It's January 2021 and COVID-19 has come full-term.
For the last 9 months, almost all student startup activities have been conducted virtually. Despite a vaccine rollout in sight, many universities are not committing to full in-person activities in Spring 2021. And even after life does return to the oft-discussed "New Normal", elements of virtual programming - especially the ones that simply make life easier - are here to stay.
While accelerators are traditionally an in-person endeavor, this past Fall has shown that they can be modified to meet the times. After all, accelerators support entrepreneurs. With such an innovation-minded clientele, the successful ones have risen to the challenge and created new types of programming in order to better serve their cohort members through all the uncertainty.
The rest of this post will walk through some of the reasons that a university entrepreneurship center can benefit from launching their own accelerator program, some common themes that make them accelerators, and five tips for running them in a virtual environment.
Why Run An University Accelerator?
Accelerators have the potential to serve as a launchpad for student entrepreneurship within a university. While pitch competitions can provide funding, skill-building workshops can provide knowledge, and mentorship can provide ... well ... mentorship, an accelerator is the one program that wraps all three of those components together.
According to data from my Fall 2020 University Entrepreneurship Center (UEC) survey, only 47% of surveyed UECs are planning to run an accelerator program in this current academic year. Somewhat surprisingly, that's 2 more UECs this year than last year.
So why do less than half of all UECs run an accelerator program? A few reasons come to mind: lack of funding, little operational capacity, or no institutional know-how. And I get it - launching an accelerator can be intimidating. It feels like there are a hundred moving pieces and you need to fit them all into a dynamic puzzle.
Below I wanted to offer five tips from personal experience when running the Johns Hopkins student accelerator last Spring when we were forced to adapt half-way. My hope is that this will demystify some of the process and offer tangible solutions or processes that can be used to make the job just a little bit easier.
First - to read more about what makes an accelerator an accelerator, click here.
1) Equip your students (and your operators) with a strong virtual structure
A well-run virtual accelerator is built upon a solid set of technologies & platforms
In order to run any kind of accelerator, a ton of planning and prep work needs to occur. Just to get it off the ground, you'll need to: define the theme, create a timeline, curate mentors/speakers, develop marketing materials, source applications, conduct interviews, and make selections. Then ... you actually have to run the thing. Keeping all of these tasks in line and on track can be daunting. That's why I want to recommend three tech tools to use in order to build a strong virtual structure. And Zoom isn't on this list.
Airtable is a cloud-based collaboration app that allows you to create databases and refer to them to one another. Think Google Sheets meets a CRM.
And the best part? It's free(mium)! Airtable's free version is really robust and will cover all of your teams' needs. Read more about Airtable here.
What do I use it for?
- Accelerator applications
- Mentor database (and matching)
- Project or task management
- Hosting the accelerator schedule
Notion is an all-in-one workspace that I use for a little bit of everything. Think of it as Evernote on steroids. It also has a very robust free version, especially if you just want to have an individual workspace. You can create pages, folders, and even whole websites through Notion. You're never more than a few clicks away from finding whatever files you need. Read more about Notion here.
What do I use it for?
- File management
- Compiling cohort resources
- Public or private note-taking
- Housing team hubs
Finally, Slack needs no formal introduction. Most of us have been living on it for the last 9+ months with our teams. Slack is also ubiquitous among college students and is the go-to channel for quick communications.
Anytime you're thinking of sending a cohort-wide email, just think, could this be a Slack message instead? Setting up various Channels such as Additionally, Slack can be fantastic for cohort engagement by utilizing some kind of Question of the Day to get everyone talking.
2) Build in time for casual cohort bonding
This is where the meaningful conversations happen.
An often overlooked part of an accelerator is the cohort experience. Students working closely within a group of fellow highly motivated entrepreneurs - providing progress accountability, peer support, and the foundations of an entrepreneurial network. These are the people that they'll feel comfortable reaching out to years in the future in order to request an intro or make a pitch.
But the key to doing that is making sure they all have a chance to bond while the program is happening.
An important at the beginning is ensuring that they all have a chance to get comfortable with each other on a personal level. One icebreaker activity we've used involved assigning random teams of 3-4 people to create a pitch for an alternative use for a common household object. We would split up the team members so they were interacting with other students outside of their own venture, give them give five minutes to brainstorm, and then 30 seconds to give a infomercial-esque pitch. What else could you use a stapler for, besides stapling? This icebreaker lived up to its name, as the students collectively would come up with some hilarious and/or bizarre use cases (like metal flavor-infusing tongs). This simple activity can set the community tone not only for the rest of your opening event, but the cohort itself.
Additionally, be sure create a space for your students to be vulnerable and share the tribulations of being an entrepreneur, especially during COVID-19. We all know it's a rocky ride, at best. It can be helpful to have a venue to air those grievances with your peers who are likely experiencing the same highs and lows in their entrepreneurial journey. During each weekly cohort meeting, make sure to ask every team to (earnestly) share how their last week has been. The good, the bad, and the ugly. You'll find most students will be willing to open up and understood.
3) Tap into your entrepreneurial alumni network all over the world
One of the few upsides of COVID-19 is that people are more willing to Zoom/Meet/WebEx into events than ever before.
Last Spring, with the sudden mid-accelerator shift to virtual, we reached out to a few of our more prominent alums that lived out of town, asking if they'd be willing to share some words about their journey with our cohort.
While a handful of our entrepreneurial alumni have carved out a home in Baltimore, many are based in NYC, SF, or somewhere else around the world. Pre-COVID, we felt compelled to only choose from our local pool of entrepreneurs to come and speak with our cohort. But given the shift in remote accessibility, we were able to bring in alumni entrepreneurs that had raised Series A-Ds, successfully exited their companies, and have otherwise ran the gamut of entrepreneurial outcomes. And based on the feedback we received from both the students and the speakers, it appears as if the virtual sessions were a hit.
So while these alumni entrepreneurs are still cooped up because of COVID, I encourage you to reach out and see how they'd be willing to share their time/knowledge with your student entrepreneurs. You may surprised at how many of our wildly successful and surely busy alumni entrepreneurs were more than happy to pop in and spend an hour talking the trade with our students.
4) Make Demo Day asynchronous and accessible
Demo Days are incredibly stressful yet rewarding for both the organizers and the cohort. This can be heightened by walking the digital high wire and running everything live. Students are worried about what happens if their spotty WiFi goes on the fritz mid-pitch. The organizer is worried about what happens if Zoom randomly closes.
My main advice here? Don't make Demo Day a (completely) live event. All of the moving parts can be broken up
I've recommended that students record their pitches ahead of time with Loom - a free screen capture software. This allows them to get their best recorded pitch possible, provide captions/annotations, and otherwise polish it to exactly how they'd like it. We posted those videos on our JHU Virtual Demo Day site and sent them to our Demo Day judges for their review ahead of the event. Then we just had a live Q&A with our judges a couple weeks later, which was used to determine the Demo Day funding pool.
Other than funding, one of the main draws of a Demo Day is providing your startups exposure to an entrepreneurial network that can help them progress after the program ends. This can be done by engaging your social media and other networks with a campaign around featuring each of your cohort members. Highlighting your student entrepreneurs not only gives them a sense of pride in their many accomplishments throughout the program, but it also maximizes their exposure and possibility that a relevant connection is made that helps them to move forward.
5) Continuously collect feedback as you go
You don't know what you don't ask.
A final bit of advice - make sure you're in tune with how your students are feeling throughout the program.
Virtual accelerators are new territory for everyone and it's OK to not hit a home run with the first iteration. In fact, odds are there will be components of the program that need to be tweaked.
One of the biggest pieces of feedback we received last year is that the virtual lecture portion of our accelerator was not well-received. It's not that the content wasn't valuable, but rather that after a full day of sitting through Zoom University, the last thing students wanted was another hour of that from 6-7 pm. They'd rather be using the time to actually work on their ventures.
So taking that feedback, going forward we are shifting our lectures to be working sessions - kind of like an entrepreneurial study hall. We will provide articles and resources ahead of time, but spend our virtual facetime together working through some of our ventures' most pressing challenges.
Make sure that you offer both formal and informal pathways to receive feedback. A pre/post accelerator survey can be helpful to track individual progress on understanding of entrepreneurial topics such as financial modeling, business model development, and pitch deck creation. But additionally, I hold weekly office hours meetings with each team where I am sure to ask them about whether they feel like they're getting what they need out of the program, and if not, what is missing. Asking this informally in a private setting can be a great way to learn about the teams' specific needs as opposed to what they think the cohort as a whole needs.
Contact Coach Carter
If you would like to discuss the possibility of bringing an accelerator - or any other entrepreneurial program - to your university, don't hesitate to reach out.
You can learn more about my services here and contact me directly at email@example.com