Wayne Murphy, programme manager of StartPlanetNI provides the answers to some of our top questions about accelerator programmes.
Hi Wayne. Generally speaking, If you were pitching the idea of going on an accelerator programme (a good one of course) to a startup- what would you say?
Are you prepared to step outside your own comfort zone? Are you open to exploring new ideas, embracing change and all that may be thrown at you? Are you willing to go that extra mile and to push the boundaries of your self-belief, ability and knowledge? Will you do what it takes to propel your business to the next level and beyond?
If the answer is yes to all then an accelerator programme could potentially be the shortest route to your startup success.
An accelerator can be said to be:
the equivalent of an MBA for a startup given the amount of incredible learning that is available and created over a very short time span
an opportunity to accelerate the development of your startup on average by 12 - 18 months over the 3-month period of the programme.
an amazing platform for any startup to showcase their business to the right audience given the networks and investor connections associated with a top-class accelerator.
the most incredible opportunity to completely focus on your startup over a 3 month period and avail of the guidance, stewardship and support of some globally successful entrepreneurs who have already been there, done that and have several t-shirts to prove it.
an opportunity to fail fast or scale quickly with the experience, investment and support of an incredibly motivated team
Amazing startup transformations are a common feature of good programme…without doubt it will save time money and resources to build a business, all things that a startup does not have, and it will also facilitate access to a network of influential and successful entrepreneurs and investors.
More specifically then, what makes StartPlanetNI a good prospect for high-potential startups and is there anything particularly unique about it?
StartPlanetNI is Northern Ireland's only private equity backed accelerator programme. For a startup, funding is the oxygen required to grow its potential, and StartPlanetNI has a specific focus in assisting the right companies to access that capital. In fact 50% of teams from our recently completed programme have already received offers of investment.
Additionally, our assembled team has extensive experience in the startup space both from a local and international perspective. Diane Roberts and her team at Xcell Partners have been involved in the Northern Ireland startup scene for many years and have built up a comprehensive network of support and contacts (local and international) to assist high-potential startups. Bill Liao (European Venture Partner @SOSv) is lead mentor on the programme and he brings incredible experience on an international scale to the programme. We know how to extract the very best from startups and what is is required to truly scale and build a global business.
Finally, our incredible network of mentors who are successful entrepreneurs in their own right, some of whom have raised millions of $ in investment and some also with significant exits. To tap into all that experience knowledge and networks is an opportunity not to be missed.
With so much choice in the market, how should founders approach the challenge of deciding which accelerator programmes to apply for, and which to leave well enough alone?
Startup time is valuable time as everything is scarce - money, resources, customers and patience. Wasting 3 months on a "startup programme" that is not relevant to you and does not add specific value to your business can be a disaster for a number of reasons. An accelerator programme is the new "MBA" for a startup, so you need to do your homework. However for me there are a 3 simple but critical factors that a startup should consider when deciding on which accelerator to apply to.
A. Does the team behind the programme have a strong track record of developing and promoting startups?
B. The quality of the mentor panel and their ability to add value to my journey
C. The networks that can be accessed and strategic opportunities that can be created by completing a particular accelerator
Number 1 is to establish who is behind the programme. Make sure they have a track record of startup development and have a network to support your growth and provide you with opportunities to connect and win investment. Over the last 3 yrs startups we have worked with have raised over £5M through our networks. Important also is to identify those mentors that can add specific value to your business. Mentors involved in supporting our programme are incredibly successful and have global experience in developing a business. Accessing influential networks is a critical component of startup success and accelerators that have strong networks of support for startups will provide real opportunities to your development.
StartPlanetNI maintains close connections with SOSv, a global VC and is also a member of the Global Accelerator Network (GAN) which includes 70+ of the world’s top accelerator programmes as members. Be smart with your selection and seek to maximise your development. If an accelerator you’re considering does not tick ALL these boxes then you need to search a little more!
From a logistical standpoint, although not technically far away from the British Mainland, some UK-based startups might find StartPlanetNI’s location off-putting. As a city and a growing Startup ecosystem, what benefits does Belfast hold that might counter any difficulties faced?
We received over 300 applications from 50+ countries for our first cohort. That indicates clearly to me that today’s global startups and young entrepreneurs are extremely mobile and seek to find advantage in locations where programmes can offer the right support to enable their swift development.
Belfast offers an incredible advantage over other UK locations in terms of size, support, mobility, cost, its hunger for success and a significant determination to offer incredible opportunity to talented entrepreneurs. There are significant advantages to being "a bigger fish in a smaller pond" initially, if I may use that analogy. Many startups go to larger population centres and get lost in the "noise" and lose their ability to truly stand out. As a developing startup visibility is key, as is getting your name and product out there and accessing as much support and resources as possible.
I have been blown away by the opportunities available for startups in Belfast and Northern Ireland generally. There is a rich vein of talent, resources, knowledge, support, connections and introductions available to our startups thanks to the significant support of Invest NI and our own team. I believe Belfast as a location for a startup has all the benefits of the mainland but without the high living costs with London only an hours flight away when needed.
As a mentor assessing applications, do you find that there are any common traits / features which excellent applications share?
It’s not rocket science. A good application truly reflects the time and effort that went into it and demonstrates how much the startup really wants to be on our programme.
The application clearly promotes the team and its talent and experience to deliver on its potential. It also demonstrates a vision, a clarity and a confidence as to where they are going and how they are going to get there, allied with an intimate knowledge of their chosen market, its competitors and what they need to succeed. A story too as to how the startup was created, how the founders met, what problem they are solving and why they chose to try and solve that problem.
The application also needs to show that the startup has real potential to scale, is disruptive and has significant expertise in their field and an incredible desire to be successful. Smart applications also include why they are applying to our programme and how they see it adding value to their business. Confidence is a significant requirement for any successful startup and allied with passion, vision, teamwork and desire is a recipe for success. All these attributes need to jump off the page and you need to be able to stand out in the crowd.
Conversely, are there any features of applications which immediately ring alarm bells in your head?
"Funding Junkies", for want of a better description, stand out straight away. They seek seed funding to extend further the life of their "zombie startup" having most likely been through a number of startup programmes previously... We discount them immediately. An application needs to clearly articulate why our programme will help their progress and add value to their journey.
Monosyllabic answers to our questions reflect a real lack of effort and provide an indication of what we could surely expect from that startup on a programme.
We receive on occasion applications from teams that are essentially copying an already successful existing business citing no valid differentiation. We seek new, disruptive, scalable and exciting startups.
Startups without a "team" ie Sole Founders will not survive one of our programmes. A successful startup needs a team of dedicated loyal talented hardworking people all sharing a vision and working to a plan that will bring incredible success. If a sole founder cannot even convince one person to join them on this journey then how will they be able to convince customers to buy, investors to invest and ultimately build a sustainable viable business into the future
This might sound like a daft question- but from experience, we find some startups don’t fully understand the role that mentors can play in their business. To clarify, how would yousummarise a mentor's role within an accelerator?
Mentorship is essentially a learning and development partnership between someone with vast experience and someone who wants to learn. Mentors are usually experienced entrepreneurs who have been there, failed, got back up and succeeded and now are in a position to share that incredibly valuable experience. Mentors on accelerator programmes can also be subject matter experts eg business model experts, social media etc.
Remember, they are there to help accelerate your development and knowledge and to act as counsel and a sounding board during a time where you are constantly questioning the direction of your business. However, they are not always right..They should act as a guide to your development but ultimately it is important to note that the CEO of the startup makes the decision whether or not to act on the advice given.
Throughout the accelerator process, each team tends to get smarter and learns how to filter out the advice that will best work for them. Experienced Mentors are incredibly important and collectively they should provide you with comprehensive and quality advice and direction throughout the programme and become a new ally into the future.
After completing an accelerator programme, how can founders ensure that they keep the momentum going?
Focus Focus Focus...never lose sight of what you started in the first place. Post programme continued customer validation of your product should be critical and traction is required to attract investors. Continue to work the contacts that you made throughout the accelerator programme. "You gotta’ make the calls if you wanna’ get results" so your activity needs to be constantly high.
Continue to complete a weekly action plan and assess it regularly with your team / mentor. It is crucial also that you stay in touch with your fellow programme participants in terms of helping each other and maintaining the energy required to keep the momentum at a fast pace. Any opportunity you have to pitch your business take it and ensure the pitch is constantly evolving and changing as you grow and develop...successful businesses are extremely busy...make sure you are busy being smart and doing the right things.
What advice would you give to founders who are considering applying to take part in StartPlanetNI?
Having run quite a number of accelerator programmes at this stage I will say that each one is different and therefore unique as it’s all about the people. It is hugely important to choose a programme that has the experience and the capability to help you deliver on your potential.
Knowing how to cultivate and create the dynamic environment for teams to develop is key and the teams selected are the "magic sauce" that create the vibrancy, energy and acceleration throughout the programme, leading to successful outcomes.
StartPlanetNI Accelerator programme is an incredible 3-month journey of discovery where your business will be transformed like you could never believe. It will enable you to truly focus full-time on developing your startup and take the opportunity to really look at how you take your business to the next level and beyond with the help of some incredibly experienced and talented people. StartPlanetNI is an incredible opportunity for a startup to showcase their talent and potential, build some incredible contacts and access global networks necessary for your crucial development. But it will be incredibly hard work, involve incredible commitment and dedication allied with a huge desire to win and be successful.
Belfast presents a real opportunity for a startup to avail of incredible resources, support and funding. lt is but a short trip away from many of the region’s larger population centres like London, Manchester etc. and presents a real opportunity to access the large UK market without the considerable expense and set-up costs.
We have the team and the experience to help talented startups realise their potential. Are you that startup?