Cyclr joined the Entrepreneurial Spark accelerator programme back in February 2016. We were a chiclet -- the term they use to describe startups joining the programme -- and part of the Brighton Hatchery.
Having now completed our six month programme, I thought it might be useful to other founders to answer what my top five questions were before Cyclr joined.
1. Is it really free?
Whatever the motives of NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland in setting up Entrepreneurial Spark, as a startup you can't ignore FREE. (And it really is 100% free.)
They don't want your money and they don't want your equity. They don't even push you to use their business banking.
You are expected to give your time, however.
- Being in the Hatchery
- Attending events (and they run a very full events calendar, including evening events)
- Meeting every two weeks with your enabler (like a coach) for your "temperature checks"
If you're a busy founder, have a life outside of your business, or need to travel a lot, you may start to feel overwhelmed. It is full-on.
2. Is it worth my time?
This one is a tricky.
Whilst some of the chiclets that joined with Cyclr were trading, or just about, quite a few were more incubator material rather than accelerator. I think that these very early-stage businesses certainly got the most out of the programme. Especially the founders that were able to attend the Hatchery full time.
The goal of an accelerator is normally to move a post-idea stage business toward a set goal. Beyond the basic and common challenges a brand new business would expect, I think Entrepreneurial Spark's impact is limited by its generality. If you're missing the fundamentals, or need coaching and motivating, it will have the highest impact.
Accelerators are normally themed, staffed, and networked around a specialism. Cyclr's fellow chiclets, however, included a chocolate maker, a fashion designer, a sports coach, and a recruitment specialist. Lovely people, all of them, but when you need to brain dump deeply technical or abstract engineering ideas you can feel a bit isolated. I suspect they also felt isolated at times without a cohort of chiclets in the same industry.
3. Will it help me get funded?
Probably not. In terms of investment, my feeling is that if your business is something an angel or VC would invest in I don't think Entrepreneurial Spark would greatly increase your chances of finding that person. I found their networks and especially their association with Angels Den to be limited and largely not engaged with the chiclets.
That said, their events like Acceler8 are fun and they have pitching competitions where you can win prizes up to £5k. That's fantastic and you should go for it. Free money is free money.
There was a scheme to get chiclets £5k of credit for Amazon Web Services, but despite my exhaustive efforts and chasing people to the point of feeling utterly embarrassed, we did not manage to get these for Cyclr. That stung a bit because after salaries AWS is our biggest expense. This situation was not entirely Entrepreneurial Spark's fault as multiple third-parties were involved.
I do think Entrepreneurial Spark will help you improve your pitch, but only if you need to build your confidence or are not used to having meetings with people. Their emphasis on a Dragon's Den / Shark Tank approach is fun, but a bit silly and it might even put some founders off the idea of seeking out investors.
In my experience, these high-pressure and somewhat hostile or combative pitches are absolutely nothing like the real world.
No angel or VC I've met said anything like "give me your 60 second elevator pitch, go!" or "tell me off top of your head your year three EBITDA".
Angels and VCs, in my experience, are just normal people. Knowledgeable, interested, chilled out, and in no way expecting an "elevator pitch" or a startup's financials to be given verbatim off the top of your head. If they are, they're probably an asshole who wants to play at Dragon's Den and you should not take their money.
4. Did it work?
I thought the staff who run the Brighton Hatchery were absolutely brilliant. Their enthusiasm, passion, and involvement is the cement that holds the programme together. But they're also very thinly stretched. They need more time with fewer businesses. Brighton had two enablers with around 40 chiclets each. I think the banks should consider halving the number of chiclets or doubling the enablers.
Cyclr joined the programme at an incredibly frantic time as we tried to raise our seed round. Not knowing if you're going to be funded is the biggest stress for a founder. It made it very difficult for me to commit my time to events and activities in the Hatchery. The events often seemed fun and useful, but they weren't aligned with my immediate and pressing concerns.
Entrepreneurial Spark also focus strongly on the the entrepreneur. If you're a first time founder, or have never run a business, then this is great. You need the fundamentals that they will try to instill in you. They will do a good job of coaching you and you should take full advantage of it.
For me, however, I often felt I should get up and run some of the sessions -- especially the stuff on "Agile" and "Lean". These terms were thrown around more as adjectives than the nouns of formal disciplines that they represent. That, however, might be nuance that didn't matter for most of the non-tech businesses!
5. Would I recommend it?
If you're a first time founder and have never run a business, then my recommendation is -- without any reservation -- yes. Do it! You'll learn lots of the fundamentals. It will give you the time, space, and security to focus on your idea. The networking is OK. You'll probably come out of it a better founder. You'll be more confident. You'll meet fellow founders in the same boat. At worse you'll get six months free office space, with the possibility to "nest" for another 18 months.
If you're already beyond the idea stage, have experience of running a business, or things are already moving quickly forward, then my recommendation is not to apply. Entrepreneurial Spark is not going to accelerate you, and, perhaps more importantly, you'll be denying the space to an inexperienced founder who would really benefit.
I've mentioned that the enablers were great at the Brighton Hatchery, I also think some of the other bank staff around the programme were very good too. I thought they'd all made a good adjustment from their previous corporate/enterprise thinking to startup mindsets.
I do think some more effort is needed to bring in and engage with the network of partners. I'm sure that's something they will improve over time.