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6 questions to ask when considering a startup accelerator

(BUSINESS FINANCE) Accelerators can help change startups from unknowns to leaders in the industry, but does your startup need one? And if so, which one?

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When I’m advising startups, I often hear the question: “which accelerator is the best fit for me?” (Besides the obvious YC or Techstars.)

First off, I’ll ask if your company would benefit from an accelerator, or if you need to pursue something for early early stage companies before you achieve more market validation, like an incubator. (Side note: If you’re curious about incubators, here is a comparison of the two.)

If you’re new to these terms, here’s a brief recap on startup accelerators:

Startup accelerators are for companies with established co-founders and market validation – companies can be anywhere from pre-revenue/self-funded, or even have raised at least $1M.

Most programs can last anywhere from 10 weeks to 3-4 months. With many top accelerators like YC and Techstars, you’ll be expected to move to the city where it’s hosted and spend 40+ hours a week minimum in their dedicated coworking space, and several accelerators will often offer housing stipends to make the move easier. These programs typically conclude with a demo day to pitch your product to a variety of community leaders, angel, and institutional investors.

If your product has achieved market validation and is in a place where you’re ready to scale, congrats!

Before you commit to an accelerator, ask yourself and the program these six questions:

1. What kind of mentorship is available?

By and large, one of the most valuable portions of an accelerator is the networking with peers and mentors. Ask what kind of mentors are available to you as a part of a program, and ask their specific involvement and the opportunities to connect. These mentors will be crucial in guiding your company’s growth. Even if they aren’t in the same industry or have solved a similar problem that your company is trying to achieve, their advice and connections could prove to be invaluable.

2. What are the perks?

You’re giving up a lot of equity to be in a program, but it doesn’t come without its perks. Many programs offer not only a cash investment or stipend for housing or other growth costs, but programs like Techstars offer free services such as web hosting costs (an upwards of ~250k), legal and accounting services, and other credits and perks that can be worth 6-7 figures. Make sure you know what you’re getting before you say yes to a program.

3. Do I want an industry-specific or industry-agnostic program?

This one is important and is directly related to #2. If your company sells CPG products, web hosting credits may not be valuable to your business, but a CPG-specific accelerator like SKU or The Brandery with direct connections to Sephora, Target, and Whole Foods may make more sense.

4. How much equity am I willing to give up?

Try not to make this a guessing game and make as many data-driven decisions on this as you can. Create a revenue and valuation model and see how much your company would benefit from the networking, fundraising opportunities, and perks offered, and see what the ROI would potentially be.

5. What are the funding and exit numbers?

This is an objective way to view the success of an accelerator: # of funding raised and exits. Of course, younger accelerators will have smaller numbers, but it’s worth looking to see if a company has raised $ after. Seed-DB is a great resource to view these numbers for hundreds of accelerators globally.

6. What do alumni think?

All accelerators are going to tout the transformative experience that is their program, and program mentors will likely have a similar narrative.

The best resource to learn the real experience of an accelerator: ask its alumni, and they’ll give you the truth. Make sure to survey both recent and more experienced alumni, as they’ll be able to speak to both the short term and long term benefits.

Personal experience: the night before I was set to hear from an accelerator on my application status, two alumni stressed to me that the time and equity investment wasn’t worth it. I consider this providence!

Finally, two items to note:

Choosing an accelerator is all about finding the right fit between you and the organization. Sadly, not all accelerators are created equal, and try to view a potential relationship with an accelerator as an investor relationship, or better yet, dating. There’s a reason the phrase “no money is better than bad money” is prevalent in the startup community.

Make sure to do your due diligence and ask the right questions to make sure a specific program is worth the investment of time, energy, and equity.

And sometimes? That may not mean an accelerator is a right fit right now or at any point, and that’s okay.

This editorial first appeared here in November 2019.

Elise Graham Kennedy is a staff writer at The American Genius and Austin-based digital strategist. She's a seasoned entrepreneur, started and sold two companies, and was on a TV show for her app. You can usually find her watching The Office on her couch with her dog and husband.

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Business Finance

Succession planning: Your options when not allocating to dependents

(ENTREPRENEUR) We’ve all heard the phrase “You can’t take it with you,” but succession planning provides peace-of-mind when leaving behind personal assets.

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Succession planning is a forward-looking strategy to ensure the “next in line” is prepped for what is to come. Within an organization, executives or management create a blueprint in hopes of a seamless transition of operations to “partners, future generations, or successor owners,” as Patrick Hicks, the Head of Legal at Trust & Will, states.

Succession planning can be useful in both professional and personal environments, including handing off entrepreneurial businesses or assets of any value. It’s important to create an Estate Plan for whom you plan to replace you in regard to property ownership.

Hicks says that, “Property rights are the cornerstone of modern society.” Property rights include the authority to determine how a resource is used or disposed of after death. This can include giving in a neighbor, a charity, or the most common choice, your family.

“Giving it all to family is typical but giving it all to non-relatives gets second looks. An estate plan is the manifestation of your wishes. It doesn’t matter if anyone else approves.”

It can come as a shock to hear if your assets are undesired by family- or even worse- if it comes as a surprise to them after a loved one’s death. Some choose not to communicate succession plans during one’s lifetime as it could damage familial relationships, but on the other hand, it could also provide a smoother transition. If an heir does not wish to take on the property, there is a chance for contest or litigation that could reduce the benefits of having a succession plan in the first place.

Another scenario is if your dependents do want a hand in property assets after death, but your wishes are to relinquish it elsewhere. Hicks says, “Typically, children do not have a right to claim their inheritance, unless some special rule applies.”

An example is if you leave behind a minor child or surviving spouse, where in that case, they may be entitled to receive support. This could include at least of share of property if no estate plan was in place. However, the necessary support can also be provided by the dearly departed through life insurance or another means.

“When it comes to estate planning, there are societal norms and bounds,” Hicks says, but ultimately, no matter the wishes, having a succession plan can provide peace-of-mind when thinking of the future.

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Business Finance

Tips on setting a more accurate freelance rate

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Setting a freelance rate can be difficult given that any industry has conflicting norms regarding an appropriate billing amount – a fact made more difficult by about a billion other factors such as experience, location, and so on. Whether you prefer to determine your rate the long-form way or you just want a calculator to point you in the correct direction, here are some tips for figuring out how much you should be charging.

Jennifer Bourn, business guru and freelancer extraordinaire, eschews the general “start with the salary you want and work backward” approach. Under this model, you would theoretically determine the amount of money you want in a year, divide that number by the number of hours you plan on working in a year, and charge whatever the quotient is (for example, $100,000 divided by 2080–which is 40 hours per week times 52 weeks in a year–is roughly $50 per hour).

The problem with this model, Bourn posits, is that it doesn’t actually get you what you want to earn. Once you take into account things like your overhead spending, vacation time, insurance, profit margin goals, and actual billable time versus the time you need to do administrative things, you’re looking at a substantially smaller figure at the end of the year.

Bourn’s solution is to start with the salary you want, add all of your expenses, multiply that result by your desired profit margin (e.g., 1.10 for a margin of 10 percent), and then divide by a realistic look at your billable hours for the year–not just the standard 2080 work days in a year (which is already problematic due to the aforementioned vacation time and potential for sick leave).

If all of that sounds like way too much effort, there are a myriad of rate calculators that you could use instead. Each of our following picks has a variety of applications:

  1. Clockify is a simple, straightforward calculator that looks at your industry, location, and experience level to generate an average hourly figure.
  2. Nation 1099starts with your desired salary and then gives you an hourly rate and a daily rate based on many of the factors espoused by Bourn.
  3. Your Rate asks for your desired annual income, your number of weekly billable hours, and your anticipated time off per year to come up with a set of rough figures for weekly, daily, and hourly rates.
  4. Freelance Rate Calculator is a Google Sheets template that takes into account your goals, expenses, billable hours, and more.
  5. All Freelance Writing is a more intensive calculator with an advanced option to determine all of your costs, goals, billable hours, time off, and so on, making it a pleasant option somewhere between Bourn’s long-form calculations and something like Clockify.

You should test your salary calculations in a variety of spaces if you have the time. This will ensure that you end up with a solid, well-corroborated result that you can quote to clients rather than having to fall back on one website’s opinion. Whichever option you choose, though, remember that you deserve to be paid what you’re worth–not just what your services are worth.

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Business Finance

How should freelancers be saving for retirement (is it even possible)?

(FINANCE) Adulting is hard, but retirement looms no matter your age – here are some ways to start squirreling money away so it’s less stressful later.

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Freelancing is a tenuous approach to employment, made all the more so by a profound lack of amenities usually offered by more stable arrangements – chief among which is a retirement fund. It can feel impossible, especially when your business suffers amidst a pandemic, so some of what follows can be ignored until the ship isn’t sinking, but don’t wait a minute longer than that – deal?

So there are several schools of thought regarding the best way to start saving and where you should put your money, but the bottom line is that, if you’re a freelancer, you should be allocating your own retirement funds. Here are some ways to do just that.

Before you can even get into the weeds of how to invest in retirement, you should have a parachute in case things go sideways. My Bank Tracker suggests starting with an emergency fund of $1,000, adding to it as you can until you have anywhere from 3 to 12 months of expenses covered.

This serves two purposes: ensuring that you’ll have the luxury of time if you need to perform an abrupt job hunt, and establishing how much you can safely put away each month without jeopardizing your business or standard of living (within reason).

Having a relatively large sum of money on hand for emergencies is always good, and if you never have to use it for the purpose for which you set it aside, it can supplement your retirement whenever you decide it’s time to cash in.

My Bank Tracker also suggests storing your emergency fund using a “high-yield” bank account, such as an online savings account, rather than sticking with traditional, low-interest savings options.

You also need to plan for taxes, which in addition to whatever your tax bracket percentage is, includes allocating 15 percent of your income to pay Social Security and Medicare. This means that you’re probably putting aside a pretty hefty sum (at least 30%) each month.

Once you’ve established your emergency fund and planned for taxes, you should have a general idea of what your wiggle room looks like vis-a-vis saving for retirement.

The actual saving part of retirement entails investment in a retirement account such as an IRA, Roth IRA, a 401(k), or a pension plan (referred to as a “defined benefit plan”).

Each of these account types has benefits and drawbacks depending on your situation.

  • A Roth IRA will allow you to contribute a certain amount each year, and you can usually set up an account quickly from a variety of online locations. The money that goes into a Roth IRA is post-tax, meaning you don’t have to pay tax on the retirement funds you pull out. Your income, however, can disqualify you from investing – if you earn above a certain threshold ($140,000 in 2021), you won’t be able to use a Roth IRA.
  • Other IRA options exist as well, each with a cap on how much you can contribute per year and varying tax requirements. For example, a traditional IRA account requires you to pay taxes when you withdraw the money, and there’s an upper limit on how much you can contribute.
  • A SEP IRA is similar, but the upper limit on investment is substantially higher – and you need to be self-employed (or an employer) to have one.

Nerd Wallet also points out that a 401(k) is a reasonable option for self-employed people who don’t employ anyone else, especially if you plan on saving “a lot in some years — say, when business is flush — and less in others.” 401(k) accounts allow you to put up to a certain amount ($58,000 in 2021) in each year pre-tax, and you pay taxes on withdrawals whenever you start pulling out money.

More eccentric retirement options exist as well. Taxable Brokerage Accounts let you invest in stocks and securities through a brokerage, and you’re able to use the money whenever you please – but you’ll have to pay taxes on your gains each year, which can become expensive in the long run.

And defined benefit plans are expensive and entail high fees, but they allow you to set up a pension with high investment opportunities as opposed to some of the lower-investment options.

Whichever option (or options – you can always invest in multiple accounts) you choose, make sure you’re saving for retirement in some capacity. And remember that these accounts represent exponential growth, meaning that the sooner you start saving, the better off you’ll be when you begin your retirement journey.

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