Data Catalyst - InnovationSo you want to be an entrepreneur. You’ve put together a small founder team, developed a proof of concept and .mp. Or you’ve invented something at school but have no idea how to turn it into a viable business. Or maybe you’ve got an amazing idea and, well… you need to hustle.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been talking with entrepreneurs and Canada’s leading accelerators for a report on the Canadian accelerator landscape that I’m working on with

Like a good job interview, the decision about whether to consider an accelerator and which one is ultimately about finding a good fit for both the accelerator and the founder team. Drawing on the discussions I’ve had with both entrepreneurs who’ve been through accelerators and those running them, here are five questions to ask before joining an accelerator.

Is joining an accelerator (any accelerator) right for my startup right now?

Being in an accelerator is a full-time job. Several entrepreneurs have said joining an accelerator (and giving up existing jobs, maybe moving to a different city) was the best way to see if every member of the founding team was equally committed. Also consider if you’re able to make the most of the advice and guidance you’d receive. Do you have a balanced founding team—hacker, hustler, designer? If you don’t know you’re ready, consider alternatives like joining an incubator, a co-working space or a program like MaRS’ Entrepreneurship 101.

Which accelerator meets our needs?

Unlike two or three years ago, entrepreneurs now have a range of accelerator and accelerator-like programs to choose from. So consider this: what does your startup need the most right now? Do you need to figure out product market fit? Learn how to raise money? Commercialize a technology idea? Do you need introductions to companies like Facebook or mentors with specific expertise? Are you looking to be held accountable with milestones and deliverables, or are you looking for a more laissez-faire management style? Accelerators have different styles, different emphases—find out which one addresses your needs.

Do our goals line up with the accelerator’s goals?

Accelerator programs need money to operate—both to run the day-to-day business and to fund investments in your startup. While the success of startups is the top priority for every program, investors, sponsors and stakeholders must also be kept happy. So how does the accelerator measure its success? Is it number of jobs created (typically government-sponsored accelerators), new patents filed or technologies commercialized (often university-related accelerators), or the amount of venture capital investment (many for-profit accelerators)? Do these goals align with yours?

What is your expected return on investment?

When living on ramen wages, the thought of $30K, $50K or $200K investment is understandably tempting. But when making the decision to apply for (or join) an accelerator, don’t just run your calculations on investment vs. percent of equity. Accelerators are investing a lot more than cash in your startup. A warm introduction to your ideal customer, sleep saved knowing your legal contracts are done right, or hours with a rock star mentor—what’s that worth to you?

What is their track record?

Canadian accelerators are in their early days; even those like Extreme, FounderFuel and GrowLab have only a few dozen graduates each so far. While most accelerators publicly share their success stories, we don’t have the benefit of open and comparable reporting and benchmarks across all accelerators quite yet. Our research to date suggests that best practices are beginning to be shared between accelerators as they emerge. Best of all, the accelerator alumni I’ve spoken with are all open to sharing their experiences with other entrepreneurs.

Committing to an accelerator for three to nine months is an important decision for your startup. What do you think is important to ask before joining an accelerator? Let us know in the comments below.

Finally, we’ll be publishing the findings from our research on Canadian accelerators this summer in a report. Stay tuned!

Elizabeth Caley

Elizabeth is a doctoral researcher at Henley Business School, U.K. by night and vice president, product management at Firmex by day. Based in Toronto, she focuses her research on startup accelerators and entrepreneurship. See more…