Have you ever heard of the startup merry-go-round? This is where founders join one accelerator programme after another in the hope of closing their funding round.
First-time founders especially need more access to a network of investors and hope startup accelerators can help solve that problem.
Most startup accelerators provide a fixed-term, cohort-based programme of mentorship, education and workspace as part of their offering. At the end of the programme, there is usually a grand event called a Demo Day, whereby the founders practise perfecting their pitches for weeks (or months), all for this big opportunity to pitch in front of a crowd full of potential investors.
In reality, too many Demo Days struggle with attracting investors and, instead, it becomes founders on stage pitching to founders and corporates in the audience.
Why can’t accelerators attract investors?
The first independent startup accelerator was Y-Combinator, now based in Silicon Valley. They introduced the world to startup accelerators.
Back in 2005, when they started the Demo Day experience at the end of their accelerator programmes, it was a novel, new and exciting experience so investors flocked in anticipation of spotting the next big thing.
However, now there has been a proliferation of startup accelerators — Pace University in 2021 quoted as many as 8,000.
As a consequence of the high volume of startup accelerator programmes, we see the Long Tail theory play out, as written in Chris Anderson’s book in 2004.
At the head, we see the most popular accelerator programmes, from Entrepreneur First to Techstars, attract early-stage investors at their Demo Days. The majority of programmes make up the long tail and struggle to fill their audiences.
The second problem is that the founder/investor fit is often wrong. Depending on the programme, you'll typically get a first-time founder on stage who is at the idea stage or early traction.
These founders are looking for angel investors to close their first round of funding. Yet, programme organisers focus instead on trying to lure venture capitalists (VCs) to attend. They fail to recognise that for a seed or Series A investor, these pitches are too early and not a good fit (yet).
Where to start?
The best Demo Days are those where they restrict the invite list, going for quality over quantity. But without the brand or reputation, how can you get started?
Startup accelerators should intentionally build relationships with angel investors to attract active angels to attend their Demo Days.
There are a few simple things you can do to get started. The first is to attract angels with operator experience to mentor startups on the programme. This allows angels to pay it forward and enables the founders to start building relationships with angel investors.
Secondly, focus on building relationships with angel groups, networks and syndicates. For example, if I were focused on climate change startups, I would target specific angel syndicates that invest in that sector like Green Angel Syndicate. Or if there was a diversity focus, I would turn to syndicates such as 3SV Collective.
Going digital rather than physical doesn’t hurt too; it allows you to tap into a regionally diverse base of investors. A great example of this is Focal, which also has an impressive alumni network.
Finally, I would work smarter rather than harder and find communities of angels to reach out to. For example, at my company, Angel Investing School, we have trained over 500 angel investors and have a community of over 1,000 across Europe. So we have angel investors regularly looking for different places to source dealflow.
Who ultimately pays the cost?
Sadly, founders who go through these startup accelerator programmes are the stakeholders impacted most.
For many founders, the primary reason for joining the programme isn’t mentorship but rather to raise capital. Accelerators have to respect the founders’ time and limited runway.
Feels like we need a bit of a reset so that founders are aware of what value they will get from programmes and, in turn, accelerators can attract the right founders. I believe a win-win is possible and I haven’t lost hope but there is some work to be done.