London is Europe’s capital of startup incubators and accelerators, with upwards of 40 different programmes available across sectors and seed levels. Jobbio’s other bases, Dublin and New York, are also home to prominent incubators and accelerators, including Wayra and Techstars. At their core, both types of programmes aim to provide startups with the right tools to successfully grow. However, despite the two terms often being used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between them. At a most basic level, this difference can be understood as: “Accelerators “accelerate” growth of an existing company, while incubators “incubate” disruptive ideas with the hope of building out a business model and company” (TechRepublic).
To get a better understanding, we sat down with Rishi Chowdhury, co-founder at IncuBus London (an early stage startup incubator), and Anthony Catt, MD at Oxygen Startups (one of Europe’s longest-standing startup accelerators).
What are the main benefits that incubators and accelerators provide to startups – why should they join?
Anthony: Overall, the sole focus of accelerators is to create programmes to best support entrepreneurs and provide startups with the best chance of success. At Oxygen specifically, one of the biggest benefits you get as a startup is access to our Founder and Chairman, Mark Hales. He’s one of our strongest assets, having launched and scaled several businesses, as well as managed thousands of employees and successful ventures. His breadth of experience, connections, and brutal honesty is invaluable to the teams.
Rishi: Incubators provide an environment of learning and growth. We ensure our entrepreneurs are surrounded by other great entrepreneurs, so that they can learn from and be challenged by each other as much as our mentors and workshop leaders. IncuBus’ programme is very KPI-focused to ensure teams maximise their time with us. Our offices provide startups with all the facilities they need, as well as access to a strong startup community.
What is the first thing startups should consider when thinking about joining?
Rishi: Make sure your goals align with what is being offered by an incubator. To get a better idea, look at the types of mentors and investors that will be on the programme and make sure they match your expectations. You can also reach out to alumni and find out about their experiences on the programme.
Anthony: You need two thinking hats when assessing which programme to join. First, what support do you actually need? Is it a vertical driven accelerator for specialist support, or is it a more general and open programme? As Rishi said, once you shortlist programmes, the best way to understand their value is to talk to alumni, mentors, and investors. This will give you a real insight into the day-to-day.
What other factors are important?
Rishi: Domain expertise is another big thing. More and more incubators and accelerators are creating niche programmes so startups can benefit from experienced mentors and investors who know the space well. For example, at IncuBus we look at six key areas: cyber security, AI, IOT, food/drink, fashion brands, and eCommerce.
“To successfully do what we do, you can’t always say yes to everything.”
What is the most challenging aspect of these programmes?
Anthony: The problem with working in this space and having a passion for championing entrepreneurs is that you want to give as much time as possible to everyone, but this isn’t always possible. Ultimately, to successfully do what we do, you can’t always say yes to everything. This just means making sure you drive maximum impact in the support you give and help entrepreneurs access other support channels.
Rishi, you talked earlier about the kind of environment that IncuBus provides. What about Oxygen, Anthony?
Anthony: Well, for every Oxygen programme we facilitate an environment aligned with the needs of each cohort. What this means is we change location with almost every programme to ensure we stimulate the right ecosystem to meet their needs. At our very core, we are people-centric and therefore create a working environment that is driven by cross-team collaboration. We also have a great free-flowing programme process that allows external stakeholders to come and go with ease as they support our teams.
What advice do you have for early-stage startups? Since you deal more with this group, perhaps you could answer first Rishi?
Rishi: Quite simply, make the time to find a solid product/market fit. It will make everything else from marketing and sales to raising investment a lot easier.
Anthony: Always go back to absolute basics. Ask these five questions of yourself and your startup: 1. What are you passionate about? 2. Where is the pain? 3. How is the pain currently being alleviated? 4. Can it be done better, faster or cheaper? 5. Can you do it better, faster or cheaper? If you can answer all these questions clearly, saying yes to at least one item in questions 4 and 5, then you should be confident that you have a real opportunity and your startup is something that an incubator or accelerator may look at further down the line.
“A big challenge in scaling is continuing to build a talented team beyond the founders.”
What about startups who are rapidly growing?
Anthony: Hire the right people! The Talent in your team is second to nothing. A big challenge in scaling is continuing to build a talented team beyond the founders and foster an attractive culture. A lot of teams don’t think about this ahead of time and trip up in the early days of hiring and building culture.
Rishi: Definitely. Keep your company culture!
“Joining a startup might mean taking a financial or social hit against working for a more established company.”
Before we wrap up, a lot of Jobbio users are interested in working with startups. What is your most crucial advice to give to them?
Rishi: Take ownership of a project. It is your best opportunity to build and grow something that will hopefully have a huge impact on the company. Also, get experience even while you’re at university. I started two businesses while studying – one was successful, one wasn’t. The best thing was how much I learnt from it. You learn a lot by doing and it’s a point in life when you typically have more time and less holding you back.
Anthony: Understand what you’re passionate about. Joining a startup might mean taking a financial or social hit against working for a more established company, especially in the early days. If you’re not passionate about it, then you’re unlikely to stay the course.
Still unsure whether an accelerator is right for your company, right now? Click here for Oxygen’s helpful article on the 5 signs that prove you’re ready.