The Startup Accelerator Guide: Choosing an In-Person or Virtual Program

The number of accelerator programs in the U.S. has grown tenfold over the last 10 years, meaning there are now over 250 accelerator programs available globally, each with their own industry specializations, benefits and drawbacks. There are also an increasing number of virtual accelerators, the more flexible version of their physical counterpart.

With the plethora of options, the challenge for many startups is choosing which accelerator to apply to. Although accelerators (unlike incubators) are more focused on accelerating your current growth and may last only three months, you still need to choose the right fit for you and your company. Picking the right accelerator can transform the  trajectory of your business, while picking the wrong one could mean you miss out on big opportunities. Y Combinator, the most famous among accelerator programs, has helped produce well-known success stories like AirBnB, DropBox and Reddit, amongst others.

In addition to growing your business, accelerators offer expert advice, connections, mentors, introductions to investors and shared experiences with fellow entrepreneurs.

At Blueprint Registry, we have had the opportunity and privilege to participate in a traditional in-person accelerator, Techstars, as well as a virtual accelerator, Commerce Innovated. Below is our perspective for choosing the right accelerator program for your startup based on the three criteria we found to be most important:

Prestige and social proof

The most important factor when considering an accelerator is the prestige and reputation that the accelerator offers the businesses that graduate from it. It is no coincidence that the biggest name accelerators receive more than 5,000 applications for each class. Great accelerator programs attract great companies, which attracts great mentors, all of which attracts great investors – it’s a fortuitous circle. Alongside all the obvious benefits of an accelerator program, startups should simply consider being associated with a best-in-call brand.

The most well known accelerator programs include Y-Combinator, Techstars, 500 Startups and Founder Institute. World-renowned accelerators will offer its alumni instant credibility, access to investors, interest from potential hires and PR. Just aligning yourself with their brand means validation. The fact you were accepted, and more importantly graduated, shows that you are the real deal — and will attract the attention of investors, employees, partners, customers, etc. Not to mention that these accelerators are so well connected that some of their graduates will walk out straightaway with partnership deals that  were organized while in the program.

If this sounds like what you need, it is always best to go for a leading in-house accelerator. Finding the same benefits from a virtual program will be more difficult. Just as with formal education, names and brands in the tech/startup world are incredibly important. While esteemed universities offer online courses, it does not necessarily give you the same benefits as if you lived on campus and attended classes in person. Currently, just one of the Forbes list of top thirty accelerators doesn’t require a physical presence.

Related: 7 Tips For Applying for an Incubator or Accelerator

Relationships and networking

One of the biggest assets you and your team will gain from attending an accelerator are the connections with mentors, potential investors and other founders in the program. This is pivotal as the connections are not just for the duration of the program, they last well beyond.

A crucial advantage that cannot be overstated for an in-house accelerator is the face-to-face element. Digital technology allows us to chat from anywhere in the world, but does not compare to real interaction when it comes to fostering relationships. Not only is face to face interaction more organic, it is also more meaningful: 93 percent of the information we convey is through nonverbal expressions and tone of voice.

There is also the sheer amount of exposure to other startup teams that you will gain from being physically present. Spending every moment of your day with like-minded entrepreneurials is a surefire way to build strong relationships.

The interactions with other founders is also great for cross-sector information sharing and learning. Although each startup may have different goals or operate in different industries, many of their challenges (i.e. getting funding, branding and growth) are essentially the same.

This is not to say that virtual programs do not offer similar networking opportunities. You just need to work harder, do your research and make a networking plan along with clear goals beforehand. Choosing an industry focused, niche program should also help you in developing useful connections. Generally, however, the whole process will be easier with an in-house program. If you are in earlier stages of your company’s life cycle, an in-house program may be more advantageous, as it is easier to capitalize on the networking and relationships.

Time and relocation commitment

Joining an in-house accelerator will require far more of a time commitment from yourself and your team than a virtual one. The process usually means uprooting your life and your colleagues’ to be physically present for the duration of the program. The downside is that 100 percent commitment to the accelerator is not easy and may not work for all of your team members.

My co-founder, Lizzy, had just given birth to her first son and had to bring him back and forth between TechStars in Minneapolis to her home in Seattle. Lizzy was a rockstar. On the flipside, I had just gotten married and had to fly directly from my honeymoon in Tel Aviv to the Techstars accelerator in Minneapolis, parting ways from my new wife for three months. Having to uproot your whole team could be difficult and maybe even impossible in some cases.

Another factor to consider is that in-house accelerators will be more work than you ever imagined. The countless programming and events are great for networking, but leaves you little time to to work on your business. Be prepared for 70 to 90 hour work weeks. Working at night and on weekends is the norm. I usually began my “normal” work at 6 p.m. and got my projects done on Saturdays and Sundays.

Virtual accelerators, on the other hand, are far better from a time-management perspective. Not only are they less intensive and time-demanding, they are far more flexible in terms of travel.

Although there is some onsite programming for Commerce Innovated, many of the meetings, coaching and projects are done remotely. This means that we do not need to relocate to another city, which also reduces commute time.

A virtual program will allow you to manage your team and business better than with an in-house program, as you can retain control over your company operations and schedule. If you want a project to be completed faster, you can re-prioritize accelerator commitments or meetings to focus on an urgent business matter. So if you need this flexibility, or doubt your team can fully commit to an in-house program, a virtual accelerator may be the preferable option.

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Opting for an in-house or virtual accelerator program depends entirely on what you are hoping to get out of the experience and the flexibility of your business and its team members. For some, the time and location requirements of an in-house program will be too intensive and inflexible, or enough to negate the advantages of an in-house program. For others, the advantages gained from an in-house program, such as better networking possibilities and more prestige or social proof, will warrant making the extra commitment. Whichever type of program you opt for, the consequences can last long into your company’s development.

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