Building a company from scratch is hard. But since my co-founder and I launched our full product in September of 2017, we’ve expanded our team significantly.
As we head into our third year of growth, I find myself looking back at how our company got started. One thing that stands out as a turning point for our success was participating in a seed accelerator. Like so many startup founders, getting accepted into the program was a dream come true. It’s not just the name recognition, but the unmatched business advice we received that made us the company we are today. Fellow entrepreneurs often ask me the most important things I learned from the program.
Here are a few things I share:
Lesson No. 1: Be open to collaboration.
Being accepted into a seed accelerator means joining a program designed to help founders get rid of as many roadblocks as possible so they can focus solely on building their product (and business). It’s also worth noting that your accelerator’s companies are also its customers.
The network expands beyond just asking for advice and working through issues; it also allows you to use one another’s products to help solve the problems that fellow founders run into when scaling. For example, you might be worried about finding a secure way to handle credit card transactions only to find the founder of a credit card processing company is right next door to help you.
These startups are of the same blood. The founders have all been through this experience, and in my experience, alumni and classmates are more than ready to help. So if you choose to participate in a seed accelerator, keep in mind that it’s about paying it forward. Everyone has their own versions of their struggles, and all the founders will be deep in their work. But take the time to talk out any challenges you’re seeing and help others with theirs; it’s invaluable for everyone involved.
Lesson No. 2: The support you have will make or break you.
The biggest mistake we saw with other startups in our class was to get stuck in the mindset that the accelerator is the endgame. Don’t get me wrong, our acceptance into our accelerator program was a big milestone for the business — but it was just the beginning. Since then, we’ve taken our tech through open enrollment, greatly increased our assets, grew the company to over 50 employees, moved offices and now, we are expecting more of the same growth this year.
Every milestone we’ve reached has surpassed the last — each dominating our field of vision, then quickly fading into the rearview as we speed toward the next. But it’s not always easy to see the next milestone when roadblocks seem insurmountable and decisions seem endless.
This is when you can lean on your accelerator’s support to help you remove the noise and instead help you focus on what would enable growth. (Hint: It’s all about the customer).
When encountering roadblocks, I learned that it is equally, if not more, important to rely on your customers. In a high-growth, customer-first company, your customers are who know best. You need their insights and feedback to improve your product experience and to scale a product they want and use. From my perspective, our company is not a project we will ever complete, so our success is empirically tied to building a customer feedback system.
Lesson No. 3: The big picture is bigger.
Growing our company took a lot of work, and considering my co-founder is also a lifelong friend, we were often entrenched in nitty-gritty details and found it easy to lose sight of our vision. It was important that we pulled off the blinders so we could focus on what truly mattered: the product that would help make our customers happy. Instead of getting stuck in the minutiae of the product or a marketing strategy, we try to take a step back and ask ourselves, “What is it that the customer needs?”
This kind of big-picture thinking really helped us grow this past year. Continually iterating our product based on customer feedback has been a symbiotic relationship: We are able to grow and expand our services, while our customers receive a better tool to easily manage their health savings accounts.
Sometimes it’s really hard to take a step back, but for me personally, when I find myself in the day-to-day and thinking about things on a short-term basis, it can add to my own personal stress level. When I take a step back, it allows me to put everything we’re doing into context. There will be blips on the radar, and that’s OK. You have to have a healthy balance between the day-to-day and the big picture to grow.
Bringing It All Together
If you’re considering joining a seed accelerator, my biggest advice is to figure out what your motivation is first. Some accelerators will offer you coworking space and other amenities, while others will provide you with access to resources and individuals who can help you build the foundations of your business. Look around at different accelerators and see what works best for your goals, and align them with your values.
Keep in mind, an accelerator is not a magic fix-all. While there will be resources to help you solve any issues and roadblocks that you might have, the purpose of an accelerator is to help your business take off. Being in an accelerator is all about how much effort you put into your company and the willingness to succeed. If your goal for an accelerator is to have it solve the problems you have with your business, I would consider looking for a different alternative.
Being in an accelerator has taught us that we should always be looking to hire great people who are smarter than us. We’re not here to be the smartest people in the room. We’re here to help our customers receive the best product and service.