“Top Startups” Lists and Accelerators

TL;DR: “Top Startup lists” are being used as complements, and in some cases replacements, to accelerators for helping entrepreneurs signal their talent to investors.

Background reading:

The value proposition of elite universities is a fairly straightforward 3-part bundle:

A. Education

B. Talent Sorting / Signaling

C. Network

Data showing that top students who attend elite universities perform on average the same as those who are similarly accepted but attend lower-ranked schools proves that the actual education elite universities provide isn’t nearly as important as some people think; at least for most students. But their talent signaling and network functions are fairly important and durable, and it’s very hard for competitors to build viable business models to deliver them; though some are succeeding.

Respected employers willing to not require elite educations are, for example, talent signaling competitors to elite universities. Being  “Google Alumni” can be seen as more value determinative than being “MIT Alumni.”

Now, the value proposition of top accelerators is also a fairly straightforward 3-part bundle:

A. Education

B. Talent Sorting / Signaling

C. Network

Look familiar? Many post-accelerator founders will tell you that the actual educational content accelerators provide is hardly that big of a deal to them. I’ve definitely known some entrepreneurs who find it useful, but the more hustler autodidact types will say it’s just re-hashed versions of what you can find online and in books. But the other two propositions (talent signaling and network) are harder to build.

To the extent accelerators build respected brands – and by that I mean respected by investors and other ecosystem players entrepreneurs want to connect with – their ability to sort through the ecosystem’s “noise” and signal talent, and therefore reduce search costs, is extremely important for founders. I would say most of the founders we work with understand instinctively that the main reason to attend any accelerator is to simply make it a lot easier to connect with investors. And yes, for the right accelerators, it works. Big time. 

Sidenote: Attending a B-class accelerator can be worse than attending none at all. If the A-accelerators reject you, you can just pretend to be one of the many companies that never even try to attend them; and just find other “signals” to use. But by attending a B-class accelerator, people now know you tried and were vetted, then rejected. Can be a scarlet letter.

Education? The best information is online and in books. Network? Not proprietary. Founders who can hustle know how to access all the same top people, many of whom want to ensure their own personal brands aren’t captive to an accelerator; ensuring significant “leakage” of the network. The networks of accelerators are compilations of the personal networks of individual people, and by bringing all of those people together for a period of time, without the leverage to lock them in, they’ve made it far easier for the network to be unbundled and re-bundled without the gatekeeping fee.

But it’s the reduction in search costs for connecting with investors (the talent sorting / signaling) that is the real money maker for accelerators. And yet talk privately with many investors, and they’ll tell you they resent the “hunger games” demo day and investor herding dynamics some accelerators produce, even if it’s the price for having someone else do a lot of the company filtering for you.

A short list of accelerators have built real and durable talent signaling brands, and are worth their cost tenfold. The challenge for some has been maintaining them, and not supplementing themselves with business models misaligned with the goal of being very selective. Accelerators heavily tied to real estate/co-working, for example, are tempted to dilute the accelerator brand by accepting a lot more people, because they can still monetize them with offices (even if their equity isn’t worth anything). Lower your standards to fill office space, and your talent signal weakens, which means fewer top people show up to your events, which dilutes your network proposition, which further weakens the quality of your startups, and now you’re in a death spiral.

One thing you’re seeing all over the place in startup ecosystems today is “top startups lists.” “Top startups to watch.” Top this, top that. Top 50. Top 25. Top 10.

Initially, my reaction was to judge these lists as just PR plays. Politics/brand driven founders who want a bit of an ego stroke pander to publications to get on them, and in turn the publications get eyeballs and visibility, and can make money off of ads.

But analyze what these lists are, or could be, from the perspective of the talent sorting/signaling function of accelerators, particularly at early stage. To the extent some publications can build highly credible “top startup lists” – the kinds that investors and other players pay close attention to, they could prove to be viable competitors to the talent signaling proposition of accelerators.

I actually think many entrepreneurs understand this, and it’s why they care so much about getting on these lists, and why the lists are proliferating. If your ultimate goal is just to connect with investors, “top startup lists” that get real brand credibility could, much more cheaply, get you the “signal” you need to get meetings with selective investors.  Of course, it boils down to whether the right publications are willing to put in the time to build the needed credibility, and not make them simply politics or “pay to play” schemes. I suspect many won’t, but some will.

By no means am I under the delusion that accelerators and top startups lists are direct competitors; especially not at the highest tier. Many smart founders use them, wisely, as complements. The most important thing is for founders to understand what their real purposes are, and to judge them accordingly.  If many founders view accelerators as simply fast-tracks to getting the attention of investors (and they do), then you can fully expect there to be demand for cheaper alternatives, and players willing to experiment in delivering them.

Comparing Startup Accelerators

Background Reading:

Over the past several years, accelerators have emerged as a powerful filtering and signaling mechanism in early-stage startup ecosystems, allowing high-potential young startups to connect with investors, advisors, and other strategic partners far faster and more efficiently than before. While it definitely feels like the accelerator “bubble” has somewhat burst, and their numbers are normalizing, I’m still often asked by CEOs for advice on how to assess various programs. The below outlines how I would approach the decision:

Cash and Equity.

Very simply, what are you giving and what are you getting in return in terms of cash and equity for joining the program?

Re: cash, the more “unbundled” types of accelerators (less formalized) tend to not provide any cash upfront, but also typically “cost” less in equity, often just 1-2% of your fully diluted capitalization. More traditional and comprehensive programs often require 5-8% of common stock, but often provide between $20K and $100K up-front as well.

Anti-Dilution.

See: Startup Accelerator Anti-Dilution Provisions; The Fine Print.   Most accelerators, with a few exceptions, have much more aggressive anti-dilution provisions than a typical seed or VC investor would get, and the “fine print” can dramatically influence the total equity requirement depending on your circumstances and fundraising plans. This is something you should walk through with an experienced advisor, lawyer or otherwise, to prevent surprises.

Pro-Rata / Future Investment Rights.

See: The Many Flavors of Pro-Rata Rights. Some accelerators will require you to “make room” for them in future financings up to a certain amount. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s very reasonable given that the ability to make follow-on investments in “winners” is virtually essential for very early-stage startup investors (angels, accelerators) to make good returns. However, for the most in-demand startups, over-committing on future participation rights can become a problem because it can require you to raise more money than you really need to.

Fundraising / general success of past companies.

See: Ask the users.  If fast-track access to investors is not at the top of your priority list, then this may not be as big of a deal for you. But 95% of founders I’ve worked with have viewed “cutting in line” to speak with investors as the main reason for entering an accelerator. And don’t rely solely on numbers reported by the accelerators themselves. There are lots of ways of fudging the figures, including by “annexing” already successful companies into the accelerator (in exchange for free help) and using their brand/fundraising numbers to puff up the accelerator; neglecting to mention that the accelerator had nothing to do with those numbers.

Entrepreneurs often celebrate faking it until you make it. Know that some accelerators do the same. When an accelerator says “our companies have raised an aggregate of $200 million,” they may be neglecting to mention that a huge chunk of that was raised before some of the companies (the top ones) ever “entered” the accelerator. 

Ask specific founders, off the record. Without a doubt, the overall “prestige” of the accelerator’s past cohorts will have a dramatic impact on the accelerator’s ability to deliver on its “benefits” to you. There’s a heavy snowball / power law type effect with accelerators where the best ones attract the best companies, which then attract lots of capital/great mentors, which then attracts more great companies, further improving the accelerator’s brand, and so on and so on. And the same is true in reverse: accelerators with poor reputations and bad averse selection (they are just getting the companies everyone else rejected) can actually make it harder to raise money, and are best avoided.

Time commitments and Geography.

Many accelerators involve a substantial time commitment (including travel time) in terms of going through the “program” of events, meetings, training, etc. Feedback (given privately) varies on the ROI of those obligations, depending on the accelerator, type of company, etc. Some entrepreneurs find it invaluable. Others find it a necessary cost to getting access to the accelerator’s network, which is what they’re really there for. In any case, travel and time commitments are a real cost, so take that into account.

Market Focus.

One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from entrepreneurs, after having gone through an accelerator, is that it wasn’t helpful for their “type” of business. Some accelerators are very up-front and overt about their market focus: biotech, energy tech, transportation, etc.  Others are more generalist, but if you dig deep you’ll realize that all or most of their cohort is slanted in one direction, which will mean the accelerator’s network of investors and mentors will be as well.

An example: a heavily hardware-focused startup may not find as much success in an accelerator where the vast majority of companies are SaaS based. The same goes for a health tech startup entering an accelerator full of consumer or B2B startups.

Culture.

In much the same way that entrepreneurs’ own personalities set the culture for their companies, the creators and managers of accelerators heavily influence both their “online” and “offline” culture. Personalities, ages, lifestyles, and values will vary. Some accelerators are well-known for being extremely friendly, generous, and community-oriented. Others are known for being more competitive and “eat what you kill” in their approach. I’ve seen more aggressive entrepreneurs feel that their particular accelerator was a bit too “kumbaya,” while those with opposite personalities felt right at home. 

Do your diligence before entering any accelerator, and make sure you assess its offerings in light of your company’s own priorities and needs. I’ve seen companies emerge with polar opposite opinions of the same accelerator, even within the same cohort.  In many cases, it’s less about the program being good or bad in an objective sense, and more about whether it was a good or bad “fit” for that particular startup. 

How Angels & Seed Funds compete with VCs

TL;DR: The emerging “seed ecosystem” of angel groups, seed funds, and accelerators now provides local startups a viable path to seed funding, and eventually “going national,” w/o having to prematurely commit to a Series A lead.  That has dramatically reduced the leverage that local institutional funds once had over their local ecosystems.

Background Reading:

Once upon a time, startup ecosystems (if they could even really be called that) outside of Silicon Valley had only a handful of local VC funds writing checks. Without AngelList, LinkedIn, Twitter, Accelerators, good videoconferencing, and the many other recent developments that have reduced geographic friction in startup capital flows, those funds effectively “owned” their cities, including most of the startup lawyers in those cities; which often resulted in harsh terms and aggressive behavior. For more on this, see: Local v. Out-of-State VCs.

Raising “angel” money in that era often meant needing close connections (family, friends, professional) to very high net worth individuals willing to make big bets on you until you were ready for one of the few local funds to take you under their wing. If you were one of those lucky few chosen, those local VC funds would then, once they were out of their own capital, show you off to one of their trusted out-of-state growth capital funds.

The pipeline was narrowly defined, and choice was minimal: local angels (or friends and family), then local VC, then out-of-state growth capital.

Times have changed.

Today, angel groups are much bigger, organized, and collaborative across city and state lines. Seed funds – which weren’t really even much of a concept a few years ago – will write checks of a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars for rounds that may have been called Series A 3-5 years ago, but are now “seed” rounds. Prominent accelerators have themselves joined the mix, writing their own 6-figure checks and serving as valuable filters / signaling mechanisms to reduce the search costs of investors.

This “seed ecosystem” of organized angels, flexible seed funds, and accelerators has not only increased the amount of “pre-VC” capital available to startups, but very importantly, it has significantly reduced the leverage that local VC funds have over their local startup ecosystems. 

As I wrote in Optionality: Always have a Plan B, sunk money has very different incentives from future money. A seed fund/angel that has mostly maxed out the amount of capital it can fund you with has every incentive to help you find a great Series A lead at a great valuation; they are quite aligned with the common stock. They want a higher valuation and better terms for the existing cap table, just like you do, because they are being diluted too.

However, a VC fund that wrote you a small seed check but wants to lead your Series A has very different incentives. The “seed ecosystem” wants to maximize your Series A options, while a VC fund wants to minimize them, until it gets the deal it wants.

Foreign capital will usually require some heightened level of de-risking or credible signaling before it will cross state lines. It’s much less risky to rely on my local referral sources, and “monitor” my portfolio where I can drop in by the office whenever I need to. If I’m going to write a check a thousand miles away, I need a little more reason to do so. In that regard, it’s well-known that there is a “flipping” point beyond which the pool of capital available to a startup moves from being mostly local to much more national: that point is somewhere between $500k-$2MM ARR (it used to be higher, and can be even lower if you have a strong network). 

Historically, reaching that flipping point was almost impossible without local VC, and this effectively kept startup ecosystems captive to their local funds. The new seed ecosystem, with its ability to often fund 7-figure rounds all on its own, has changed that. Now, if a desirable startup wants to, it can often raise $1-2MM in seed capital without taking a single traditional VC check, then use that to hit the “flipping” point, after which the number of VCs it can talk to goes up considerably. 

Of course, this dynamic is not always so clean cut.  More progressive VCs have wisely developed symbiotic relationships with this seed ecosystem for the obvious reason that it can serve as a pipeline when startups are ready for bigger checks. That is a smart move. What we’ve also seen is that large VCs are playing much “nicer” in seed rounds than they used to, as an acknowledgement of their reduced control over the market. Years ago you much more often saw VCs condition a $250K or $500K check on a side letter giving them the right to lead your Series A. That is increasingly becoming an anachronism, and for good reason.

At the same time that AngelList, accelerators, LinkedIn networks, and other signaling / communication mechanisms for startups are giving foreign capital more “visibility” into other ecosystems, allowing it to invest earlier and more geographically dispersed, the emergent seed ecosystem is also increasingly allowing local startups to “go national” without having to commit themselves to a particular VC fund. The obvious winners in this new world are entrepreneurs and investors willing to be open and flexible with how they fund companies. The losers are the traditional investors – particularly those who used their old leverage to squeeze founders – who haven’t understood that the old game is gone, and it’s not coming back.

Why Startups Need Signals

Here are a few uncontroversial facts about the general early-stage startup ecosystem:

  • The cost of starting a tech company has dramatically gone down over the past 10 years.
  • In the early days, the caliber of the founder team is at least as important for success as the caliber of the idea/technology.
  • New networks – like AngelList and LinkedIn – have dramatically increased the transparency of relationships in the market, and the ease with which currently unconnected people can become connected.

Putting the above points together, you could easily conclude that it’s never been easier for talented founder teams to obtain needed resources in the market, particularly early-stage capital. But, in some ways, you would be wrong.  Many would argue that while the difficulty of starting may have gone down, the difficulty of actually succeeding has gone up, due to increased competition (and noise) in the market. 

The reduction in cost/friction in the startup world has been met with an increase in volume, and that volume has made the market far more noisy and competitive. Far more entrepreneurs producing far more ideas, and flooding top tier resources with far more pitches. If you want a clear illustration of this, look up newly created companies on AngelList.

Where there’s an increase in noise (weak teams, weak products, me-too companies, etc.), the value of signals – credible ways to cut through the noise and indicate to the right people that you are, in fact, worth talking to – goes up. This post is about why all early stage entrepreneurs need to be very mindful of the importance of signals in the marketplace, and what those signals often look like.

First, a quick clarification: signals are ways of effectively indicating information, but they are not the information itself. In other words, they are ways of credibly sending a message to someone like “hey, we’ve got something truly interesting over here” when simply saying those words won’t work – perhaps because everyone says that, or because you simply can’t get the face-to-face time, and when hard metrics like revenue growth/customer traction may not be available (because it’s too early).  Imagine the startup world as a very dense fog – and the fog is getting denser, btw – good signals are your very visible beacons to flash into the fog so that investors and other resources can find you.

A Series B company needs to worry far less about signaling its value proposition to investors, because its history, financials and reputation in the market can already speak volumes. Successful serial entrepreneurs don’t have much trouble either. A seed stage, or pre-seed company run by new entrepreneurs, however, is in a completely different situation, and needs a different toolkit.

Common early-stage startup signals:

  • A really good logo
  • A really good website
  • A really well-done AngelList profile
  • A strong social media presence
  • Well done blog content
  • Very well-crafted messaging
  • A great pitch at a pitch competition
  • Connections to respected people on LinkedIn
  • Acceptance into a well-respected accelerator
  • Strong academic or professional history

Notice how none of these really have anything to do with the fundamentals of your business/technology? You’re a very early-stage startup. No one really knows whether your business will be successful, and at this stage you can’t even get the face time with the right people to sell them on it. That’s what signals are for.

Remember the point about how startup investors care at least as much about the strength of the team, especially the CEO, as they do about the business? Why is that? Because talent (properly defined) is highly correlated with success, and talent is easier to analyze in the early days than the future prospects of a business. Great entrepreneurs tend to be highly talented generalists (multiple skills); it’s what allows them to hit milestones without a staff of more specialized people.

Doing any or all of the things on the above list credibly signals some kind of skill/talent. Just take a good logo (which may seem silly to an engineering type, but that’s a big mistake): it takes good judgment/taste (marketing skills), and the ability to find a talented logo designer (recruiting skills). Strong LinkedIn connections signal strong networking skills. A great pitch signals strong sales skills. A degree from a respected school, or employment with a well-respected company, certainly isn’t essential, but it clearly signals strong technical skills/training.

Getting into a top accelerator is one of the strongest signals available (because of how thoroughly they vet companies), and that’s why demo days are so well attended by early-stage capital. But getting into a top accelerator often requires its own earlier set of signals.

Yes, in many ways the world has become flatter, more transparent, more meritocratic, etc., and it’s a very good thing.  Yes, the “good ol’ boys” network is weakening in the sense that there are far fewer true gatekeepers. But don’t delude yourself for a second into thinking that this means success in the market has gotten easier. And absolutely don’t think that networking and referrals from well-respected people don’t matter.

A warm referral from someone known and respected in the market is still – simple, cold fact – an incredibly powerful signal. Think about what it takes to get a strong referral. You first had to get connected to that (usually very busy) person (networking skills). Then you had to interest them enough to think your business is worth supporting (credible business idea, sales skills). People care so much about good referrals because in a market full of noise, they are a very efficient filter. And no one has time to work without filters.  

This point is worth repeating: the “democratization” of the startup landscape has certainly reduced the power of gatekeepers – specific people (usually men) whose approval you needed to raise capital and connect with important resources – but it has not (and will not) eliminate the importance of building relationships with credible, trustworthy people who can then refer you to other people who trust their judgment. The democratization arrived in the form of diversifying the number of possible referral sources; not from eliminating the need for referrals altogether.

Utopian visions of a world in which great entrepreneurs will frictionlessly connect with capital purely based on the merit of their technology/business, eliminating all the superficialities of networking and personal marketing, are a dead end.  Someone on your team needs to be good at building relationships, because relationships are incredibly powerful signals. 

Just don’t expect your lawyers to connect you with investors. See: Why I (Still) Don’t Make Investor Intros. Signals can be negative. And the fact that, of all the people in the market whom you could’ve convinced to refer you, you chose someone you’re paying (instead of someone who refers based on merit), is very often, in today’s environment, a negative signal.

A good logo, or a well done AngelList profile, can seem superficial, but signals are often about how seemingly superficial things can help people with low information sort through noise. If it takes talent to produce it, and it’s the kind of talent needed for market success, it’s a signal worth caring about.

“Founder Friendly”

TL;DR: “Founder friendliness” should mean not being hostile, but also not being submissive, to founders. Good entrepreneurs and advisors know that.

Background reading:

Because we’re known as Startup/VC lawyers who don’t represent Tech VCs (just companies), I often get asked about my thoughts on “founder friendliness.” Occasionally it’s someone inexperienced expecting me to say something totally one-sided, as if “founder friendly” means always giving founders what they want. The truth is, I’ve put my fair share of founders in their place, when appropriate. As I’ve written before, company counsel does not mean founder’s counsel.

Serious lawyers provide counsel, and represent something apart from the preferences of any particular person. They don’t just push paper in whatever direction someone tells them to. Real lawyers know when and how to say “no.”

To me, “friendly” means the opposite of “hostile.” It means respecting a person as an equal, being transparent with them, and strongly taking into consideration their own values, goals, ideas, etc.  But that is very different from spinelessly doing whatever they want you to do. The best founders seek out advisors, including investors, who will provide real, critical input; knowing that a bunch of sycophants will get them nowhere.

Founder Hostile

On the one hand, there is very much a culture among certain venture capitalists that treats entrepreneurs as necessary, but ultimately dispensable, steps toward returns. I have seen it firsthand, and while it exists everywhere, it is directly (negatively) correlated with (i) the number of investors willing to write checks into a particular ecosystem, and (ii) the degree to which entrepreneurs confidentially share information among each other on VC behavior, producing adverse selection issues for the real assholes. You very rarely hear about this on blog posts or twitter, but when the pep rallies and PR-oriented speaking panels come to an end, it is there.

VCs in this category vary in the level of sophistication with which they implement their “founder hostile” strategy.  Most know that playing hardball out of the gate won’t get them the deal, and they prefer more of a “bait and switch” approach where they sing the praises of the entrepreneurs upfront, and then slowly move the chess pieces over time. The moves are identifiable by people who know the game:

  • put “captive” lawyers and advisors in place;
  • avoid providing coaching / training resources to founders;
  • tightly control the recruitment of new executives to phase in loyalists;
  • keep a tight grip on unreasonable budgets so that achieving results is very hard, and failure justifies “necessary changes”;
  • maneuver to prevent competitive funds from putting offers on the table;

In the end, it doesn’t matter what the cap table says; it’s “their” company now.

Founder Submissive

On the other hand, in the most competitive deals and ecosystems, there is a counter-dynamic where VCs compete with each other, essentially, on how much unilateral control they’ll give entrepreneurs. This dynamic is strongest in California. It’s, in part, due to the failure of many VCs to effectively apply basic strategic concepts – like differentiation – into their market positioning. If you’re just another VC/fund with a few connections and ideas among dozens of others, what else can you do but try to be the “easiest money”? The end-result of having these “founder submissive” investors is often immature management teams that aren’t able to effectively scale. VCs with real brands are able to avoid this. 

As I’ve written before, a Board of Directors has fiduciary duties to all stockholders. As you’ll read in many different places, the moment an entrepreneur decides to take on investors, they have to step off the “king” train and focus on growing the pie, and eventually achieving an exit, for everyone.

That being said, under DE law Boards have primary fiduciary duties to common stockholders, insiders and outsiders.  As the largest common stockholders (usually), and those who’ve held the equity the longest, entrepreneurs are extremely important representatives on the Board for fulfilling those duties; whether or not they are in the CEO seat.  We know that preferred stockholders and common stockholders regularly have misaligned incentives.  A truly “balanced” Board will prevent one part of the cap table’s incentives and preferences from overriding those of the others.

“Founder hostile” VCs are problematic because they push for the perspective of institutional investors to override those of all the other constituents on the cap table. “Founder submissive” VCs are equally problematic because they expose the company excessively to founders whose priorities may conflict with the economic interests of the broader stockholder base.

The proper balance is, of course, in the middle; where the VCs with the best reputations operate.  Be transparent about your goals, incentives, and plans. Don’t beat around the bush about your investment horizon, exit expectations, and how you’ll approach executive succession when that time comes. Let the common stockholders, including founders, do the same. No BS or opaque maneuvering. And then work together, knowing that no one has the singular right to override the perspective of the others at the table.