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By Zane Bojāre
COVID-19 has been a force of digitization in many industries, including the startup accelerator world, as many programs have been forced to move online in recent months. But running programs online is not new; Y Combinator’s Startup School is an 8-week online program and we have been running our digital native accelerator since 2012.
We’re here to share some lessons learned through our years of experience to help bring your on-site program online.
Platform vs. ‘duct tape solutions’
If you manage a large volume of startups and there’s lots of activity, you might want to look into purchasing an online platform solution for distance-learning and communication (e.g., Key2investors, Learnworlds, Thinkific).
However, those looking for a shorter-term or less costly structure will probably find ‘duct tape solutions’ more fitting, which involves combining various tools that serve different purposes to move accelerator elements online temporarily. Some must-have tools include:
- Instant communication: The popular choice is Slack. Discord is an alternative for those who prefer voice-based communication and don’t need message threads.
- Video calls: Zoom is great for workshops that require interaction, such as one-on-one meetings with mentors. You can also use Zoom’s ‘Breakout Rooms’ for smaller group work and ‘Webinars’ for bigger seminars. Another great video platform is Whereby’s Pro subscription, which allows up to four parallel calls.
- Storage: Cloud solutions for program-related material is essential. The obvious choice is Google Drive, but Notion, Airtable, or even your server are good options.
- Bonus tools: There are many other tools out there that help with interaction, such as virtual whiteboards for sticky-note sessions (Miro or TeamRetro), event platforms for demo days (ImpromptMe), and social platforms for bringing people together (Houseparty, SpatialChat, Connect.Club).
For smarter work, you want to find tools that have APIs and can integrate. For example, Zoom can be integrated with Calendly for booking mentor slots.
Workshops and online engagement
Keeping your portfolio engaged for extended periods, or ‘Zoom fatigue,’ is one of the biggest challenges of running an online accelerator. Here are some tips and tricks to keep your community-focused:
- Check whether your coaches and mentors prefer pre-recording the video or holding a live workshop. Pre-recorded videos can work just as well in many cases, but be reminded of data privacy requirements and make sure participants are okay with this arrangement.
- Set some ground rules, or ‘Zoom Call Policies,’ for both mentors and startups. For example, the camera should always be on, muting your mic when you’re not talking, asking short questions in the chat, etc.
- Create a ‘Mentor Kit’ for those who are not used to doing seminars online. Tips can include setting a clear agenda or calling on participants and asking their opinion. It may also be necessary for your staff to join and help with interactions for some mentors.
While online brings lots of advantages, for an accelerator that functions in cohorts and fosters peer-to-peer support, it can also pose many challenges. How do you engage a group of people who are, frankly speaking, strangers on a video call?
If going online is a short-term solution during travel or on-site work restrictions, my advice would be not to worry too much. However, if you plan to stay online long-term or use a hybrid model, helping people connect is vital. Here are some initiatives you can try:
- Encourage more socializing than you would have done on-site. For example, you can have an option to call in ten minutes before the online meeting for casual chit-chats.
- Create some fun traditions, such as ‘Pitch & Beer’ nights, online pub quizzes, community movie nights, or cooking sessions via Zoom.
- Matching people in smaller groups or pairs can help them connect deeper. The ‘Donut-bot’ on Slack can match people for you, or you can encourage non-work calls. Creating a safe space will also help peers who need support during the crisis.
While most of this advice will fit more as a temporary solution for bringing accelerator programs online, the industry, like countless others, must face ‘the new normal.’ We must acknowledge that the hybrid model of combining online workshops and on-site work is here to stay.
Zane is the Head of Marketing at Startup Wise Guys.
About the Author
Zane is the Head of Marketing at one of Europe’s oldest and most active startup accelerators: Startup Wise Guys. She is also the co-founder of Lude, a social enterprise, and spearheads the development of a comprehensive report on the Baltic startup scene. Untypical in the tech and business scene, Zane holds a Master degree in Philosophy.