Disney, Techstars & YCombinator – some of you who are familiar with Start-ups would immediately know this episode is about Accelerators from the title. After all, Techstars and YCombinator are without a doubt the two biggest and most well-known Accelerators, with countless of articles written about the two and comparing the two. How about Disney – what’s Accelerator gotta do with Disney? Well, the question should be what has Disney gotta do with Accelerators. Answer is simple – Innovation. Accelerators are creating so much buzz and so “at the forefront of technology innovation” that Disney has jumped in too — they’ve launched the inaugural Disney Accelerator this year.
For those not familiar with the start-up scene (as new as I was just two months ago), Accelerators help start-ups accelerate growth, typically to get to a stage where VC funds (Venture Capitalist funds) would find attractive to invest in. What do you mean “as new as I was just two month ago”? Yes, two months ago, I didn’t know the in and outs of the whole start-up and funding ecosystem. Yes, we’ve been working on the ROCKI start-up for more than a year, but that’s different from the start-up ecosystem.
You see, ROCKI started up with a single small investment from a long-time friend. Afterwhich we went crowdsourcing within our immediate and extended network to build the product with passion, blood and sweat (and post-payments). Finally launching ROCKI via crowdfunding on Kickstarter. The plan was that we would sell the products and re-invest the profits into development and growth. I’ve now learnt there are terms for that – bootstrapping (be tight with money and use what you have) and organic growth (generating growth using money earned). So in the orginal ROCKI plan, there was no need to seek external funding, and no need to engage the start-up and VC fundraising scene. Lots of companies start up and grow this way.
If this is so fine, why then is the start-up ecosystem so vibrant? And why has ROCKI changed course from organic growth to accelerators and VC fund raising?
When ROCKI was successfully funded on Kickstarter with almost five times the original funding goal, that was (on hindsight) the first sign that we have perhaps stumbled on something bigger than the organic growth plan. And then at CES 2014 in Jan, the awesome reaction from the industry and media made it even clearer – ROCKI struck a chord with more people than we thought it would, right in the middle of a gaping hole in the industry with the right product at the right time, and the right price. This is going to be bigger than we planned. It’s ok, plans can change – that’s start-up
January to March was spent mostly focusing on our first and foremost commitment – producing and delivering ROCKI to the Kickstarter backers who has made all this possible. So we didn’t have time to worry about how to grow. First, produce and deliver. And that we did.
Once that was done, the question of “Is our organic growth plan the best choice?” finally had the time and space to become real. Having planned and developed ROCKI since early 2013, it’s clear we have an advantage of time. ROCKI is currently without competition and according to professional opinion, about six months ahead of others, with a time and price advantage. But time is transient. Whether that advantage is six months, three months or nine months, the fact is that time is always ticking. If ROCKI was a quiet mild success, the organic growth plan would have been perfect. I’m sure our visions at ROCKI is so strong that we can take on competition following our footsteps. After all, we’ve created and taken ROCKI this far with foresight when others were still dreaming of it. But now that ROCKI has made an impact, that success becomes a magnet for competitors to jump in. The paradox of success. Will we have the muscles to implement our vision stronger and faster than anyone?
The race of faster and stronger has begun. With that, we’ve made the decision that we shall seek funding to maximise the massive opportunity fast and strong. The first time Dennis (ROCKI Co-Founder) and I seriously discussed the topic of external funding in March, Dennis remembered an email that came in just a week ago with the title “introducing Disney Accelerator, powered by Techstars (Rocki)”. Wow, what a timing.
We checked out the links, googled everything we could about accelerators, about Techstars, about Disney Accelerator, the difference between incubator and accelerator (haha yes, we had to teach ourselves even the basics) since these were the keywords that came up. We decided that If we were to do funding, we want to give it our 100%, and 200%, otherwise it would be a waste of time since we had to start from the basics of funding. And that’s what we did – I would dive into this, do most of this learning and share with Dennis so we don’t duplicate our efforts and avoid spending double manhours learning.
You know the joke about “The best place to bury a dead body is on the 2nd page of Google search”? Well, when I learning and digging through a topic, I read all the way to page 20. Perserverence
So what have we learned for ROCKI and others?
Whoa, the ecosystem is HUGE, an entire industry on its own. There are plenty of incubators (helps incubate new ideas at conception) and plenty of accelerators (helps accelerate growth towards VCs), and plenty of VCs, plenty of bootcamps, plenty of everything. No one size fits all. In fact there are so many incubators and accelerators that depending on what type of product, what size the potential market, what stage you are, there’s an incubator or accelerator for you. Practically every city big city, small city, has a start-up scene, many of them thriving – San Francisco (of course), New York, Boulder, Seattle, London, Berlin, Paris, Singapore, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Shanghai… you know what I mean, I can’t list them all. The biggest are naturally in USA where the amount of VC funding money just outstrips any other countries.
By now it’s clear to us that we would want to raise VC funding for ROCKI so we could build the perfect system (as near perfect as it can be) that’s in our vision with speed AND muscles. Applying the “you gotta know some people to know some people” rule, we knew we wouldn’t accomplish much funding simply on our own since we didn’t have a good network of VCs and funding industry people.
Called up several people (some took the form of chats and messages), including friends, friends of friends, referrals, and even “Hi, I’m…” type of cold contacts. Listened to what they have to say about accelerators and their experience with accelerators.
Among all the accelerators, these two names keeping coming up – Y Combinator and Techstars. There’s enough articles written about Y Combinator vs Techstars that I shall not repeat that here – that’s not the purpose of this blog, here my goal is to share our first hand experience. Essentially they have the same goal of mentoring you to accelerate growth and help connect VCs – the implementation varies though. Y Combinator has a large class of 40+, Techstars has a class of 12. Y Combinator runs its program only in San Francisco, Techstars has programs in several cities. Do a search and you will also find lots of articles advising which one is more suitable for you. I, on the other hand, advise you not to get too worried about which is better.
In my humble opinion, these are the world’s two best accelerator programs. If you’re going for accelerators, getting selected by one or the other is going to be a good thing!! What you get out of each is as much dependent on you as them. It’s a collaboration.
Of course, if you enter the program with a passive “sheephead”, you might not get what you want (for that matter, if you start anything with a sheephead, don’t even start). Because everyone and every mentor will have an advice on what’s best for you. They do mean well. And quite often there’s more than one road to the same destination. Listen, curate and plot your course. Because if you don’t, you will get lost in what’s called the “mentor whiplash”. Enter with a sheephead and the result can only be “baa”.
Know what you want, know what you need, communicate that. I respect that everyone involved in managing these programs are highly intelligent, have the depth, the breadth and the professional pride to help you get there. After all, the better you perform, the better they are (in terms of reputation, and also in terms of the value of their shares in your company). It’s a win-win situation, it’s as much their duty to help you grow as it’s your duty to help them help you. So it’s actually a partnership! And so like choosing any partners, the people and personalities should count – the partnership with the most passion and commitment would beat any other factors. I’d be happy to get ROCKI into one or the other and make the very best out of the partnership.
How about Disney Accelerator? Definitely a good one too. Why? The Disney brand name that everyone young and old knows. I haven’t spoken much about it because there wasn’t much to google other than it’s a new program, the first this year. Also there’s no past participants to tell you how passionate and how committed the program is managed. Since it doesn’t have a track record yet, you have to draw your own assumptions. If you are a pessimist you would assume the worst and if you are an optimist you would assume the best. My theory is that startup entrepreneurs are mostly optimist – would you abandon the safety net of a regular pay check to chase after a vision if you’re a pessimist and assumed the worst? With the branding power of Disney, access to Disney corporate people and their relations, it makes this new program pretty attractive. Judging from the number of applications flying across the board, there’s no doubt about its popularity.
Some feedback pointed out that ROCKI is way too advanced for accelerators, which typically mentors start-ups in path searching and thinking/re-thinking core business. Perhaps so. But the top accelerators are already moving ahead of the others – Y Combinator recently announcing Quora (an already well-funded and well-running company) joining its next batch. Both Techstars and Y Combinator are going international, each in their own way.
ROCKI’s proven market demand (Kickstarters), the media attention (over 200+ stories in the press), the shipping product, the revenue… just means we’re a bit advanced in a class of start-ups, doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn. Focus our learning on implementation, on pitching our business case, on connecting with the industry’s top companies, on communicating with VCs, we’ll certainly graduate a much better company – a much higher value company, which is very much what it is about too.
Long story short, we’ve done our homework, filled in and submitted ROCKI applications to these three accelerators : Disney Accelerator (managed by Techstars), Techstars, and Y Combinator. Cross our fingers, don’t hold our breath and ROCKI on.