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Review of the 500 Startups Accelerator

500familyA lot of people ask me, “What did you think of 500?”

After going through the accelerator, I can understand why it was always hard for founders who had gone through it to answer that question. It was a crazy experience that’s hard to condense into a casual 2 sentence response.

So here’s my shot at writing it out. Please keep in mind this is my experience and not necessarily that of my cofounders, batch mates or anyone else.

 

1. The other founders in the batch made it worth it alone.

We had 30 teams. Over 70% were international representing Israel, Vietnam, Japan, Mexico, Jordan, Spain, Ghana, Switzerland, Brazil and India.

Being surrounded by entrepreneurs from such a diverse range of cultures and experiences was truly unique. It opened my mind to new possibilities on a daily basis.

The diversity could also be found in the range of companies. Everything from hardware to marketplaces to gaming to real estate. Again, it forces you to think outside the bubble.

These people all become my friends. Some of them are people that I will be very close with for the rest of my life.

This made 500 worth it on its own.

 

2. You become part of a biiiig ol’ family.

One day about halfway through the program, my cofounder Nadia remarked, “500 really is like a big family. No one is there looking over you all the time, but whenever you need something, they’re always there for you”.

500 has officially invested in more than 500 companies and we’re all connected through an internal network.

That means I can contact any founder or employee in the network and they’ll usually get back to me quickly, always ready to help. That’s powerful.

This is a network of vetted entrepreneurs that exist all over the globe.

 

3. The partners are as involved as you need them to be

Being a big ol’ family, that means Uncle Mcclure and Aunt Tsai can’t talk to you all the time. But as soon as you need them, they’re always there. Always.

We became pretty close with Parker earlier in the accelerator simply because we asked him for insight regularly. Shai has been one of the most helpful people I’ve met since starting Feast and I only met him halfway through the program.

In the early days of the accelerator I was a little concerned that we wouldn’t get time with Dave and Christine. In the end we’ve actually formed strong relationships with all of the partners in the US and leaving the program, I know they’ll always be a part of our team.

 

4. Yes, it is distracting

The #1 critique I heard from founders before joining was that the accelerator is distracting. Some even felt like it might have hindered their growth during those 3 months because it was hard to focus on the business.

I agree that it was distracting. I found it near impossible to get work done during the day. For me, that meant working late after most people leave the office, which I’m usually happy to do anyway. It’s not sustainable in the long term but for 3 months, I mustered the strength.

I don’t think it distracted us from our business. What we saw happen was what I heard Techstars call “mentor whiplash”. We joined the program with a pretty clear path. That clear path didn’t last long. You start meeting with A LOT of mentors and listening to A LOT of speakers. You hear a lot of advice, and much of it is conflicting.

When you’re a startup, you’re always searching for answers wherever you can find them. It took me a while, but I learned that the answers will rarely come from outside sources. They’re good at providing perspective and inspiring you by sharing what worked for them…but no one knows your business as well as you do. Certainly not someone who just met you.

There are very few mentors who can actually sit down and remove their own bias. These amazing mentors will wrap their head around the moving parts of your business first and then help you think through solutions rather than just telling you what to do. Hiten Shah is one of those people. That’s why we asked him to be our advisor.

So yes, its distracting and hard to get the day to day work done, but it’s not impossible.

And yes, you can have your clear path hacked up by getting a ton of advice. You’ll probably have to learn for yourself how to distinguish between good advice and bad advice. It’s not easy.

 

5. Demo day is a good forcing function, but it isn’t a silver bullet

We got some great press out of it. We were one of the few teams who can say that.

We got quite a few investor meetings out of it. Most of them are funds, which usually aren’t a great fit for us at the point of graduation.

So demo day certainly doesn’t raise your round for you and while there’s a chance you’ll get press, it’s definitely not guaranteed.

What was really valuable for me was actually the preparation for demo day. For about a month leading up to demo day, we did pitch prep every day. In pitch prep, 500 brings in different mentors, investors and founders to help you practice your pitch and give feedback.

This really helped me nail down our story, and forced me to learn how to convey that story to people in a powerful way. I see the value every time I pitch Feast now.

Also, if you join an accelerator, practice a lot. For 500, there were 29 teams pitching. That means there are 28 reasons for people to forget you. You want to stand out. Your position matters as well and if you’re good, you’ll be put in a good position (opener or closer). We were the closer for our demo days and that was definitely helpful.

Use demo day as a forcing function to hit goals and create urgency with your fundraising.  But don’t expect it to be a silver bullet.

 

6. There isn’t a great deal of structure in the 500 program

Other accelerators have a very specific program that you go through. That isn’t the case at 500. With the exception of scheduled speakers, events, pitch prep and demo day, they don’t plan your time for you. We had one metrics meeting early on where we sat down with a couple partners and mentors to talk through our metrics and figure out which ones to focus on. That was really helpful.

The hands off approach is good and bad. Early on I thought it would be more bad. In the end, I’m really happy that this is the approach they take. It forces you to learn for yourself and to create your own path. Learn by fire, not by hand holding. It’s more realistic.

I would have liked to see a bit more of those touch points like the metrics meeting and maybe some preliminary meetings around fundraising. The fundraising advice we got was all from meetings that we personally booked with partners, but we didn’t really take advantage of that until the end.

Aside from that, love the “make it your own” approach.

If you’re in a future batch, I’d urge you to start self organizing events for your batch early on. We did things like peer angellist reviews, pitch help, drinking events, BBQ’s etc. Both startup stuff and social gatherings. Make it happen early and frequently because it makes the overall experience infinitely better.

 

7. Leaving 500, we’re on a good track but not without challenges

The accelerator is officially done and we’re back out on our own. We have some major challenges ahead of us and the next few months will be very telling for Feast.

Coming out of the accelerator I feel much smarter, more realistic, more capable, more connected and I know I have an army of the hardest working people in the world behind me.

The hardest challenges are still ahead of us. 500 won’t make you a successful startup. But I believe with all my heart that what we’re building at Feast matters and that it’s a massive opportunity. 500 made sure that I’m thinking about things the right way so I can make that dream into a reality.

In the end, I wouldn’t trade my 500 experience for the world. If you have the opportunity to join our 500 family, do it.

I’m coming away with lessons and relationships that I’ll have for the rest of my life.

Applications are open. If you’re curious about the application process, I broke it down with a comparison to TechStars here.

If you have any questions about 500, comment. I’ll respond to every one.