A horrifying accelerator story that you’ll need to read twice

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Recently, I wrote a post called “Entrepreneurs Deserve Full Transparency” for my WSJ series. Several entrepreneurs wrote me, but this story really stands out as a warning to do your diligence and demand full transparency. Not all accelerators are created equal.

I’ve posted the following email by permission of the author, who shall remain anonymous as his request. However, I can tell you that I checked this person out and they are completely legitimate and have a strong reputation in their own community. So while you can’t believe everything you read, I have done the work necessary to convince myself that this comes from someone who is very credible.

TL;DR? Do your diligence on accelerators! Want more? Read on, and be amazed.

In brackets [ ] are areas I have redacted to preserve anonymity, but have substituted the “gist” without changing the meaning, as approved by the author. I may have also changed the gender of certain people (i.e. he/she), again, with approval of the author.

David,

I guess I should preface this by saying we haven’t publicly addressed this and we’re not sure if we want to but this story starts like most in the startup world. My startup applies to an accelerator and gets in. It’s not our first rodeo, as we’d graduated from [name of an unrelated accelerator] but we wanted and needed some support around our vertical. We paused because it was an inaugural cohort but being that it was vertical-specific and the managing director worked for a highly lauded startup in our vertical, we decided to go for it. ([a hint about which accelerator it was]). The offer was standard, [specific financial deal in line with the market]. It was a bit of a hit for our progress, but we decide it’s the price of access so we pack up and headed to [name of city].

After settling in, we went over to the space which was billed as campus, community, accelerator, and more. We arrived at the address only to find that it is a co-working space. There is no dedicated space to work or store any equipment/materials which seems strange for a “campus” but we went with it because we preferred to work from home anyway.

We ask about the funding, we find out that the investment suddenly isn’t coming from the accelerator. It is coming from a seed stage VC and suddenly the amount of that investment has a range. Everyone was promised $[redacted]K but some companies are low-balled with $[$10,000 less than the previous number], which barely covers rent in [name of city]. We’re also told that those funds are dependent on meeting with the VC and, at the end, we’re told that we need to be C corps before they’ll wire the funds. Not a problem but it would have been nice to know since we had more than a month between being accepted and moving to [name of city] and we could have handled it but it shouldn’t be a problem because they’ve lined up free legal services for us.

After getting paired with our attorney and told she’s amazing, I call her and after a week or so of waiting to get in a call, she lays out the path forward, she asks me for a retainer of $[redacted]. I tell her I’ll get back to her because I think something was lost in translation. I call the MD of the program and the same person who was just praising the attorney calls her a shark and says “how dare she try to charge after offering her services for free”. I get a assigned a new attorney who thankfully does the work gratis. It takes almost 3 weeks to get it all done.

At this point, we’re thinking that the best we can do is network and expect every gain to be on the strength of our team since the accelerator has failed in execution and transparency every step of the way thus far. The value in continuing was the thought that at least we’d get access to to the founders of that influential startup that the MD worked for and there are supposed to be sessions with industry professionals so we can probably squeeze some learning from those.

A month later, we’d seen or heard from the founders of the top-billed startup exactly zero times and there had been exactly zero sessions for learning. I found it strange so I asked for a meeting with one of them and they reluctantly gave me his email address. He pawned me off on his assistant and, after one e-mail, it was fairly clear he had no intention of being a mentor. I actually started to wonder if he knew his name was on it at all. By the end of the 4 months, their total time invested was 45 minutes with the accelerator. It was very strange given the outline for the program included a very specific syllabus with promises of luminary speakers, tech for non-tech founders, and more. None of it happened.

At this point it felt like a house of cards. The program didn’t even feel like a community because in a co-working space, you hardly saw the other teams. We were further along than other teams so we start booking the meeting rooms and inviting everyone to sit and work together for a few hours whenever possible. I also started a yammer group so we could pool resources and communicate on the fly. Things start to get better for my team as we’re introduced to [name of a mentor] as a mentor and we finally feel like we’re getting some guidance. The Managing Director also made two hires so there was some hope that some of the promises might be delivered upon. The MD kept telling us how amazing [this mentor] was until it was announced that he is going to be the MD for [a competing program]. After that announcement I got another gchat at 3am in which she trashed him. I was told he was a hack and had never done anything worth mentioning in [the industry]. I ignored it, starting to see that the forest had some pretty crazy trees.

We were still committed to making the best of a bad situation when I got a gchat from the MD at 3am while working from home. She seemed irate (if not completely irrational) and started accusing me of “not participating” and verbatim stated that I needed to decide if we were a [previous accelerator] company or a company in her accelerator. She threatened to kick me out if I didn’t consult with her on every piece of my company’s strategy. I told her I was happy to listen and take feedback but I completely disagreed with her accusations and ultimatum, mostly because there had been nothing to participate in outside of what I’d done to try to help. I also told her it’s hard to trust her opinions because we’d seen nothing but back-tracking, fluff, and empty promises. Example: She walked into the room and announced that [some famous mentor] was coming in to speak to the teams. One of her team members read the email in full and pulls her aside to tell her that the email actually said he’s open for paid speaking engagements and anyone can get him if they have the budget for it. She never mentioned it again.

A few days later, I found out that my roommate (another founder) was getting the same kind of irate messages at the same crazy hours that I was. He was totally new to the world of startups but he knew something was off so he didn’t comply with her demands. She kicked him out and told him that her board wanted to kick him out for a while and she kept getting negative feedback about him from mentors. This went back and forth a few times with him being kicked out and getting back in. She even sent me messages about him, pulling me into the nonsense. I gave my honest opinion which was that accelerators are the place for companies to make mistakes. It’s supposed to be a safe place to learn. Kicking someone out for being true to the process is a violation of the highest order. The next day he told me that she’d let him back in.

The fourth or fifth time he was kicked out, I was out of the country and she sent me a message pulling me back in to the drama. She’d moved the date of the demo day almost a full month back from what we were told it was at the start of the program. He and I were on the same lease so I knew that what it cost to live there and that we’d planned our lease around demo day with 2 weeks to take meetings afterward. Neither of us had gotten enough value out of the program to get to a place where it made sense for us to pay another $[redacted]K to stay another 3 months which was the minimum most buildings will take, not to mention it would have to be prepaid.

She goes on to say that anyone who won’t be here for demo day is kicked out and tells us that she still has final say over who is considered a graduate of her program and who isn’t. I told her I was not going to extend the lease and she offered to “get my team in for demo day”. I tell her I’m not comfortable being treated differently because my team is further along. Then we had members from her team telling us they hadn’t seen her in a few days and they were worried about her mental health and physical well-being. Sunday night, the night before my roommate had meetings planned, she emailed him to says she’s cancelled his meetings until he takes a phone call with her. He refused and was furious that she’d have the audacity to cancel meetings that didn’t involve her in any way.

She blows up at him via text message hurling personal insults, calling him a quitter saying things like “This is why your cofounder quit” and “you’re in my program, I’m not in yours”. The fact is she promised his cofounder, who was at the time of application a full-time [name of a profession], that she’d help them raise at least $100K easily and she knew that was the amount needed for his cofounder to quit her [same profession] job. Everyone also knew the date that she had to accept or decline her contract for that year. The date passed and they’d raised $0. He called her delusional and wished her the best with her “program.” Trying to get out ahead of the situation, she publishes “all” of the messages between she and I and emails them to the team. She denied that she’d kicked him out despite there being a ton of proof in her messages to us. I’m a lot of things, but a liar isn’t one of them and I didn’t take kindly to her suggesting that I was. I search the document for a mentions of [the mentor mentioned earlier] and other incidents, knowing there is no way she’d include the vile things she said in a public forum. I searched and it didn’t come up. I searched my logs and pulled up, in real-time 3 dates that were removed from her log. I offered to go on but she made up an excuse for why she lied and changed the logs and quickly changed the subject. Her team remained oddly silent.

Days go by and her team starts to think all this needs to be cleared up so she schedules a meeting with her team, my roommate and myself. We got there, she proceeds to tell us that we’ve been a detrimental echo chamber and we keep twisting her words and drawing the wrong conclusion. Her team remained even more oddly silent as she accused me of getting involved in a situation that is “frankly none of my business”. I pull up the messages she sent me about my roommate and outline how it’s always been her pulling me into these situations. Her team looks horrified. She seemed to think that if she could “turn us against each other” that she’d get what she wanted. She asked what it would take for me to get back on board with the program. I told her and she refused. I told her officially that my team would no longer be involved with her program and wished her the best.

By the time we got home, we found out that immediately after that meeting, the two people she hired had quit. They were fine with not being paid for months at a time, they were fine with trying to make the best out of the situation. They were not fine with what went on in that room. Later, they’d admit to us that her goal was to attack the friendship because she thought she could get her way if my roommate and I were no longer on the same page. They also told us that there was no board of directors or advisers at the time she was citing them and that she’d never gotten negative feedback about my roommate. He reached out to a few mentors and found that they were shocked that their names were used to support such terrible behavior. At this point we decided that some of this behavior was pathological and it didn’t make sense to try to salvage anything. We finished our lease and left. There were 10 investors at their demo day and when they asked about us, she told them that we were out of the country working on a deal, representing that we were still involved with the accelerator.
The weird thing is that the MD keeps making intros, speaking highly of us and sending people our way. We think she does it because she doesn’t want us talking about our experiences. We don’t want to make a big public scene about any of this but we’d love to help design some sort of framework to help people avoid making the same mistakes we did in believing someone who is a bad actor in and on the ecosystem. On the outside it looks like she’s got it together but the reality is as documented above. I’d also love advice on how to handle talking about the experience when people ask about it specifically.


My reply was as follows:

ho. ly. shit.

wow.

how can i help? i don’t’ want to do anything negative, but stories like this are important to tell.

i could put it on my blog with out your name and redact any identifying information, and use it as an example of “please do your diligence” per the article. we’d remove names, geography, company purpose/focus, etc.

any other ideas?

And that led to this post. I hope it is useful to others, as that was the only goal of the author of the original email. Now go ahead, and read it again. Then share it with anyone considering an accelerator program. And make sure they read the original post about all this.
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About David Cohen

Geek. Hacker. Investor. Founder and CEO of TechStars.

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  • bethebutterfly

    I don’t normally get involved in things like this, but I know Heather and I think this kind of “Burn her at the stake” is truly awful and does not feel right in the spirit of what we are all trying to do. Shit fails and gets fucked up all the time. This is ALL an experiment. Even the best accelerators admit they are still trying to “get it right”.

    This is not an attempt to wash over bad behavior from either side.
    I think it is fine to learn from mistakes and to deconstruct and analyze why something went wrong, but I think it is intolerable that we treat another hard working, well meaning, human being like this online in a public forum. I can’t speak for what she did or did not do, but I can say that she doesn’t deserve a public slaughter.

    We are all adults and as entrepreneurs you need to take full 100% responsibility for the things that happen to you in this game and in life. That letter was full of blame and histrionics. These comments are also immature and a bunch of people enjoying someone else’s demise in order to feel better about their own self-doubt.

    David, with all due respect, I understand you got a letter, but did you do any checking before putting it online? Any respectable news organization would have done their own due diligence before posting. I am wondering if you posted it to truly be helpful.

    The whole thing is disappointing.

    • http://techstars.com/ DavidCohen

      I could not agree more about the spirit of this, it’s a shame that others feel they need to attack someone based on a single data point out of many. And yes, I did the checking that I documented in the post, and no more. The point here was simply “do your due diligence.” I think the smart and reasonable people take only that away from this post and about all the other noise, well, the haters just gotta hate. Let’s all just recognize that those are not the people we are trying to help or that should drive our thinking. Most people I have spoken to about this whom I admire took away the point, and no more. Even if they read the follow on, they rightly assume it’s just one data point and not enough to form an opinion of any one person or program. I strongly encourage all readers to remember the point while not passing judgement on anyone in particular.

      • gilchristh

        I can assure you that Valleywag and PandoDaily took a little but more than that away, and I think it flat-out sucks that you, David–the only person who could have looked at both sides (you definitely knew who the author was, and you could very easily have identified me from the “redacted” information)–chose not to do any due diligence on the subject of the post before posting…about due diligence! Painfully ironic.

      • bethebutterfly

        David I completely understand why you wrote the post and I am sure this is not the first story you have heard, but I think you are shirking responsibility here. Your response comment is kind of like “Oh well” without recognizing the impact publishing the letter verbatim will have on both party’s careers. (Neither come out smelling like roses here.) This kind of stunt is not going to get the author any closer to funding, and if anything makes him sound like a bitter founder who couldn’t take responsibility for his own business.

        “The people you admire” – Who? Other incubators leaders? I am pretty sure you aren’t talking about your readers or PandoDaily or ValleyWag. Because they clearly did not come away with that point. You are influential in the startup community and you are looked at as a leader. With that comes responsibility and this post was anything but responsible. If he had gone to Pando directly (or any other ‘news’ source) they wouldn’t have published it without researching both sides, but because you published it, they could then write about it. Even if he published it himself, it would have been an angry rant from a founder. By publishing it on your blog, you gave it legitimacy.

        Perhaps in the future, the better thing to do would be to spend the time dissecting the learning points instead of a quick “copy and paste”. Again, I don’t care what happened. It isn’t my business and I doubt we will ever know the true story. I care about people owning their shit and respecting the power and influence they have and how that effects the lives and lively-hoods of others.

        • http://techstars.com/ DavidCohen

          OK, I respect your opinion. Once again, the only point is was trying to make is that you can end up feeling like this person felt if you don’t do background on an accelerator that your’e considering. I am not sure how to say any more emphatically that I strongly encourage everyone not to pass judgement based on a single data point and that yes, this is one side of this particular story. you advice on dissecting the learning points is good, however, i had already done that on a WSJ post which I referred to here. People appreciate stories, and I thought this one was interesting and useful to founders.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lori.cheek Lori Cheek

    I’m a Startup Founder at http://cheekd.com. For the record and just to shed some positive light on the subject, the referenced MD of Socratic Labs has been a huge support to me in building my business. I’ve looked to her for advice many times over the past couple of years. Not only has she been an incredible mentor to me, I trust and respect her and honestly look up to her in a way I couldn’t begin to explain. That’s all I got. -Cheek

  • Ibnu Hajar Ulinnuha

    Hi David, i noticed some Indonesian language, “gratis”, does this accelerator and author comes from Indonesia ?

    • http://techstars.com/ DavidCohen

      i don’t think the term is unique to Indonesia.

  • http://www.drivenforward.com/ Glen Hellman

    So that’s one version of the story. What else could have happened? We all tell stories in our heads that make us feel better about ourselves. What if the story was more like this? http://drivenforward.com/blog/learnmeterics-gets-acceleritus

  • Accelerator Enthuiast

    If a picture is worth a thousand words an application is worth a thousand discussions, Being a startup founder I feel passionately about share accelerator experiences and taking an informed decision before joining an accelerator on the basis of feedback.

    On that note I quickly prototyped an application where startup founders can list the accelerator programs they have
    attended and be open to receiving messages and sharing feedback around
    startup accelerators http://www.brandenglish.co.in/accelerator

    Its very simple to start with an MVP format Let me know what you (startup founder) think, share feedback

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  • Confused by this story

    I’m confused by this story for MANY reasons:

    Let’s start at the beginning – you (whomever supposedly redacted information) claim that you’re not including any identifying information, yet you chose to say “She” instead of using a S/He or some other anonymous option – they, the person, etc.

    That seems like you were trying to identify the person.

    Secondly, this story is way too convoluted in many ways, mainly because it’s too long and repetitive.

    “She seemed to think that if she could “turn us against each other” that she’d get what she wanted.” is what he writes at first, then later goes on to say “I later found out that she was trying to turn us against each other to get what she wanted.”

    When “she” asked you what you wanted to stay in the program that you thought was full of lies and BS – why didn’t you just say NOTHING, I want to be done with it? If you were such a good person and you didn’t want to be caught up in the BS. If you gave your terms (whether she met them or not), it seems like you’re saying “I think you’re full of crap, but I’ll stay as long as I get what I want.” If that’s the case, then I don’t see the difference between what you’re doing – using people/situations to your advantage – and what you’re accusing her of doing – using people/situations to her advantage.

    Why is it wrong if she did it and not wrong for you?

  • http://catalyzer.co/ Sunil

    Really sad.
    -MS
    Catalyzer Startup Accelerator
    catalyzer.co

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