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Introducing Seed-DB: a database of seed accelerators and their companies

SeedDBlogo

I’m pleased to announce Seed-DB, a database of seed accelerators and the companies they have accelerated.  I originally started assembling this data in the summer of 2009 as part of the research paper I wrote for my MBA thesis at the University of Cambridge: “Copying Y Combinator: a framework for developing Seed Accelerator programs.”  Ever since, I’ve been keeping it up-to-date in a number of Google Spreadsheets.

Seed-DB puts all of the best information I have and puts it in a much more digestible format for easy viewing and comparison.  I have integrated Crunchbase data to get up-to-date information on funding rounds, number of employees, and more.  I believe that Seed-DB is the most useful and comprehensive resource on seed accelerators around the world.

Economic impact

One of the clear things that stands out to me is the economic impact of seed accelerators.  Even though the data is far from complete for some programs, these are some key statistics as they stand today:

  • >100 programs world-wide
  • >1300 companies have been accelerated
  • ~65 companies have already exited for an estimated $930million
  • >3000 jobs created
  • >$1billion in angel and venture capital funding raised
In particular, as the data becomes more complete I estimate that the number of jobs created could easily double.  And as the companies mature and have exit events for investors, the exit values will be much, much larger.  (Paul Graham has publicly stated that just the top 21 Y Combinator companies have a combined value approaching $5billion.)

Key disclaimers

Incomplete data

As hard as I’ve tried, the information on Seed-DB is NOT 100% complete.  There are three reasons for this:

  • Missing startups.  Some accelerators have made it very difficult to find lists of startups that have gone through their programs, so there are many startups missing in less visible programs.  Please contact me if you can provide me with any details.
  • Missing data in Crunchbase.  Many companies have not entered any information in Crunchbase.  That’s where I get details on funding and number of employees, so if you want this information to be accurate please update it there.  (If you run an accelerator, it would be ideal if you could encourage your startups to do this.)
  • Missing accelerators.  I believe I’ve tracked down all of the seed accelerators world-wide, but please let me know if I’ve missed some.  Note that I’m using a pretty strict definition of a seed accelerator.  I hope to eventually track other types of programs, too.

MVP

To use a buzzword, this is a minimum viable product.  Reid Hoffman has been quoted as saying “if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”  Well, I’m at that point.  There’s a lot that I still want to do, some of user-visible projects and tasks are on the roadmap, but what’s launching today is the core of my vision.

Valuations

Please note that while exits are often publicized, the price paid for most companies is NOT public.  So for the vast majority of companies I’ve simply had to guess.  I’ve put a confidence level by each guess, with the highest-level confidence reserved for the cases where the price was public or widely reported.  These values do not come from any of the companies involved.

Final word

If you’ve made it this far, I’d ask you for three things.

  1. Sign up to my seed accelerators newsletter.  (It’s very low traffic, and I don’t share or sell e-mail addresses… ever.)
  2. Send me feedback.  I want to make this useful for startups interested in accelerators, people founding/running accelerators, and investors interested in companies from accelerators.
  3. If you’re interested in collaborating with me on the technical side of things, please get in touch.  I’m new to web applications, and could use an experienced partner.

Thanks for your attention!

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Five baseline assumptions on seed accelerators

There has been an explosion of new seed accelerators recently, and with that comes an explosion of press interest, blog articles, and more. I was even interviewed for a recent article by the Wall Street Journal, though my quotes were all cut. (Speaking of which, I learned a lot of about media through that experience. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the writer/journalist thinks, the editor really calls the shots and enforces a point of view.)

I want to lay out the five baseline assumptions that I make when explaining seed accelerators:

  • All accelerators improve the chances of startup’s success
  • There is a wide spectrum to how much help an accelerator gives a startup due to reputation, deal flow, quantity/quality of applicants
  • The best seed accelerators are started in order to do better investing, and partners really make money through follow-on investments
  • A lot of seed accelerators will fail, and there’s no problem with that
  • Entrepreneurs should understand what they’re selling to an accelerator (but not worry about it too much)

And here’s why:

All accelerators improve the chances of startup’s success

While I don’t think that every startup should go through an accelerator, I do believe that going through any accelerator improves the probability that that a startup will be successful. It’s very straightforward: the whole point of the accelerator is to provide tools, mentorship, connections, and support to startups so they can be successful. Perhaps I’m a bit of an optimist, but I would be surprised if any startup coming out of an accelerator would say that the program had hurt their chances for success or provided them with zero value.

Unfortunately, this is a very difficult data point to test. I’ve assembled a lot of information about the status and success of over 1100 startups that have been through nearly 100 accelerators across the globe, but capturing the data for the entire startup ecosystem that hasn’t gone through an accelerator is damn near impossible.

There is a wide spectrum to how much help an accelerator gives a startup due to reputation, deal flow, quantity/quality of applicants

I doubt this is a controversial point. The degree of acceleration that startups get by going through Y Combinator is significantly different than many of the newest accelerators. For example, YC companies have a very high rate of getting follow-on funding, and their alumni network is unparalleled.  Newer programs don’t have anything like this.

When it comes to understanding the seed accelerator ecosystem, the best metaphor is the US university educational system. There are some programs that are clear leaders; like Y Combinator / TechStars and the Ivy League. There’s massive demand to get into these handful of programs, and they attract the very best startups. Once inside, you have some of the best access to people in industry and massive advantages because of that credential. And because they’re so good, they attract the best people with the best chance of long-term success.

There are also more regional accelerators, like the state university system. They tend to be more attractive for people looking to stay closer to home. Some of these have the capacity to be real powerhouses, but many are just average. But even though I call them “average”, by graduating from the university/accelerator, you have a better chance of long-term success than if you did it all on your own.

Finally, I like seeing the growth of vertical-specific accelerators like RockHealth and Imagine K12, which are like professional schools. They provide real benefits for companies in verticals that have very specific needs and very specific markets. It’s no wonder you see companies like Agile Diagnosis go through Y Combinator and then later on also decide to go through RockHealth. As I mentioned in my thesis three years ago, I believe these specialized accelerators are where some really great and successful programs can and will be built.

The best seed accelerators are started in order to do better investing, and partners really make money through follow-on investments

When I interviewed Paul Graham and David Cohen for my thesis back in 2009, one thing was very clear to me. They started Y Combinator and TechStars in order to do angel investing better. In short, Y Combinator and TechStars were primarily founded to make money. This aligns the program and the startups; the startups want to create successful businesses, and the program partners want to make money which can only happen if those businesses are successful. Because they’re judging and assisting startups solely on their product/market fit and potential, I believe they have the greatest chance of generating the exits required to become profitable.

I’m personally not a fan of accelerators that are started for the purpose of, say, “kickstarting the startup ecosystem in Northeast Montana.” They usually get some government funding or grants from organizations that they’ve convinced to fund them. In short, these programs are often funded for ego. Now I don’t think these programs should die, because of the very first point above. (Any program will improve a startups’ chance of success.) But the incentives are not necessarily aligned in this situation. Startups still want to create successful businesses, but accelerators want to prove they’re doing good things for the community. I believe that these programs will not typically generate startups with exits that will make the program profitable long-term, so the program will need to go back to their investors to continue.

No accelerators that I know of do any follow-on funding, though some programs are able to offer convertible loan notes of small size.  This limits the profits that the accelerator will eventually earn. But this hides the fact that the partners of the programs DO invest in follow-on rounds individually through their own personal angel investing. For example, I understand that many/most of the YC partners invest in YC companies, though from what I’ve been told they don’t lead any follow-on rounds. (Probably partly for signaling effects, and partly because they have a lot of demands on their time.) So while the accelerators’ stake is initially 5-10%, it’s diminished with each round of funding. The partners who invest personally are able to continue to invest in future rounds, and while I have yet to do an in-depth analysis here, I believe that’s where the partners REALLY make their money.

Leading on from that, what an accelerator really brings to program partners is deal flow. So even if a program is marginally profitable or unprofitable, the founders/partners could effectively use it as a loss-leader for much more profitable follow-on investing.

A lot of seed accelerators will fail, and there’s no problem with that

I’m modifying this phrase from Pascal Finette’s blog post. A number of accelerators are started for the wrong reasons (ie, not strictly to make money) so I believe that they do not have a bright long-term future. I agree with Pascal that the money many programs earn from exits will never be able to make up for the costs of the program, and many will eventually close.

Seed accelerators failing isn’t bad! Even if an accelerator that’s trying to kick-start the startup ecosystem in north-east Montana runs for two years and then dies, that’s two years of startups that have been trained and two years of connections between startups and investors and mentors. Sure, while it could have potentially had a better outcome, that’s not a bad result.  From my data, just under 10% of the seed accelerators I’m tracking have already failed.  (Though some have been resurrected in other forms.)

Who really loses when an accelerator dies? It’s not the startups; they’ve already gone through and had their experience. The only people that lose are the investors behind the program, and they should have understood what they were getting into before they began.

Entrepreneurs should understand what they’re selling to an accelerator (but not worry about it too much)

When I was speaking to the journalist from the Wall Street Journal, she mentioned her editor was very concerned about the cost of these programs, that startups are giving away too much equity. I believe this line of thinking is short-sighted and wanted to briefly explain why.

The default end-state for a startup is failure. The reason for an accelerator’s existence is to help prevent failure, and they take a small equity stake in companies in order to align their incentives. The accelerator only ever “wins” when their startups “win”. Paul Graham has (of course) written on this topic, and made an easy mathematical argument. You should be willing to give up X% equity if afterward the business has a (100/(100-X))% better chance of success. So if you sell 10% of your equity to an accelerator, you’re better off provided that your business is (100/90 = 1.11) 11% better off than before you went through the program. I think with the vast majority of matches between startups and accelerators this price is most definitely worth it.

There is a market “price” / valuation for different programs, and entrepreneurs should recognize what they’re selling. For experienced entrepreneurs to go through a new accelerator is perhaps not worth the cost, because it could duplicate their existing experience, adding no real value. That’s why these programs should (and do) specialize in new entrepreneurs. Top-tier programs are able to add value even for experienced entrepreneurs, so it’s not uncommon for founders to go through Y Combinator even after starting and successfully exiting a previous YC company.

Summary

Seed accelerators are great opportunities.  For beginning entrepreneurs virtually any program would improve their startup’s chances for success. For beginning program founders, I would suggest that you deeply examine your motivations, and what could/would happen if the program doesn’t get the exits you expect from the first 1-3 years of startups.

There will be more programs founded, and a lot more startups going through them in the next few years. I hope the information here provides a good framework for discussing seed accelerators in the future.

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University of Michigan – famous alumni notes

It always strikes me that the University of Michigan does a great job of promoting more distant famous alumni, but not always the more recent famous alumni.  (I was an undergraduate there, so I’m interested in this.)

Advertising / Google

One thing that most people don’t know is that the two largest online advertising companies were both founded by University of Michigan graduates.  And not only that, they were both UofM College of Engineering students!  Who am I speaking of?

Larry Page – CEO/co-founder, Google

Kevin O’Connor – co-founder/ex-CEO, Doubleclick

And of course, Doubleclick was purchased by Google for ~$3billion back in 2008.  I’m curious how much the two of them spoke during/after the negotiations about their common history back in Ann Arbor!

Groupon – a story

I’m not a big fan of Groupon… at all.  I signed up in London for a while, but the offers were crap, and it took me ages to get off of all their different lists they had added me to.  It’s not the daily deal format I hate; I like Keynoir which is a similar site here in London because they tend to have offers that I actually want to buy.

Another reason I don’t like Groupon is the way they run their business.  Despite the fact they’re still not profitable, the founders got massive cash payments last year.  So while Groupon was raising close to $1billion to keep the business going (because it wasn’t profitable), the founders were taking hundreds of millions of dollars of the funding investors were giving them.  This is just WRONG, even if the investors were greedy enough for a part of Groupon that they didn’t argue.  If you haven’t built a business to profitability, you should be able to cash out anything more than a token amount… ever.

I recently learned that one of the founders of Groupon (Eric Lefkofsky) was behind one of the worst student activism campaigns ever at the University of Michigan: trying to adopt a cute, cuddly mascot for the Michigan Wolverine sports teams.  Michigan had previously toyed with mascots; back in the 1920’s the University brought a live wolverine in a cage to football games.  But since wolverines are actually mean, vicious creatures, that only lasted a year or two.

But in the late 1980’s Eric Lefkofsky was part of a trio of students that came close to adopting “Willy the Wolverine” as a University mascot.  Luckily they managed to piss the University off by infringing on official trademarks and doing similar stupid stuff that after they graduated the effort lost momentum.  But this was the final nail in the Groupon coffin for me; even if they grow into the biggest company on earth, I’ll never have respect for them.

(If you want to learn more about the Michigan mascot (that rarely existed), check out the Alumni Association story “The Wolverine that wasn’t.”)

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Startup accelerators in 2011

RenaultF1Wheel

[UPDATE] –

Please see the Seed Accelerator Knowledge Base for the most up-to-date information on seed accelerators world-wide, and the startups that have graduated from them.

 

I’ve long been interested in the seed accelerator model, as started by Y Combinator.  I wrote my master’s thesis on it, and wrote a follow-up post this spring.  Recently, two things have happened that I wanted to write about.  First, I restructured the spreadsheet where I maintained a list of all companies to come out of seed accelerators.  And second, NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, a UK investment and research body) recently undertook a significant piece of research into seed accelerators.

Update to Seed Accelerator company list spreadsheet

As a part of my original paper on seed accelerators, I compiled a list of all the companies that have come out of seed accelerators like Y Combinator, TechStars, Seedcamp, et cetera.  Each accelerator had its own tab, with the details of all their companies.  I kept edit rights, mainly so that I could be sure of the details for my paper and follow-up work.

As seed accelerators have exploded in number world-wide, it’s become nearly impossible to keep this working.  There were too many tabs for different accelerators to be found properly, and it really is best if the people that run the different programs can edit the details for their companies.

So there are now individual documents for each seed accelerator program, and the original document now has links to each individual program sheet.  If you run a seed accelerator, please e-mail me and I’ll be sure that 1) I have a separate spreadsheet for your accelerator and 2) you get full edit rights for your program’s spreadsheet.  (jed.christiansen@gmail.com)

Please check the new seed accelerator company directory here.

NESTA research

Kirsten Bound and Paul Miller recently undertook a significant piece of work to define, describe, and analyze seed accelerators on a global basis.  The result of which can be found on the NESTA page: “The Startup Factories“.  [Direct link to their PDF paper.]  I spoke to Kirsten a couple of times prior to and during their research, and they developed a real sense of the opportunities and challenges of startup accelerators.

While I didn’t have time to make NESETA’s half-day conference on seed accelerators last week, a friend of mine (Mark Littlewood of the BLN) did and wrote about it here: “Do we need startup factories?“.  The key element can be found at the bottom of his post, where Mark echo’s something I’ve been saying since my very first paper.  Only the best, top-tier seed accelerators will truly be of value to entrepreneurs. And the followers, the “me-too” seed accelerators that are starting to pop up everywhere, will be of little to negative value.  While in the long run it will be easy to tell between the two, in the short term I am afraid that startup founders may get fleeced.  Startup accelerators need to clearly understand their unique advantages that can allow them to recruit some of the best startups away from the Y Combinators and TechStars of the world.  If they can’t offer that level of value, it might not be worth it for them to exist.

The NESTA report is quite well written and clear.  Some of the data is a little dodgy; in particular I’m not a fan of the Tech cocktail rankings at all, since they have yet to mention what data they’re using to create the rankings.  (I personally believe that it overly weights the accelerators that more freely share data.)  But overall, it’s a great resource.

If you do have comments, please share them with the writers.  The discussion paper is currently in draft form, but they hope to finalize it soon.