I recently moved from working with accelerators to running my own startup. In the process, I wanted to compile my learnings into a book that would show founders how they can get the benefits that accelerators offer, whether they decide to join a program or not. So was born Speed Up Your Startup. I based the book on my personal experience but also original survey research and interviews.
The findings were interesting and provided powerful evidence for the recommendations in the book. Here, I would like to raise one particular point that applies to a wider audience, too. Business is not about what you know, but about who you know. Startups are no different, and they know to expect and value contacts from accelerators. After all, a good investor, partner or advisor can open doors that you can’t even get to knock on yourself.
Startups who had participated in an accelerator reported that they wish they’d gotten more introductions to industry contacts – potential partners and customers. 49% of respondents who had not participated in an accelerator reported that customer contacts would be very desirable. However, only 22% of accelerator veterans reported that the industry contacts provided by the accelerator had been “very good.” 46% rated the industry contacts provided as “neutral” or “poor.” The open-ended answers support this, with many founders pointing out that an accelerator would add the most value by providing partner or customer contacts. Indeed “industry fit” was mentioned as an important criteria when selecting an accelerator program in the first place.
This emphasizes the need for accelerators to more closely meet the startup’s business needs and may mean more demand for accelerators that have a clear industry vertical focus. Mentorship, as mentioned above, is done very well. Investor contacts are highly desirable for startups that have not participated in an accelerator program, 93% reporting them as “very” or “somewhat” interesting. Accelerators do seem to deliver value on this front as well, although there is a small discrepancy between expectations and reality. While 56% of accelerator applicants place investor contacts in the highest category of importance, only 45% of accelerator veterans report the investor contacts offered as having been “very good” while 35% rated them “good.”
One founder from a TechStars company said the social validation accelerators give startups is very real and very valuable. “TechStars provided me and my startup with social proof that investors, business partners, media, and customers respond to. Not all care, but with those that do, the brand association is helpful,” he summarized.
So if you are not in accelerator or blessed with a large rolodex, what can you do? Here are some principles of getting networked.
1. Ask for introductions
It is always easier for two people to talk if a third one brings them together whom they both know. This creates context and basic rapport from the start. Use your existing networks in this, even if you need to ask someone to make an introduction to someone who can make an introduction.
2. If you have to go cold, have a point to yourself
Cold calling or walking up from the blue to introduce yourself can also work, but you have to do it with a focus. Have an agenda, a reason for talking to the other person, and offer them something interesting that they remember you for. Nobody will know you for the rich personality you are the first time they meet you. Instead, they will categorize or label you somehow. Give them something to label you with.
3. Create your identity
Online, you are the content you create. Blogging is one of the best things you can do for growing your contact base and creating a persona that people can refer to and use to understand who you are. Blogging also has the benefit of being a great marketing channel and a search engine optimization (SEO) tactic, and helping you clarify your thinking by exposing it to the outside world.
4. Be proactive
While nobody likes getting pointless emails from half-strangers constantly, do keep your contacts in the loop when it is relevant to them. We all get too much communication as it is, but that also means we’ve learned to deal with it. I like to see people err on the side of overcommunication instead of going into radio silence – at least I don’t have to chase them for updates.
5. Get out of the building
Making contacts in the real world should be high on your agenda. I’m not a big fan of large events for startups. They are only valuable if they bring someone within your reach you wouldn’t otherwise meet. Small, targeted events like meetups are much better for contact creation. Chat with companies like Financial Technology Partners Co or similar. You usually have time to meet everyone, and they are either free or very cheap, compared to the ridiculous ticket prices commanded by even the mid-range tech events. For networking, value is definitely in the meetups. If there is no meetup relevant to you, consider setting one up yourself. Go for as targeted as you can. If you’re in a smaller town, a web developer meetup can be targeted enough. If you’re in New York, you may need to drill down a couple of levels to make it more specific. Do your research on and use Meetup.com.
Finally, if you feel you can’t find an accelerator that meets your needs, or don’t want to join one, check out my book for compiled learnings from accelerators and accelerate yourself instead. To find out more about the research and the book, head to www.SpeedUpYourStarup.com or follow @SpeedUpStartup.