“The Fort” was the accelerator by Fortify Ventures, in Washington DC, that provided the backdrop for Startupland, the documentary series. The accelerator model that is prevalent today started in Mountainview California, with Y-Combinator, in 2005. An accelerator is deliberately intended to provide an intensely focused experience to test a startup idea, build and launch it in the shortest possible period of time. The model is not for everyone and success is not guaranteed.
Accelerator vs Incubator
In the startup world, you would have heard of the terms accelerator and incubator. Depending on who you talk to, understanding of the terms will differ. You’ll even find the terms being used interchangeably. There is quite a bit of difference on what each believes is the most important deliverable. To say the least, defining these things ends up being a lively discussion. An accelerator will provide office space. An incubator may or may not. And no … even though it may look like it, you don’t have to have a Mac to join an accelerator programme!
An incubator is a place where a new business can go to learn about how to succeed. It is a place where a business owner can find mentorship, domain knowledge and basically, help. An accelerator is essentially an incubator that has a deadline attached to it.
Speed is a key principle in an accelerator. The startup needs to build a team fast, fail fast, grow fast, pivot (change direction) fast and ultimately reach the point of being self-sustaining in as short a time possible. Some will argue that the sense of urgency is manufactured and unnecessary. Rather than be contentious, I’ll say again that the accelerator model is not for everyone.
For the period that one is in an accelerator, however, you are given access to mentorship, funding, expertise and resources that you most likely would not have access to otherwise. The time limit forces one to use those resources because they will not be available indefinitely.
Incubators, accelerators, hubs and science parks
This list is rather crude but I want to illustrate that there are lots of different kinds of these initiatives, in very different places, aimed at different types of startups and with very different aims.
The Startupland Accelerator Defined
… an accelerator is a short-term, mentor-driven programme. Most programmes are in the three to four month range and the goal is to provide an entrepreneur-friendly environment.
— Mike Bott, The Brandery
As defined in the Startupland episode, a true accelerator provides:
- Investment capital
- Physical work/office space
- A limit on the time on the programme
- No controlling interest requirement on the startup company and a founder friendly setting
Startups go through a competitive application process to get access to an accelerator programme. Acceptance to the programme does not guarantee the success of the idea or business. However, many will say that the skills learned are invaluable to apply to make their next venture a success.
What about Africa?
It’s worth noting that in the strict, Startupland usage of the word, Africa has very few accelerators. I do not see this as a bad thing. It is perhaps not quite the time to be so focused when there are challenges around simply starting a business in the first place. What we do have in the technology space is open spaces for people to learn the technology and meet the kinds of people to build a technology startup with. The number of such spaces is steadily growing. AfriLabs is an initiative that was born out of a need to provide best practice knowledge sharing across the various “hubs” on the continent. There is a power-of-numbers effect that comes by being part of the network.
If you are reading this from Zambia and some of the ideas here resonate, I highly recommend that you check out BongoHive and Startup Junction. Connecting with them will help you learn about the incredible things that are happening in Zambia’s startup space. It will be worth your while.