By Alex Waters, Director at CONNECT ALL @ the Jacobs Center
For the past five years, I’ve had the privilege of diving into San Diego’s startup industry, and getting familiar with its ecosystem in many ways — from being a volunteer with Startup San Diego and Startup Weekend, to an innovation coach and University of San Diego instructor, and now in my role as the director of CONNECT ALL @ the Jacobs Center, the City of San Diego’s first business accelerator program designed for low-to-moderate-income and diverse startup founders.
If you’re looking into a business accelerator program to bolster your start up, that’s great! There are several key ways to be efficient as possible for achieving your business goals and maximizing your experience.
1. Know What You Want to Accomplish
A startup owner should know how a business accelerator program fits into the development of their business before the application and interview phases. For example, one of our business accelerator program participants was a technology team that knew they wanted help, but didn’t have a clear overview of how being part of the accelerator fit into their startup’s long-term plan.
Sometimes, startup owners look at a program like it’s a good opportunity – and it is! – but they haven’t evaluated if it’s also the right time for a program based on their startup’s goals and progress.
How will a program help you accomplish your long-term goal? An entrepreneur or business owner should have a vision and clear goal before joining a business accelerator program, such as wanting to get in a position to get a loan or upgrade a one-person company to a staff of five. Establish your next steps, so you know exactly what kind of help and resources to seek out, and can be productive from the first day your program starts.
2. Be Proactive and Eager to Get What You Need
With so many resources available at a business accelerator, it’s good to have a broad understanding of exactly what each program offers and leverage those opportunities. Beneficial steps include scheduling one-on-one meetings with program directors and key staff, who will help you learn about startup resources in and out of the program, like getting involved in the local startup ecosystem and signing up for newsletters from local organizations within your industry.
In addition to proactivity, be willing to follow the steps your program provides. These are proven practices that I can pretty much guarantee will help you if you go through them.
One of our initial assignments at the business accelerator program I run is customer discovery, a series of customer interviews and projects. It’s a crucial exercise to learn about a startups’ customer base, and many have never assessed this area of their business. There are some that view this assignment as way to learn, and they want to do it, and others choose not to prioritize this step, even if it would benefit them greatly.
Some entrepreneurs join a program for a singular reason. For example, they might just be looking for funding sources, but by staying too singularly focused, they pass up opportunities to connect with other startup owners or learn about new resources. Other entrepreneurs approach the assignments, workshops and webinars eagerly, and that mindset is essential for you to succeed.
3. Be Willing to Learn from Everyone
Take the novice approach. Every interaction is an opportunity to learn, even if it’s learning what not to do! With local industry experts, seasoned mentors and budding businesses owners providing help and sharing ideas, an accelerator is a goldmine of connection opportunities.
Our particular accelerator takes in teams that are on different levels of building their business and all industries, as long as the startup has launched with an existing product or service that is currently operating and has some measurable traction, like sales, customers, pilots or users. Other programs focus on businesses all at the same level or in the same type of industry. No matter the format, it’s important to embrace the collaborative community, and acknowledge that great information comes from all kinds of people, not just experts.
In the past year, I’ve seen people learn about new technology, processes and community organizations from each other, whether the person is farther along in their business or in an earlier stage. A critical cross-industry connection may form from a simple conversation. Just recently, a cohort member learned about business processing from someone working on an ecommerce website. They figured out a better way to organize and market their product, and that same method made sense for both industries. It saved both of them a lot of time and probably money too.
Every so often, a random business issue or need will come up that maybe, as a first-time owner, you haven’t encountered. Don’t leave it to chance – ask for help! Even if it’s outside the scope of a program you’re in, there may be a connection that can provide advice.
4. Spend Time Building Relationships
In my experience, I’ve observed that entrepreneurs often don’t take enough time to build relationships with each other. Set up a virtual meeting with another startup founder, or have coffee together and learn their story. Informational interviews are the best type of interview. Plus, it could pay off massively. You have to be intentional about building these relationships, because when your business accelerator program ends, the relationships you build will be your most valuable resources, assets and supporters.
There also might be workshop or guest speakers whose experience or advice interests you. Connect with them afterward, whether it’s via Zoom, a short email or personal LinkedIn message. Recently, one of our startup participants connected with a guest speaker who is the chief revenue officer of a large local business. They met a couple times, and once the guest speaker’s company started expanding into Latin America, he reached out to the startup owner to learn about best practices. That reciprocal relationship doesn’t exist if you’re not open to or don’t initiate those exchanges.
Similarly, mentorship programs within business accelerators pair two people together based on personality and identified needs. These relationships are mutually beneficial. Consider cultivating them for the long-term, not just during your program.
5. Learn to Say No
You can only do so many things. If you’re in a business accelerator program right now, that was already a big yes – a time-consuming and hugely beneficial commitment. You’ve already known what you have to eliminate in order to add this program to your life.
Don’t let yourself drown in opportunities. Of course, this sounds cool in theory, but remember to stay balanced and focused. Between your work life, personal life and other priorities, it may not be the right time to take that night class or launch that podcast. Prioritize and take things step by step.
Good luck out there … it’s going to be awesome!
Alex Waters is the program director at CONNECT ALL @ the Jacobs Center, and has helped 39 City of San Diego startup businesses grow and expand their teams since the program’s opening in May 2019. Applications are now open for the next free business accelerator program at bit.ly/cohort4application.