Not all startup incubators are equal, but at the same time, there is no one best one. There are lists that try to rank them, but it all really depends on your needs and goals and your companies’ needs and goals. Here I’ll outline the 4 “incubators” I’ve participated in and how they all have different goals. (Note: I’m using the word incubator. Some are not exactly incubators but accelerators. Whatever.)
Lightspeed: Summer program for students to learn
Launchpad: Apply design thinking to your startup and push your limits
StartX: Create a community
Imagine K12: Connect you to the education world
Lightspeed Summer Fellowship
The Lightspeed program has a very specific goal, and believe it or not, that goal is not to make money for Lightspeed. The goal is for the participants to learn what entrepreneurship is all about.
How do they do this? The program is specifically limited to students. The idea is that students have options for summer jobs. They can get well paying internships at top tech companies or startups that can be difficult to turn down. This leaves little room for pursuing a startup full time for the summer because there is pressure to make money.
Lightspeed removes this pressure by giving $10,000 to each founder (up to 4) for the summer, so you can work on your idea and not worry about turning down another offer. In addition, they give $5000 to the company to use however they choose, and they take no equity.
I did the Lightspeed program the summer after my Junior year. I worked on a website called Raunk with four of my best friends. We lived in Menlo Park and got incredible (normally insnanely expensive) office space on Sand Hill Road for free. We routinely spent 12+ hours in the office and developed a full fledged website.
We ended up getting 3000 signed up users and over 60,000 ratings, but the site wasn’t successful. We all went back to school in the fall, though we did some really cool machine learning and data visualization projects using ratings data we collected.
Overall, I learned a lot about starting a company and building a website, and I didn’t sacrifice a summer of pay to do so. For me at that time, this program was exactly what I needed.
This isn’t exactly an incubator. It’s a 10 week class at the d.school at Stanford taught by Michael Dearing and Perry Klebahn. The goal is to push your boundaries in every way possible.
They accepted 12 companies to the class and told us on the first day that we wouldn’t all be there by the end. Most of the companies were at the very beginning stage, so the first assignment was very tough. We had to have a functional prototype in one week. Keep in mind, we’re all taking other classes at the same time. The next assignment was to test our prototype with real users by just two days later.
The class is called Launchpad, so it was no surprise that we were forced to launch our companies at a trade show after only 4 weeks. This requird us to narrow our product to its essential features and prioritize. It took the term minimum viable product to an extreme.
The rest of the class similarly pushed us in many other ways. We refined our pitches every class, but we were never told who would be at class. Sometimes it was just the course staff, and sometimes there were angel investors. One time, we were told to prepare a 3 minute pitch to a news anchor only to arrive at class and find out we only had 30 seconds.
These are things that happen in the real world, and the class prepared us to be surprised and stay ready for anything.
Other days, we were making cold sales calls to small businesses in Alaska or selling lemonade. One day, they brought a Nascar pit crew to class, and we had a competition to see which team could change tires the fastest.
Meanwhile, we were still plugging away on our website. The course staff took no excuses, expected the best, and challenged all of our assumptions about everything from target market to business model to pricing scheme to hiring. We were pushed beyond our limits and learned a lot from it.
StartX’s goals are very different from the previous two programs. Their primary goal is to create a community of founders who trust each other and can learn from each other.
The StartX staff is the most hands on of any of the other programs I’ve done, and it’s also the biggest program. There were 25 companies my session, and we all worked in the StartX office.
The key element to StartX is the office space provided. They offer fundraising help, access to mentors, a living stipend for founders, numerous educational speakers, and great deals on services from Microsoft, Github, Rackspace, etc. But, the key to the program is that all of the companies are working together. They go through the highs and lows together. People are always around and willing to give feedback or just chat for a bit.
While there’s a lot to be said about the “hacker house” as shown in the Social Network movie, the shared workspace is huge for building the sort of community StartX wants its founders to have.
Since CodeHS is an ed tech company, Imagine K12 makes a ton of sense for us. Not only are the partners knowledgeable about education, they have incredible connections to very influential people in the education space. We’ve had speakers from Knewton, Teach For America, New Schools Venture Fund, The Innosight Institute, and many more education specific companies.
The best part of Imagine K12 is that every company is in the same space, and none of the companies are directly competing with each other (yet). That makes the contacts in other companies 10x more valuable because we can all share tips and contacts. We are all trying to talk to schools, and we can help each other do so.
The incubator created a group of companies that are all trying to use technology to improve education. This common goal fosters a great community of people who all believe in the missions of their peers.
I think that Imagine K12 is starting a trend of vertical specific incubators. They make sense for many verticals, so why stop at education?