A year ago I predicted that in 2014 we would begin to look really closely at the notion of how we accelerate startups. Much of the ever-expanding body of work on this subject revolves around whether startup accelerators actually work, strong opinions as to which ones do and don’t, and whether your startup should apply to any of the existing ones.
I think that the really interesting questions here help us envision the future. What will acceleration look like as we move from the current model to something else?
Here are my own two cents. My vision of the future of acceleration isn’t a new idea for me; it’s one that I first actively and concretely pitched in Sweden in very early 2011 and then wrote about at Medium about a year ago. My thoughts have continued to evolve from there, influenced in part by what I’ve seen in the acceleration space over the past year and the eloquent thoughts of others.
I deeply believe that the future of acceleration is a curated, bespoke experience. It is not one-size-fits-all, nor is it a hyper-market that reaches across huge spaces. It is a series of dynamic tensions between the physical and the virtual, the narrow and the wide, the very fast and the often ponderously slow. I know this sounds remarkably cliché, but it also mirrors the views of others I deeply respect. By sharing some of their input on this issue, I hope to bring some of my thoughts into focus.
When I asked Saul Colt his thoughts on the future of acceleration, he reasserted his commitment to the entrepreneur. Saul believes that the current accelerator model is “a little broken,” and his work with Toronto’s Kinetic Cafe and Fresh Startups is his personal and professional commitment to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and move forward in a way that honors them and helps build their company, rather than being focused on the needs of the accelerator.
When we think about the future of something, it’s important to consult people who see it from outside the startup world, looking in. Tim Leake is one of those people. Formerly executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York and global partnership director at Stockholm’s Hyper Island, Tim is now director of growth and innovation at rpa in Los Angeles.
“It seems to me that the future role of an accelerator should provide three major things: Guidance for the founders on what they don't know (and what they don't know they don't know) and a network of amazing and important people all over the world, and access to basic company infrastructure stuff (payroll, etc.) that would be cost-prohibitive and distracting for the average startup to wrangle themselves. As an aside, it seems to me that we can fulfill most of these conditions in a virtual setting.”
Tim further suggests that “an accelerator should try to remove as many friction points as possible that lay between the startup's vision and success. Things like distractions, ignorance, connections, etc. It's great for people to learn from mistakes and failure—but better to learn from other people’s mistakes and failure, whenever possible.”
Part of my problem with the notion of an accelerator is the underlying assumption that we should always go fast. Having lived in some icy places, including Montreal, Stockholm, and Minneapolis, I consider myself a reasonably accomplished winter driver. Often the success to traction is in knowing when to accelerate and when to let the machine and gravity work together to slow you down.
Few people agree with me in 2014.
“We should always go as fast as we can,” says Sofia Franzén, the remarkably talented Malmö, Sweden-based founder of Owegoo. “I’ve been trying to start things for years—as a freelancer, running other things on the side. Nothing really clicked. Now that I’m building Owegoo full-time, and we’re accelerating, things are really coming together. We accelerate out of Minc in Malmö, and we’re able to bring in and out pieces of the team. When you have launched, the process doesn’t end but the journey begins. Knowing that I can be here at Minc for another 18 months allows them to be a partner in our strategic direction."
"I’m not sure if my view is typical Swedish, to think more long-term," she adds. "We want to build longer-lasting stuff.”
I found Sofia’s comments really interesting. While it’s not something I hear as frequently in Canada as I do in Europe, Asia, and South America, it’s a message that truly resonates with me.
The entire notion of acceleration resonates with Michael Staton, partner at Silicon Valley VC firm Learn Capital, who describes himself as “bullish on accelerators.” He sees the future of acceleration as “a tournament style,” where we "stage gate startups.”
Michael thinks there will be a place for accelerators for a long time to come. “I think mainly people just want a safe space to iterate. It's hard to tell people what you are doing if you don't have the air cover of an accelerator. While I don't think they add that much value, they do add air cover. And people seem to like that.”
While startups need air cover, they also need air miles. The idea of being able to broadcast what we do to a much larger global audience is, for me, central to the future of acceleration. Earl Miller, Director of Partnerships for Government and International Relations, at MaRS in Toronto, is perhaps uniquely well-positioned to offer an opinion on the scope of the accelerator of tomorrow.
"International business acceleration is destined to become a collaborative activity that engages entrepreneurs from diverse nationalities in immersive environments in one place," he says. "There's a lot of interest in innovation-based trade among entrepreneurs, governments and investors who want to expand faster into international markets while mitigating the risk and costs for startups.”
Earl sees one tangible solution being “to establish partnerships between accelerators as a bridge to getting entrepreneurs from many countries in a single location within a robust ecosystem for company development. We can easily imagine that one day a multinational accelerator at MaRS will drive company growth, bilateral trade and the evolution of the accelerator business model itself."
This is a key piece of the future of acceleration: being visionary but also truly proactive in going out to gather the pieces of the accelerators of the future and to assemble them here in Canada. Having personally done business in over 50 nations, I know how well Canada is regarded and am convinced that Canadian models and solutions will be given a very fair run as we unpack the future of acceleration.