I’m always baffled when the lament that “there are too many X” repeatedly drifts back into the chatter of startup.
Over Labor Day weekend, there was a fiasco in startup world, one I happened to miss because it wasn’t about building companies and selling stuff. But by the time I caught up on it, it had already made the rounds on all the blogs and the twitter, and it had already expanded into one of these age-old startup arguments.
Basically, the story goes like this. A founder from an education startup wrote an email to TechStars’ David Cohen about their horrible experience with a New York-based education accelerator on its first cohort. Cohen, in an effort to provide maximum transparency about the accelerator universe, an ideal I don’t argue with at all, redacted names and places and put it up on his blog with some commentary akin to “do your homework before you join an accelerator.”
I would argue with posting the email. I wouldn’t have posted the email, I would have paraphrased it, but it made for an extremely compelling read, in a rubbernecking sort of way.
Here’s why I wouldn’t have posted the email: The Internets are clever and they don’t let go. Within hours, the redacted information got sniffed out. WHAM! The Tuesday after Labor Day was alive with the startup version of a scandal, involving accelerator Socratic Labs, its Director Heather Gilchrist, and education startup Learnmetrics.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who cares.
The moral of the story is that an accelerator made one or more big mistakes with their first cohort, which they admit to later in an op-ed. The founders went in with reservations, which the author of the email addresses in the opening paragraph. Everybody loses.
But somehow, in all the blog buzz, the moral got rewritten as: There are too many accelerators.
Having lived and worked in a veritable warmbed of entrepreneurial activity for the better part of two decades, toiling in a region that has only had an accelerator for three of those years, I’m puzzled.
I get it. But I’m puzzled.
Yes. There are bad accelerators. Of course there are. And I’m sure that the ratio of bad accelerators to good accelerators has risen dramatically over the past five, ten, or twenty years, probably linearly over that time run-up.
But you can’t blame bad accelerators on the number of accelerators. That’s a symptom of the problem, not the cause. It’s like blaming too many movies for producing Vin Diesel.
If you had read the reviews first, you wouldn’t have wasted eighteen bucks on Riddick this weekend.
Anyway, you want to know the cause? It’s the fact that we constantly give validity to the startup game regardless of what the players are actually doing.
I mean, we live in the age where celebrity is experience enough to start a business, invest in a business, or be the business model of a business.
The rest of us, those focused on bottom-lines and building a business not because it’s cool but because it’s what we know, we need the number of accelerators to grow, because that’s going to allow for the number of good accelerators to grow, which is going to benefit those of us who are trying to make a real business with real customers and real revenue.
Trust me. We will do the necessary homework before flying to a new city and looking for a sublease. Let the wantrepreneurs join the wink-and-smile accelerators and land the dumb-money investments. That’s no worry to us.
It’s the exact same argument I heard around the Series A crunch. There were just too damn many seed stage investments, and a huge number of those seed-stagers were going to be left hanging when it came time to raise Series A, because there were nowhere near enough VCs willing to make that many commitments.
All that actually happened was the ratio changed. The Series A numbers did not decrease as a whole, either in number of investments or amount invested. My VC friends have always told me, from when I first got into this: “The talented entrepreneur will always find money.”
If more talented entrepreneurs are getting seed stage, their Series A checks will get written — because at the end of the cycle, startup is not a zero-sum game. If a VC sees a good return on the risk, they will invest. If they don’t, they won’t, no matter how much or how little seed money that company has raised.
Let’s not even talk about the fact that if you build a great product and can get it in front of potential customers, those customers will buy it, thus eliminating the need for investment or accelerator in the first place.
The VC and the accelerator are options, not dogma. It’s when you start substituting investment or acceptance for success that things get all pear-shaped.
I’ll even, at the risk of sounding pedestrian, go so far as to say the same thing is true for startup events and the startup scene. You can never have too many startup events or startup scenesters, because maybe one will open the right door for the right founder and get a good company off the ground.
You don’t have to go to all of the events and you don’t have to meet with everyone. And no one should tell you which events to go to or who to meet with and why. Some days, I just want to have a beer with someone I haven’t met yet. And that’s cool.
It’s when you start substituting going to events for building a company, or having that beer with that guy with some local gravitas with getting actual, useable advice, that entrepreneurs turn into wantrepreneurs.
But stop throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There aren’t too many accelerators. There are just a lot of bad accelerators – and non-viable seed-funded startups and pseudo-startup events and sketchy startup scenesters — so, like Cohen originally said, do your homework and you’ll be fine.
Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resource ExitEvent. Follow him at @jproco or read him at http://joeprocopio.com