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Timely Lessons for Entrepreneurs from an Accelerator’s Pivot

Remembering humanity and accounting for personal shifts is critical in today's environment

From pushing the boundaries with their big thinking to scaling businesses from the ground up, entrepreneurs need to be as flexible as they are ambitious. So do the institutions that mentor these innovators and foster the growth of their new ventures. Given the current economic climate created by the coronavirus pandemic, this is proving to be even more critical, with everyone from startup founders to accelerator leaders pivoting to meet current needs.

At the Desai Accelerator, founded in 2013 at the Zell Lurie Institute at the University of Michigan, we recently made some big changes to our own model. Previously a ten-week offering, we expanded the duration of programming to ten months based on feedback that the program – while lauded by participants for the opportunities it provides tech-enabled startups – may be too accelerated for first-time founders who face a learning curve in addition to the very full plate that comes with getting a business off the ground. With this adjustment, some of the pressure on participants is lessened, giving them more access to the resources, mentorship and learning opportunities needed for early-stage ventures to succeed.

The first lesson aspirational entrepreneurs can take from this expansion? Be flexible in your business plans so that you can account for industry shifts, as well as personal ones. To this end, here are three key takeaways for entrepreneurs from the accelerator’s revamped programming:

1. Always meet the needs of customers

A business is only successful so long as it delivers value to its customers. In the case of an accelerator, the “customers” in question are founders, whose needs dictate all operations – and what they expressed they needed most was more time. We recognized we needed to not only provide startup founders with the resources they need to be successful, but to deliver them in an optimized way that allows participants to get the most out of their experience in the Accelerator.

Entrepreneurs must continuously listen to and meet customer needs; when organizations provide value to customers who invest in them, those customers demonstrate loyalty that can sustain the company in the long run. No matter what stage of the entrepreneurial journey founders find themselves in, they should always view customer evaluations as a critical aspect of continuous business growth.

In the current climate particularly, startups and accelerators alike must ask themselves what new needs their customers and stakeholders have, and how they can shift to meet those needs.

2. Keep a laser-sharp focus on the problem you’re solving

Given the Accelerator’s finite duration, we must be selective in the workshops and speakers included to maximize the impact of everyone’s time, from participants to business leaders who lend their expertise to the program. It’s important that everything we do maps back to the fundamental goals of the Accelerator and the needs of the entrepreneurs we serve.

While it can be easy to get in the weeds on a product and allow that to dominate discussion, it’s important for entrepreneurs to recalibrate their communication to lead with the problem they are solving. The product is extremely important, but it’s critical that founders don’t forget the value of connecting that product to how it solves for an existing need.  

While customer needs may change during the current crisis, the underlying problems remain. Entrepreneurs must be able to speak to solving those problems, especially as their ability to solve for them becomes increasingly important.

3. Remember humanity

Especially now, it’s important to remember that everyone—founders, investors and customers—are human. At the Desai Accelerator, we responded to the coronavirus crisis by setting up weekly calls with portfolio companies, providing resource guides and setting up time to connect on a personal level with virtual trivia sessions. It’s crucial to remember that customers are people first, and given how much stress they are under right now, communication from organizations must be authentic and genuine.

While the founders we work with are often high achievers willing to take great risks and work endless hours, no one is invincible. The startup industry is highly competitive for all who enter. Given the typically small nature of startups, entrepreneurs often find themselves spread thin while trying to take on multiple roles and responsibilities.  

We recognize the strain founders are under—especially now—so by adjusting the speed of the program to provide longer-term access to resources like mentorship and workspace, we have released some of the pressure intrinsic to startup life.

This approach not only enables founders to better achieve their current goals, but also sets an example as they work with others on their team and in their networks. It may influence how they hire and manage employees; remembering the human aspect as they conduct business. After all, people are any company’s greatest asset.

The Desai Accelerator’s pivot serves as a reminder to entrepreneurs that, above all, their big plans should always have a level of adaptability that allows them to evolve, keeping their primary audiences top of mind and staying true to their end goals.

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