For startups spread throughout the world and looking to break into the United States, getting accepted to a well-respected U.S.-based accelerator program can feel like winning the lottery.
As a mentor to startups based in Ukraine and a technical associate for Techstars Boston, I frequently speak with founders who are about to join a U.S. accelerator, and they couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the prospect of meeting the mentors, venture capitalists and other business contacts that will help them grow their businesses.
Yet, while getting into a top U.S. accelerator program is certainly cause for celebration, there's more work to be done: Once accepted, entrepreneurs must focus on their preparations for taking full advantage of the experience.
I recently caught up with a few of the international teams in the Techstars Boston Spring 2016 program. While everyone was quick to tout the many benefits of joining an accelerator we all know -- valuable VC contacts and expanded U.S. customer bases -- it was clear that these international startups faced additional hurdles relative to companies founded locally. Here are some words of wisdom such companies should know before starting a U.S. accelerator program:
1. Expect to make your own connections.
Being part of an accelerator does not mean making connections will be easy. Name-dropping the top-tier accelerator you’re a part of is a great conversation starter in many business situations, but compared to startups with U.S. founders, you’ll still be a step behind in building the business relationships you need for everything from attracting local talent to raising money.
“If you’re a Boston startup, investors know what you’re doing -- you may have graduated from the same school, or have other personal connections,” says Mauro Repacci, CEO of Navut, a Canadian startup focused on real-estate technology. “Also, everyone is trying to hire here, and if you don’t have a network here or university contacts, recruiting be hard.”
The international startup founders most successful in making connections aren’t shy about consistently putting themselves in positions where they can network with U.S.-based startups, VCs and advisors as soon as they arrive in the United States, says Techstars Boston director Eveline Buchatskiy.
“Startups shouldn’t come with a tourist mentality,” Buchatskiy explains. “Instead, they should have the mindset of building long-term relationships.”
2. Show investors you’re committed to having a U.S. presence.
International startups might think that swinging into the United States for a few months is the key to getting in touch with the right investors and getting funded, but Nikolay Piriankov, CEO of U.K. online jewelry retailer Rare Pink, says it’s not quite so simple.
“People here are much more familiar with the landscape and process of fundraising,” commented Piriankov. “It can feel like you’re starting from zero compared to local companies.”
As an international startup, making your company a U.S. entity is one way to signal to VCs that you’re serious about raising money in this country. “Flipping our company to a U.S. entity wasn’t a hard requirement for getting into Techstars, but it’s an implicit requirement if you’re going to raise money here,” says Norman Wiese, CEO at Tapglue, a German company that builds social networks into apps.
Buchatskiy also suggests that hiring local talent is absolutely essential as part of the process of showing U.S. investors that you’re committed to building your business here.
3. Be ready to experience to a new entrepreneurial mindset.
No two entrepreneurial cultures are alike, and international startups that come to the United States for an accelerator program should prepare themselves to experience the optimistic entrepreneurial culture this country is widely known for.
“People in the U.S. are thinking bigger, and they require that from you as well,” Wiese comments. “European companies are more cautious, which people here don’t necessarily like.”
4. Make sure your teams back home are aligned with the accelerator process.
For many international startups joining U.S. accelerators, moving the entire team to the United States simply isn’t an option. Instead, the team back home may need to continue running the day-to-day business, while the startup’s leaders focus on using the accelerator as an opportunity to grow the business. With such different focuses, staying aligned as a company during the accelerator program can be challenging.
“In an accelerator, you’re moving at a very fast pace, but back home your team is going at a more normal pace,” says Repacci. “As a startup with teams in two different countries, you need to be proactive about keeping them aligned.”
For many startups, this proactive alignment means setting up regular check-ins, and having collaboration technology in place that everyone is comfortable using. Founders might also consider bringing over each of their team members for a short time to get an understanding of the work being done at an accelerator.
5. Ask your accelerators for professional service recommendations.
No sooner do startups arrive in the United States for an accelerator program than they’re faced with decisions about contracting with a variety lawyers, accountants and consultants. While accelerators likely won’t provide all these services directly, asking them for recommendations can help startups find the best service providers more quickly.
“I got every introduction I needed, and I’m glad I trusted them,” says Rare Pink's Piriankov, describing how he asked Techstars for help getting in touch with professional service providers.
Committing to a U.S. accelerator program is a significant investment for international startups in terms of time and effort, as well as the financial costs of moving. In order to make this investment as worthwhile as possible, take the time to prepare for the experience as much as you possibly can.