Monday, September 21, 2015

An unlikely source of lessons for startup Accelerators and Incubators

Paul Chen

Y Combinator, Techstars, and 500 Startups may be the programs that every startup accelerator and incubator want to learn from, but there is a source of inspirations that many may not have considered.

Before blogging and writing articles about startups in Europe, I was a school teacher in New York City.   During my days in New York, I would often go to comedy shows. Of course, there is the famous Comedy Cellar where Jon Stewart, Dave Chapelle, and Louis C.K. got their start.  But my favorite place to go has always been the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. I have spent countless evenings there. It was there where I saw many celebrities before they were famous. I saw the likes of Aziz Ansari, Ed Helms, and Amy Poehler as well as many others before they started appearing on TV shows and movies. Recently, I had the chance to go back to LA and visit my folks. I went to a couple of shows at the the LA branches of the UCB and rediscovered their magic.

That got me thinking, if you think of the entertainment business, other than Second City, UCB may be one of the most successful talent accelerators in the industry. They keep cranking out talents that goes on to bigger projects. How do they do it? Are there lessons that startup accelerators can learn from their success? Here are 5 of them:

1. Customer Exposure

Other than a comedy theater, UCB is a school of entertainment teaching the Del Close brand of improvising sketches. UCB has four branches and they put on an average of three shows per night so that is 84 shows per week. That is plenty of chances for their students to be exposed to real customers (real audience members) over and over. This allows them to get immediate feedback on what works and what bombs. It also allows the talent chances to work on his timing and pacing to perfect his art. Accelerators should expose their startups to real customers over and over in order to develop products that people actually would need and want.

2. Allow your talent to fail and suck a lot

One of the luxuries that a new talent has is that he gets to suck and fail lots of time.  During an interview, Paul Scheer (Fresh off the Boat) said that he misses the days that he can just suck it up without worrying too much. When you are allowed to suck and fail, you are more likely to take risks and think outside the box. Furthermore, you get to learn many valuable lessons from mistakes. That is where true innovation and creativity come from. The more you think about it, the more you mess it up. Failing during the program is far less costly than failing after they have graduated.

3. Use your network

One of the most valuable assets that UCB has is their alumni network and their friends of friends. They constantly get A-listers like Tina Fey (30 Rock), Robin Williams, and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) to come in and work with their developing talents and put on shows. It also allows their talents to build up their networks. One of the thing that differentiates a good accelerator from a fantastic accelerators are the networks. Some startups will forgo the initial funding for access to the network.

4. Learn how to build teams that trust each other

The success of a improv sketch is dependent on the team of performers to be able gel, cooperate, and work like a well oiled machine. This comes from failure and the ability for one team member to trust another team member. Each team member's job should be to do their bit so other team members look awesome. As they say in Silicon Valley, investors don't invest in the product but they invest in the team. When the members of the team know their part and can trust each other, they can execute.

One of the reasons behind UCB's success is their brand. It comes from fostering an appreciation and education of the arts from affordable and high quality comedic performances and classes. Talents have chances to work with industry insiders and are given a chance to find the way that works for them. Students are given every opportunity to succeed in their performing and writing careers. If an accelerator is doing their job each startup should be on the way to viable commercial success.

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