There are currently more than 70,000 startups in the United States, meaning there are hundreds of thousands of committed startup founders looking to grow their businesses. Many startup leaders gravitate to incubators, accelerators, and tech hubs to help fill any knowledge gaps for founders and to get better access to what startups need to grow: customers, capital, and talent.
But finding the right support can be tricky, especially if it’s your first time. Incubators, accelerators, and tech hubs are related but distinct entities that provide different sorts of assistance to founders. Here’s a breakdown of each and what you need to know before applying to one.
The 3 Types of Organized Community Support for Founders
- Tech hubs
Incubators Help Startup Leaders Lay the Groundwork
Generally, incubators are for early-stage startups that:
- Don’t have seed funding.
- Are establishing a concept.
- Need to validate product-market fit.
An incubator’s educational structure ultimately helps startup leaders determine the viability of their concepts. If a founder discovers their concept doesn’t have a market fit, an incubator can either help them reframe their offering or save them from investing years into an idea that doesn’t have long-term potential.
Conversely, incubators can also affirm a startup’s mission, springboarding it into its next stage of development, whether that involves securing investments and/or building a repeatable sales process.
Fitting within these parameters is important because most incubator programs focus on walking startup leaders through market strategy and business model canvases. If you haven’t verified your market fit with customers and aren’t actively selling a proof of concept yet, an incubator program could help you position and grow your budding startup.
Another component of incubator programs is networking. Incubators connect you with subject matter experts, instructors, mentors, investors, and fellow founders. This wide range of connections rounds out your network and immerses you in the various elements of startup development, from the creative to the logistical.
Accelerators Fast-track Scaling Opportunities for Startup Leaders
An accelerator program offers the familiar structure of an incubator, but for later-stage startups. Unlike an incubator, accelerator programs often require product-market fit and a desire to scale.
This is because accelerators typically connect startup leaders with capital. Conversations with investors are much easier when you follow the plan laid out by an accelerator program. These programs ensure you have all the right tools in place for an investor conversation and are prepared to answer the questions investors will ask.
Electing to seek capital investment is a serious commitment, and once you get it, your startup will change. Running a venture-backed business obligates you to scale quickly, in part because you’re no longer the lone stakeholder. You’re beholden to the returns that your investors expect of you at the point of exit.
Accelerator programs also help you scale by sharing organic growth strategies, refining your market strategy, and offering similar networking opportunities as incubators.
If this isn’t something you want, that’s okay. Not every startup needs venture capital to grow and solve a problem for the world.
Tech Hubs Connect Startups With Their Community
The phrase “tech hub” can mean different things. In some cases, the term refers to cities with a thriving tech environment. But in this case, “tech hub” refers to an organization that serves as a central landing zone, often a physical place, for the region where these startups, startup support programs, and investors can be based.
While tech hubs offer seminars, workshops, and often mentorship, they are better known for offering a broad set of resources that entrepreneurs can access, including office or co-working spaces, community programming, social events, and networking opportunities.
Unlike incubators and accelerators, most tech hubs do not have cohorts or a set curriculum for entrepreneurs. Instead, entrepreneurs can choose their own adventure and take advantage of the resources most relevant to their specific needs.
These organizations immerse you in a central location where bright minds and creative ideas meet, which is why most tech hubs require clear proof of concept to gain admittance.
That’s because joining a tech hub involves contributing to that startup community. If you don’t have the expertise or some traction around your own business, you won’t provide enough value to the startups around you. And conversely, if the startups around you were not at a necessary point of finding scale, it would be difficult for you to learn from them.
Tech hubs also provide a community with visual density. Joining an early-stage startup is a huge leap for many and comes with risk. Joining a buzzing tech community within a tech hub can show prospective talent that your company, the hub, and your city are attractive places to work. Tech hubs bring together the most promising people and create the conditions for them to learn from, and grow with, one another.
Today’s Startup Leaders Aren’t Confined by Zip Codes
Remote work has altered the business landscape, though perhaps not as significantly as originally predicted. While more than 18 million Americans reported planning to move as a result of remote work, the tech sector remains concentrated in large metropolitan areas, according to research from The Brookings Institution.
How does this impact you? It gives you more options. You can apply to the incubator, accelerator, or tech hub that best fits your startup, regardless of geography. This is because these organizations are evolving their offerings to fit remote work models. Whether you work at a tech hub every day or fly in for occasional check-ins, these programs deliver you consistent value with a robust set of digital resources and virtual networking opportunities.
But before joining any of these organizations, it’s important that you speak with startup leaders who were a part of the program you’re researching. Look into the mentors the organizers bring in. Search for past companies that participated in the program. Seek out referrals and endorsements.
There’s no such thing as being too diligent, especially when it concerns the future of your startup.