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Are startup accelerators a bad idea for immigrant tech entrepreneurs?

Accelerators assist founders with fundraising and help foster relationships with fellow entrepreneurs and mentors. But many also have toxic cultures, unrealistic expectations, relentless focus on fundraising, and simply waste your time with unproductive activities. This begs the question: Are accelerators bad for you? Mike Burtov, a star entrepreneur and founder, reflects on the dark side of the innovation ecosystem in the U.S.

Two weeks ago, an alumna of Y-Combinator (a leading U.S. startup accelerator) went viral with her account of shutting down her startup, as well as the mental health challenges that many founders face, and the subsequent friction she experienced with Y-Combinator

Her article struck a chord with me. Having myself been through half a dozen startup accelerators, including Techstars, and having worked for or led several startup accelerators throughout the years, I have seen the accelerator landscape evolve into an enticing prospect for immigrant entrepreneurs seeking mentorship, investor connections, and a platform to showcase their ideas. 

However, this opportunity can turn out to be more bittersweet than many realize. The decision to join an accelerator program should be made with caution, as not all accelerators deliver on their promises, and some might actually harm you or your startup.

In his 2017 Harvard University commencement speech, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the multi-billion-dollar Meta (formerly Facebook) empire shared an insight that resonates with many startup founders. “The idea of a single eureka moment is a dangerous lie,” he said. “Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started.”

Building something truly innovative requires pivoting, getting started, and being flexible when change is needed. After all, one of the few advantages that small companies have over big ones is their agility. Much like how turning a small boat is easier than turning a large ship, it is the same with startups. 

In adverse conditions, large companies struggle to cope and change, while small companies are more able to adapt if not thrive when faced with challenges. The problem with accelerators is that they’re often structured in a counter-pivot way – they evaluate and accept ideas that fit a specific set of criteria, (criteria that they’re set up to support). Once accepted into the accelerator, startups are expected to adhere to their original concept with minimal change, even if it means sticking with a bad idea.

This rigid approach to startups is a disservice to the entrepreneurial spirit and limits the potential for success. The reality is that all ideas, even good ones, change and evolve.

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Successful, innovation-driven businesses are not built on a single eureka moment but on a series of many mini-eurekas that shape and mold the business. It takes multiple chisel strikes to form a statue out of a stone. Unfortunately, the fear of failure and the pressure from the accelerator to adhere to a specific concept often prevent startups from following their eurekas.

For immigrants, this can be a significant obstacle. When you enter an American accelerator with an idea that was developed and matured in a foreign market, it will very likely change when it hits the U.S. You need to be able to take that hit, get up, adapt, and thrive. 

People often ask me what’s the most expensive aspect of being in an accelerator. They wonder if it’s the equity that the accelerator takes or the cash cost that some require to participate. I tell them that the most an accelerator can take from you is your ability to change; it’s the opportunity cost that bankrupts many startups.

About the author

Michael Burtov is a serial venture-backed entrepreneur who has grown multiple startups from initial ideas to millions in revenue and venture funding. He has appeared on Shark Tank and his work has been covered in hundreds of major media outlets. He is also the subject of mini-documentaries by Discovery Channel and CNN’s “Great Big Story.” Additionally, Michael has worked with hundreds of high-growth startups to scale and fundraise, directly and through his involvement with leading innovation organizations including Harvard Business School, Harvard Innovation Labs, and the MIT Enterprise Forum. He is also the author of “The Evergreen Startup,” a popular book on early-stage startup fundraising. He holds multiple patents and has received several awards for his work, including the Edison Universe Edison Award, the TIME Magazine Best Inventions Award, The Business Journals Top Inventor Award, Brandeis University Alumni Entrepreneur Award, and the TechCrunch Disrupt Wildcard Award.

  1. Burtov’s advice about the most significant cost of being in an accelerator, which is the opportunity cost of not being able to change and adapt, is eye-opening.

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