In 2013, I realized the top hackathon teams around the world were struggling to turn their ideas into startups. It turns out, winning a hackathon doesn’t mean you’re ready to build a company. All it means is you have a great idea and a great team. So I built HACKcelerator as a way to bridge that gap.
When I built HACKcelerator, I was CEO of AngelHack, the largest hackathon organizer, which gave me access to top hackathon teams around the world. AngelHack’s mission was always to help entrepreneurs build their dreams, so justifying the resources needed to build HACKcelerator was easy. If HACKcelerator succeeded, we succeeded.
The HACKcelerator Pre-Accelerator Program
I made HACKcelerator a 12-week program, split between 4 weeks of customer development, 4 weeks of business development, and 4 weeks of preparation for raising capital. The program finished with a week in San Francisco, where teams would prepare for Global Demo Day, pitching to luminary Silicon Valley Venture Capital firms and investors like Google Ventures and Naval Ravikant. It was very much a Shark Tank-like experience. We even stacked the deck by getting some investors to commit to investing on the spot. In return, we asked teams to give us between 0-2% equity on a sliding scale depending on how much value we created for them.
The most common problem teams faced was getting to know their customer base before building their product. They either didn’t understand who their users were, or what their users needed. They had passion, no one would deny that, but passion wasn’t going to get them customers. On the plus side, they were incredibly creative and fast prototypers, who usually had worked together for a long time. Basically, they had the foundation of a great startup team, but lacked the experience that comes with failure. I believed we could help them with that!
In the first year, we accepted 65 teams into the program. Teams joined us on Google Hangouts every week for mentorship sessions with Silicon Valley elites. Group Mentorship Hangouts took place twice a week, once in the mornings and once at night, depending on the team’s time zone. HACKcelerator teams also had weekly meetings with our program director. The meetings combined tracking progress, providing emotional support and making introductions for the various things they needed help with. Most teams wanted to be connected with people they weren’t ready to chat with. Still, we made hundreds of introductions. We helped teams with startup docs, helped foreigners obtain visas, setup investor meetings, and ran days of non-stop pitch training. It was very much an learn-as-you-go process and more often then not it felt like we were in over our heads. But that’s a startup, right? We had to change a lot of things on the go, which teams didn’t always like. When the teams would complain, their issues would almost always fall on the shoulders of the program directors, which took a heavy toll on them.
Over the course of the year, I hired five separate people to run the HACKcelerator program. Five! Two moved on to much more lucrative offers and three weren’t good fits. It turned out that hiring a program director was the hardest part of running an accelerator program, especially an affordable one! You could find just about anyone to take the job, but very few people could actually do it well. A good program director has to be able to coordinate large events, stay highly organized about the teams and their needs, and be an outgoing and friendly communicator. They also need to have a diverse network of designers, developers and investors to reach out to, as well as be able to network at events and parties on behalf of the startups they represent. It takes an organized, outgoing person with a business development-mentality, good time management and enough experience to know all the right people.
I’m a firm believer that even a bad accelerator program will produce a couple great companies. Great companies don’t need much help to succeed; they just need a platform to showcase themselves. One of my favorite companies, Fashion Metric, only needed an e-mail introduction in order to secure an investment from Mark Cuban. An Israeli team that we sponsored used its trip to SF to pitch TechCrunch and leveraged the press coverage to eventually get a buyout offer from Google. A third company from London, Testlio, scrappily made it on $25,000 for 6 months, before getting itself into TechStars. In most cases, we did little to help them succeed except for create the opportunity for them. They built the company, devoted their lives to its success and found a way to make it happen. That’s the dirty little secret of accelerators.
The list below may be a little outdated, but here’s what happened to the top 6 HACKcelerator teams
Osper— The world’s first children’s bank ($10 million raised)
Appetas— Mobile friendly restaurant menus (Acq. by Google)
Slick Login— Mobile security innovations (Acq. by Google)
FashionMetric — Perfecting men’s fashion (Mark Cuban investment)
Fosubo–Improving retail customer service (In 100 Verizon stores)
Testlio— Ensuring a developer’s apps work (TechStars )