For the last couple weeks, I’ve been working out of the Food-X office, one of the most well-known food tech accelerators in the world. And amid news of state-wide restaurant closures, events getting postponed or cancelled, and other ways coronavirus has set the food industry reeling, I found myself wondering what happens to startup accelerator programs as the pandemic whips its way around the globe altering both daily life and day-to-day business operations?
Startup accelerators exist to foster and invest in the development and growth of young companies. Multi-month-long programs often involve startups working together, or at least out of the same shared office space, face-to-face meetings with mentors and potential investors, and demo days, where founders pitch their products and services to crowds of people. But at a time when public spaces are being shut down and companies are mandating employees to work from home, startup accelerators may also have to change they way they run their programs.
To get a hint of what’s to come, I sat down with Food-X’s Program Director Peter Boddenheimer last week to chat about how the startup accelerator format will likely change in response to all this, and what that means for participating companies.
1. Prepare for remote work and weird hours.
Accelerator programs vary widely in terms of how long they require participants to actually be onsite. Some, like The Yield Lab or Chipotle’s accelerator, only require companies to be at HQ for certain weeks. Others, like Food-X, are conducted in-person for the duration of the program.
That’s under normal circumstances, though. In the wake of a pandemic, in-person programs can almost certainly expect to change their format, something Food-X itself is already doing. Boddenheimer said that while the program will start as planned this week, it will be conducted virtually for the time being. “We’re preparing in terms of the tools that we’re going to use for remote sessions, recording everything and having high-quality recordings so that people can get value out of it,” he noted, adding that now was an “interesting opportunity” for alternative models like this.
Food-X is, of course, in New York City, one of the hardest hit areas in the U.S. in terms of coronavirus right now. But with more cities and states closing gyms, cinemas, restaurants, wineries, and other businesses, more programs around the world might want to consider virtual programming for cohorts that kick off soon. For those that continue to meet in person, they may also want to adjust office hours so that attendees are arriving and leaving during non-peak hours, when elevators, stairwells, and trains will be less crowded.
2. There may not be demo days.
The culmination of many accelerator programs is a demo day where startups pitch to potential investors and other industry figures. But given that the process involves lots of people crammed into a room together, and in light of the CDC is advising against groups of 50 or more meeting for the next eight weeks, we can expect that many demo days scheduled for the next few months will either move online or not happen at all.
Boddenheimer said the prospect of not having one presents challenges — and that may not be a bad thing. Citing his own love/hate relationship with demo days, he noted that he actually looks forward to this challenge of having to find an alternative to the traditional format. “I think it puts the onus on us to do more in terms of preparing people. Not necessarily pitch videos but maybe higher production value videos that would help people communicate with investors.” While he added that any kind of community building was “going to be tough” right now, the glass-half-full view of the situation is that not being able to do in-person demo days and meetings with potential investors will force everyone in the startup community to look outside comfortable norms and run better processes when it comes to fundraising.
“And if we find some things that work, maybe they start to become the norm,” he said.
3. There will be lots of questions and uncertainties.
As of this writing, Food-X’s latest cohort is happening, though with modifications like remote sessions. Many more accelerator programs will have to grapple with whether or not to do the same with their formats, and in some cases whether to hold a cohort at all.
Startups, meanwhile, will have to decide if they are willing to relocate to participate.
“Everybody’s had questions,” Boddenheimer said of the chosen participants for Food-X’s upcoming cohort, which starts tomorrow. So far, only one of those has expressed major concerns and, after much discussion with Food-X, has ultimately decided to attend anyway.
“We’re checking in [with companies] daily and reading up on things and we’re trying to make the best decisions we can based on the information we have, but it’s kind of something nobody’s really dealt with before.” He added that Food-X employees have gone to great lengths to “make sure the office is as safe an environment as possible.”
Of course, that’s if and when companies can actually show up to work onsite. And with the situation around COVID-19 changing hourly and more cities mandating closures, it’s anyone’s guess what accelerator programs and their participants will face in a week’s time, let alone a couple months.
But before we all head down the doom-and-gloom rabbit hole, consider this: successful startups and their founders tend to be far more flexible and adaptable by nature than, say, a 20,000-person corporation. As Boddenheimer says, “The best founders learn to take the ups and downs in stride. So I think those people thrive in this type of environment.”
That doesn’t mean the next few months will be easy or even pleasant for young startups and the organizations that foster them. But it does suggest that new and better norms, not to mention companies, can and will come out of this time.
“There’s a theory in general that the best time to start a startup is during downturns, when it’s the hardest,” says Boddenheimer. “It may end up being that the next year or two years are are really tough time but some great companies are going to be started in these next 12 to 24 months.”