How Being Rejected By Multiple Startup Accelerators Actually Helped Us

If you're anything like we are as startup founders, you'll have considered joining an accelerator program. At least once.

I mean, it seems like a great deal, right? You get some money, some mentorship, and the chance to pitch a group of investors looking for the next big thing™️. And you only have to give up a sliver of equity in return.

First, though, you have to battle through the application process. Fill in some forms, record some videos (unprofessionally), do a couple interviews, maybe hop on a flight.

Then you get accepted.

Or not. We've been rejected at various stages, numerous times. We never did get to that finish line.

Every time we were "too early", "not a good fit", or (my personal favorite) "never going to succeed".

Despite some helpful feedback and advice, it still sucks being rejected so many times. I felt like I was doing a bad job. Like I was never going to get anywhere. Like I should just give up. I know Jake felt the same.

But we didn't. Thinking back on it, I'm glad we got rejected. I do think we're a bad fit for an accelerator. At least right now.

Better integrations & partnerships

When we started HelpDocs just over a year ago, we didn't know many people, especially not in the customer support space. We were just two guys looking to make a better knowledge base.

So when we got in touch with other startups, many ignored us. OK, most ignored us. But a few didn't, and we've built out some great partnerships and integrations with those teams. We'd much rather had a few great integration partners than a ton of mediocre ones.

If we'd gone through an accelerator, we'd have so many connections by now. But I feel like we wouldn't have time to get to know each of them. We'd have to keep track of them all in, like, a spreadsheet. Good people don't deserve spreadsheets. 📈

Having so few connections and no help to get more taught us to work with what we've got. We aren't in a lot of startup circles—heck, we're probably not in any. And we don't want to be.

As HelpDocs grows, we have less time to speak one-on-one with our customers, other startups, and our friends. There's always so much fighting for our attention. But we try to make it a priority.

I love speaking with other founders and adding integrations with lesser known companies.

Getting started in startups was a lonely road for us, like many founders. But lets be frank—it's not solved by sending hundreds of LinkedIn messages with the word 'synergy' in. What the hell is synergy anyway?!

No, for us it's about making connections because we believe in what other people are doing. Because we think they're doing a good job. Even (especially?) if they're our competitors.

Knowing our customers

Getting to know HelpDocs customers is pretty darn important to us. After all, they're the ones who keep our business running and they've chosen us over our excellent competitors.

We have some pretty awesome customers making fantastic products around the world. By having the time to focus on making a great product and being there for our customers, we've made great connections with the people who keep a roof over our heads.

I think it's all too easy to focus just on growth, raising money, and pouring more customers in the top of that leaky funnel.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure they're important parts of a startup. But the people who've stuck with you and already use your software? They're more important. Being responsive and helping our customers as quickly as we can wins hearts every time 😍

Our Front and Drift response time analytics

Our Front and Drift response time analytics

That's not to say it's all about sending stickers and thank you notes. That hasn't worked for us one bit, but that's a story for another post.

No, it's about being proactive by looking through our analytics. It's about doing right by our customers, being helpful when they get in touch, plus understanding their business and what they do.

If you go through an accelerator I imagine you'll be super busy meeting mentors, practicing your pitch, and trying to raise some money to build a team. If we'd ever been accepted I could totally confirm that.

I'm not saying any of those are bad things. They're just not our things.

By focussing on our customers, I'm proud to say we know at least half of them pretty well. If you're in that other half, we're coming for you. 😉

Profitable & happy

Looking through accelerator prospectuses, it seems there's the expectation you're gonna raise money by the end of the program. Some don't, but the majority are angled towards that goal.

So it strikes me as odd that almost all the founders I know (and even some VCs) have told me the exact same thing:

"Don't raise if you don't have to".

I'm surprised just how popular this advice is. I mean, it's pretty obvious that startups need money to grow. But what was less obvious to me is that raising money introduces problems you hadn't even considered before. And that it can actually harm your startup.

Every founding team wants to build a great team and great product, but you don't have the funds to execute that right away.

Raising money in this case seems to make sense. If you don't raise, it'll take a lot longer and you'll need to be careful how you spend those hard-earned dollars. 💸

I think every founder gets to a point in their company where they have to decide—would I rather raise money, build a team quickly, and give away some of my company? Or should I go it alone, build a team slower, and retain complete control?

I'm not saying either way is better. Or in fact good. It's a choice that depends on your team and the way you work best.

For us, that means going it alone for now. We're not ruling out raising money, but at the moment we're profitable. With all the flexibility being profitable brings.

We love getting our heads down in the product and customer support, and we're growing the team slowly but surely. In fact, we just hired our first developer, which sure is an exciting milestone. And we're on the lookout for other talented remote workers.

Bootstrapped, self-funded, funded? I'd love to hear your thoughts on accelerators. Where do you think they're totally awesome? Where do they fail? Am I completely wrong about everything?

Leave a comment below or tweet me @jarrattisted. I'd love to chat!