Choosing an Accelerator in China – Then Running It

Sharing from Ryan Shuken, Program Director of MOX

Choosing an accelerator is an important decision you will make in your company journey. Here are some of the lessons I learned during my journey going from participating in an accelerator to running one as the Program Director.

You need to think about your expected return as an opportunity cost as well as the long-term benefit to your success. Not only are you making an extremely risky bet with your time and your energy but you’re doing it with people who all make similar promises. They promise to help you build your company and solve your problems in exchange for equity. How you approach this decision can make or break your company. Breaking your company, or your own assumptions, is actually one of the qualities of a good accelerator program. An accelerator will want to push your team so you find what fails fast and pivot when you have the resources needed for success. This may mean you will find you entire business thesis is wrong, but it’s better to fail fast than it is to slowly die and fade away.

As you approach an accelerator, it may feel incredibly intimidating because you’re honestly opening yourself up to mentors and advisors to help build your dream. For our startup we were looking for a partner whom we can trust, rapid growth, experience in the market and someone who is also aligned with our goals. This process is incredibly important and vital to the next stage of your business, as you cannot risk making a wrong decision here.

For our startup, I knew that the opportunity required us to be in China. The issue was that we didn’t have any network. In 2013 we started our search to join an accelerator program. Accelerators were still a new concept and are fundamentally different than an incubator. The difference lies in the program design; it’s like a boot camp for startups or a condensed MBA. Many offer 3 to 6 month programs.  We started by identifying our biggest known unknowns, and searched for a program fit based on three criteria.

1.    People
2.    Network
3.    Resources

A VC (venture capitalist) will vet your idea, your team, your numbers and your potential, but most of all, your people. Why shouldn’t you do the same? Look at the people who run the program, who they are, what their experiences are, how incentivized they are to give you everything they can to help you. Are you a data point or are you a partner? We found that larger programs had so many teams in each batch we didn’t believe it was likely to connect completely with the program team, so we opted for a smaller batch program. We also found a program where everyone who worked at the program got some shared weight. This was incredibly important to us because we knew that it wasn’t just the Director that was getting all the work but the entire staff was incentivized towards our success.

A program with a proven track record and a credible network was a requirement for us. We knew that we knew nearly nothing about the perils that we could possibly face in the China market. We needed advisors who had conquered and excelled in this environment. An accelerator’s mentor network is a window into its experience, its story and what opportunities it can bring you. How specific in skill, or how vast in life experience of the network speaks to the possible value you can gain. Warm introductions to the perfect mentor can drastically change the future of your company for the better. Out of the 260+ mentors in the Chinaccelerator community, we identified perfect matches for our startup before we applied. Those mentors can even turn into key investors and life advisors when things get tough. Like in any network, you get out what you put in, but you can think of it as a numbers game. The largest, most qualified network for your startup is best; for us we went with Chinaccelerator.

This is one of the most important factors in not only deciding if you should join an accelerator, but if they should accept you. Does the program have the ability to give you what you need? In short, is it the fit right? After I transitioned from participating in an accelerator to now running one, I learned this lesson first hand. For the accelerator MOX, which I now run, we focus on fit. Can our ecosystem, our network and our experience help give you an unfair advantage? If we can’t, I highly recommend you find the program that does. At the end of the program, how investable you are as a company is one of the most important goals. The investor network and investment track record at the end of the program is a key focus for any startup.

Analyzing your own ‘known unknowns’ and focusing on which program gives you the best unfair advantage is the key to choosing the right program for your startup. I hope this perspective can help startups succeed in any program.

About the Author

Ryan Shuken is the Program Director of MOX in China, part of SOSV, growth-hacker in residence at Chinaccelerator, startup podcaster, and has built startups on three continents. He is specialized in building metric-driven growth strategies in Asia. He helps companies optimize campaign strategies using growth hacking practices focused on users in Asia/SEA and developing markets. He was a part of the Chinaccelerator in Batch 5.

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