. Running a great program is an incredibly demanding job, requiring exceptional skills in fundraising, recruiting, people management, conflict resolution, inspirational leadership and public communication. All of this has to happen on a deliberately compressed schedule that typically requires 12+ hour workdays, late nights and frayed nerves all around.

    If you’re recruiting a leader for an accelerator program, you can’t just screen for skills and experience; the job requires someone with an intense passion for the entrepreneurial journey and an evangelical fire that inspires the same in others.

  6. Mentoring

    TechStars calls itself a “mentorship-driven” organization for a reason. The core of the program is hands-on coaching from hundreds of mentors who have volunteered their time to help build the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders. Each team builds relationships with several mentors over the course of the program, getting world-class feedback on everything from product and engineering to sales, PR, customer acquisition, financing, hiring and organizational development. TechStars teams inevitably describe the mentorship they receive as the most powerful aspect of the program.

    Recruiting an all-star group of mentors and helping them engage constructively with teams are critical success factors for any serious accelerator program. This is harder than it looks — the most effective mentors are typically people with lots of other demands on their time, and they need to believe in the model and have confidence in the quality of the teams selected to commit time and effort to the program.

  7. Promotion

    As the cost of starting a software business approaches zero, we are entering an era of perfect competition for talent, money and attention. One of the reasons top teams apply to elite accelerator programs is for the signaling value — being lifted up above the noise and showcased as a team worthy of attention.

    Delivering on this promise requires the accelerator itself to invest in brandbuilding and communication — creating a platform that can help its graduates stand out. The best advertising for any accelerator program is the success of its participants, but running great events, building relationships with influential media outlets and consistently producing compelling content about the program are all required activities.

  8. Persistence

    Creating a successful accelerator program takes time, and the longer you stick with it the better it gets. There is a powerful positive feedback loop created by any program that can turn out class after class of great teams, working with engaged mentors, attracting high-quality investors, and realizing market success.

    Any accelerator that aspires to success should begin life with a multi-year plan and funding to match. Two years would be a minimum, and solid support for three or more years will radically increase your odds of building the kind of positive feedback loop that separates the really great programs from the also-rans.

For all of you accelerator veterans out there, what did I miss? Any of the above not as critical as I’ve made it out to be? 
So what are you waiting for?!