9 mistakes startups need to avoid when joining a startup accelerator

9th Mar 2020

Next to the +15 European sports tech accelerators that SportsTechX wrote about earlier last month, there are many, many more startup accelerators, in all forms and shapes. Whatever niche or sector you’re in (sports, health, media or others), you'll probably find an accelerator that caters to your need.

And while some founders join one of the many programs and flourish, others fail miserably and lose time, money, and even their dream of becoming an entrepreneur.

Why is that? Part of the reason can be traced back to the founders themselves.

For those who are unprepared and not knowing what they're up to, an accelerator can offer a fast track to growth, or become an exhausting challenge and disillusion in the end. The latter being the least favorite of course.

But! After some years of guiding founders in the sports business sector, we recognized some major pitfalls for startup entrepreneurs when they enter an acceleration program, and we're happy to share them with you to hear your thoughts.

So here are (according to us) the most common mistakes startup founders make and should avoid (and what they could do instead)!

1. Choosing the wrong accelerator for your needs.

Okay, this might sound like stating the obvious, but 90% of a your success is probably based on what you do BEFORE you start an accelerator program. And that success depends largely on choosing the right startup accelerator for YOU.

So be straight up with yourself and examine what phase you’re in, and what you actually need at this moment in time to get you to the next level.

Do you lack insights concerning your product-market fit? Do you need business model advice? Do you need help creating your MVP? Or do you need to find new investors or first employees and are you ready to scale? All of these questions - and many more - help you choose the right accelerator for your needs.

This also means you should go talk to different accelerators and ask them what they think you need, and compare. It’s like asking for a second doctor’s opinion; useful in most cases.

Anyway, always talk about your expectations with the program managers. Question why the accelerator would like to have YOU in the program? And never join an accelerator program just to be in it for branding or because ‘it won’t hurt being connected to that particular accelerator’. A program that slows you down and doesn’t accelerate your process, is never a good fit.

2. Thinking you’ll only need a few weeks to ‘make it work’.

Don’t get us wrong - the right accelerator combined with the right mentality can create massive results and progress in a short period of time for you and your startup. But experience learned us that the outliers confirm the rule. There’s probably more than a few weeks needed for you to develop your skills and startup processes, especially during the first months of the entrepreneurial adventure.

On the other hand, maintain a critical eye when researching accelerators that provide programs with a duration of only a few weeks or months. Looking at ourselves, we run the SportUp Start program with imec.istart during at least 12 months (3 times a year); time much needed to work on the necessary aspects to turn your startup in a strong, competitive business. Our 3-month SportUp Boost program is only a step-up towards the full program afterwards. We believe this is a good strategy, especially for early-stage startups.

Don't expect your accelerator to do all the hard lifting for you.

An accelerator offers a guide, a mentor, a coach, a trainer, a teacher, a partner, a connector, a community, etc. They show you how to climb the mountain and teach you how to use the tools, but you still have to walk up the path yourselves, learn how to read the map and commit to the journey.

It’s up to you to make it work!

3. Cramming in the accelerator activities, instead of consciously planning for it.

We all have busy schedules, don't we? So what's the time commitment when working on your startup? Are you hustling on the side or are you working full-time for the business? In any case, when you have found the right accelerator, plan the activities so that you don’t get caught up.

To get the most out of the workshops, trainings, networking moments etc., make sure you have the mental freedom to focus completely on the activities while they’re happening in order to get the most out of them.

Remember: failing to plan is planning to fail!

4. Only trying to get things instead of giving too.

The value of being part of an accelerator program is of course mainly found in what you get from the organizers, coaches, mentors, etc. For sure when the accelerator takes some equity in your company. However, beside what you can get out of it, don't forget to give back. Also to the other startups in the same batch or in the wider accelerator community.

From experience, we have seen that those startups who are willing to share contacts, interesting materials, event opportunities, etc. are those who're doing best.

5. Not being coachable.

As awesome as your idea may be, the job of any accelerator is to be honest and challenge you. Why? Because they want you to succeed beyond what you imagine, or save you from life-altering mistakes. (Failing has its advantages, but it’s better to fail small than big, right?)

So it’s okay to disagree with your coaches and mentors, but at all means, stay coachable. You’ll progress much quicker and develop much faster, with or without being part of an accelerator.

6. Not preparing the meetings with your coaches and mentors.

Preparation is absolute key. Always prepare workshops and coaching moments up front. Over-communicate instead of under-communicate. Send in your questions before any meeting if possible. Ask for relevant introductions. Send over documents and presentations to get feedback. Challenge the accelerator team with your questions!

7. Over-spending time on planning and strategizing, and under-spending on implementing and testing.

Planning is very important, but don't over-do it! A good accelerator should push you to ‘get out of the building’. To check assumptions versus facts. You can brainstorm all you want and plan and strategize days after days, but as long as you don’t test in real-life, you don’t know. Go into the real world with your product or service. Test your assumptions with real clients. Ask your accelerator for introductions and contacts, and go after them. In short: execute!

8. Neglecting the networking possibilities your accelerator offers.

Lots of people underestimate the huge network an accelerator offers through their mentors, coaches, partners and international connections. Many starting entrepreneurs and founders hope to find quick and easy money, in the form of an investors that gives them cash to start creating and developing. But often the strength isn’t only found in the money… it’s also found in the knowledge and experience of others.

So as you progress, examine what you need and listen to what your mentors tell you. And if they can’t offer that to you, probably somebody else will. A good accelerator will provide you with lots of possibilities to find the right person for your needs, or will open their network to find him/her. Ask for it, and take action.

9. Ignoring your physical and mental health.

The last one, but not the least of the major mistakes to avoid, is this: neglecting your own health.

We’re talking about two important things: sleep and nutrition. They both make you wake up with full energy and keep you going throughout the day.

So whatever you do, make sure you get enough sleep. Eat your veggies, drink enough water and you’re all set to crush it! And oh yeah: doing some sports now and then isn’t a bad idea as well ;)

Knowing this, are you still looking for the right acceleration program?

At SportUp, we are mainly focussed on supporting and scaling early-stage sports tech startups which have some link with Belgium. If that's the niche that fits you best, contact SportUp program manager Kristof De Mey. He will gladly advice you on what your best options are, in or outside of SportUp!