Accelerating Arizona Startups

It’s a wrap. 


The Arizona Commerce Authority’s inaugural Virtual Accelerator program is done. After 12 intensive weeks, the entrepreneurs survived, thrived and graduated –  and their startups unleashed into the wild.


This is important for everyone in Arizona’s economy – not just for entrepreneurs.
Nothing drives a state’s economy more than job growth. And, in case you didn’t know, almost 100% of all net job growth comes from companies less than 5 years old. New companies – particularly growth-startup companies – account for almost all new jobs. So if we want a thriving economy, we need great startup companies. And for great startups, we need great entrepreneurs.


Arizona already has one of the largest concentrations of entrepreneurs and startup companies in the country, but has yet to produce our share billion-dollar startups like Google, Microsoft and Facebook. 


The ACA Virtual Accelerator is about helping Arizona’s founders increase their chances for success in their industries, and attract customers, employees and investors. It’s about helping them “scale” their companies, and about transforming them into great entrepreneurs.


Before I describe a few interesting details of the journey, let me give away the ending: It was a rousing success. Everyone improved their game by an order of magnitude. And not just the entrepreneurs and their startups: The mentors and coaches, Arizona Commerce Authority, and ultimately the Arizona economy, all benefited as well.


But first …


Accelerators?
What exactly are accelerators? I mean, they seem to be everywhere.  Some are good, a few are great, but most are rather tepid. 


Many accelerator programs are more like short-courses for a fee, with an expected set of lessons  – often for beginners with no real prior exposure to startups. Most end up a carbon copies of the “lean startup” course, or of some kind of “start your own business” overview – catering to people who might want to be entrepreneurs. They can be trite, and a waste of time for everyone. 


A few programs, however, provide real value for serious entrepreneurs – those who already have a product, a company, and are devoting 100% of their time to building their venture. And these programs can charge $4,999 – $9,999 for participation. Their value is not just in the instruction – it’s about access to great mentors, interaction with other entrepreneurs, credible feedback, connections and and access to funding opportunities. 


Organizing and conducting a successful accelerator program is hard. Quality is 40% dependent on design and content, while 60% is on the quality of the founder’s vetted and admitted, and on the experience level of the mentors/coaches in the program.


The Arizona Commerce Authority knows this. Before launching the ACA Virtual Accelerator, they spent much time consulting with platinum standards for programs all around the country including with “500 startups”, and the Stanford Business School.


But the ACA Virtual Accelerator is not about merely starting a company, nor is it even about running a company. It’s about being ready to take your company to the “next level.” Arizona already has great entrepreneurs with great ideas – but being ready to scale is different. “Scaling” means huge growth, addressing big markets and building the kind of company that can expand fast through operational excellence.

Scaling requires flexing new muscles, and this requires specific training.


Think of the ACA Virtual Accelerator as the “AAA farm team” for Arizona’s next generation of startups. You need to be a pretty darn good ballplayer to even play in the AAA league, but the goal is to coach you and train you to be better. The goal is the make you good enough to play in the Big Leagues. 

ACA Virtual Accelerator program – In a Nutshell
The accelerator is a very specific, deliberate 12 week ‘curriculum’. Each week focuses on a facet of the startup process: from market definition, customers, competition, financials, to pitching to investors. It’s a hybrid format – with weekly live sessions, and specific online and offline assignments.


There are no fees or charges for the accelerator, however entrepreneurs must apply and be accepted. All founders are vetted before being admitted to the program, with a variety of criteria – mainly to ensure that they would be able to make it through the rigors of the program. 


Some entrepreneurs were still developing high-tech products and required partners and funding, while others were already operating, with a product and paying customers – but not prepared for “venture” growth mode.


Different founders brought different skill-sets and fortes. This means some were better suited for working on operating metrics and financials while perhaps struggling with marketing concepts such as “TAM”, “SAM” and “SOM.”


Every Monday, Mark Moeremans – ACA’s Senior Vice President Entrepreneurship & Venture Development – introduced the week’s topics and assignments – both serving as an entrepreneurship instructor, and as the guide to navigating the online resources. 


Once briefed, the entrepreneurs had the week to work on the assignments and the deliverables. This was not merely an academic exercise. The assignments significantly impacted the quality and progress of each company.


The cadence and rigor was challenging. Each entrepreneur was being pushed out of their comfort zone – sometimes to the point of being UNcomfortable. That’s the sign of a great program.


But there was a lot of support: A trove of supporting information, peer support, peer critique, and peer perspective – and of course, a team of coaches and mentors.

Coaches and Mentors
ACA assigned 1-2 mentor/coaches to each founder, and their job was to spend significant time with them, online and offline, to guide them through the process. 


It’s important to note that these coaches are some of Arizona’s most highly experienced mentors – each with decades of experience as mentors, and with successful careers as entrepreneurs, company operators, corporate executives and investors. 


And most interesting – the mentors are also frequent judges in pitch competitions and funding programs in Arizona and around the country. Many are Angel investors themselves. So they know what makes a viable, attractive new venture, and what makes a credible, and capable founder. 


The coaches/mentors had regular meetings (on zoom) with founders to clarify, give feedback, to provide guidance, trade notes, and discuss issues. And Mark also held regular sessions – sometimes group sessions with founders, sometimes with coaches – to clarify, to troubleshoot, to brag or to vent – or to get feedback on the program. 


It was intense – kind of like 12 weeks of boot camp. But you come out of the other side fit, in “fighting shape” and ready for battle – the battle that is entrepreneurship.

Endgame
At the end, the entrepreneurs were able to:

  • Sharpen their core product or service – and focus on what customers really need.
  • Focus not just on customers – but on markets (and competition).
  • Develop metrics – lots of metrics – on what drives their business, what success looks like.
  • Prepare to pitch to investors: How much do you really need? How much will your company be worth? Can you prove it?
  • Challenge their assumptions – often tossing out assumptions altogether, and make some big, uncomfortable changes.
  • Work on a deep level of detail – but then being able to reduce this detail so that partners and investors can understand.

The goal was to get them “ready” (or be more ready) to launch, grow and scale their ventures. The founders all agreed that the accelerator made them better entrepreneurs and improved their company’s prospects for success, and to attract customers and investors. In fact, a couple of the startups attracted funding during the 12 week program – causing a few unexpected but pleasant detours.

Opportunities on the Horizon 
While the goal is the create better entrepreneurs and more successful startups, there’s a related objective. 


Arizona has several highly lauded (and highly competitive) funding programs for startups: Including the nationally recognized Arizona Innovation Challenge, and the frenetic Invest Southwest/Venture Madness funding competition, as well as dozens of funding opportunities from our state’s universities, and Angel investor groups. 

But most startups are not quite ready to provide the level of detail required to even apply for some of these funding opportunities, nor are they ready to describe (pitch) their venture in the level of concise brevity that investors need to hear. And this is what the ACA Virtual Accelerator is for.

Now what? 
This this was just the first cohort for the Virtual Accelerator. As sort of guinea pigs, we all now have a greater insight as to how to throttle the information, work with the entrepreneurs so that the experience is a little less intense – and how to use the online platform features to enhance the program.


Mark Moremanns – did an incredible job of managing all the moving parts. The level of effort it must have taken, behind the scenes, but he made it look effortless and fun – while probably juggling 2 dozen balls in the air, every week.

Get Ready for Round 2 !
Already the 2nd cohort is accepting applicants and starts June 28th – there’s still time to apply.


Remember this is a virtual accelerator – which means that it’s just as easy to apply and participate if your an entrepreneur from Tucson, Sedona, Flagstaff as it is from Phoenix, Scottsdale or Tempe. And it’s an opportunity to interact with serious, dedicated, like minded, entrepreneurs in of the country’s top states for entrepreneurship. It’s also an opportunity to hone your startup – and prepare for one of Arizona’s many funding opportunities.


The ACA Virtual Accelerator – it’s all about helping to train better entrepreneurs, and creating more promising startups – for job growth and economic prosperity.

So yeah, let’s accelerate that.


CJ Cornell is a serial entrepreneur, investor, advisor, mentor, author, speaker, and educator. As an entrepreneur, CJ Cornell was a founder of more than a dozen successful startup ventures that collectively attracted over $250 million in private funding; created nearly a thousand new jobs; and launched dozens of innovative consumer, media, and communications products — that have exceeded $3 billion in revenues.
He is the author of the bestselling “The Age of Metapreneurship — A Journey into the Future of Entrepreneurship.”
And the upcoming “The Startup Brain Trust – A Guidebook for Startups, Entrepreneurs, and the Mentors that Help them Become Great.”
Follow him @cjcornell  or visit: www.cjcornell.com

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