BY TOBIAS STONE
After running a healthcare accelerator in Berlin, I wanted to understand why accelerators do what they do, so I made it the topic of my PhD, which I finished last year. Here are a few of the things I learned from studying the unique social network dynamics of startup accelerators.
The first thing I looked at is why mentors mentor. If you think about it, it’s quite weird that they offer time, knowledge and networks for free. I found that accelerators are very rich in social capital and, in particular, offer early access to new information that other people do not have (i.e. the startups). They also offer network ties – new people. Finally, accelerators are central to their ecosystems, so being associated with them is good for people’s reputations. This translated into saying that mentors mentor for early access to non-redundant information, tie formation, and social validation, to use the sociological terms.
This showed clearly why, when designing a mentoring programme, it is important to remember that the mentors need to get access to useful information – mainly meeting startups earlier than other people; that they need to have an opportunity to network with the other mentors and investors, not just the startups, so they gain network ties; and that they are profiled on the accelerator website, and at events, so they gain social validation. Not doing all of these mean the mentors will not be gaining the social payment they expect, consciously or just instinctively, and will probably lose interest in the programme.
I also found that because accelerators, and accelerator founders, tend to be well networked in their ecosystems, they have a lot of social capital. This particularly means they are both useful to other people, and in a strong position to spread reputational damage if people act badly towards them. Startups, by contrast, often have very little social capital. If they are young, or not from within that ecosystem, they may not know enough people to be able to threaten reputational risk to people who harm them, and do not have enough peripheral social value to be able to reward people for helping them.
The sociological approach showed that accelerators actually play an important role in protecting startups.
We know they support them, but this shows that accelerators deploy their social capital on the startups in their programme both to persuade mentors to help them, and to put ‘bad actors’ off causing them any harm. While you may be able to get away with screwing a startup, you face a far higher cost if you fall out with an accelerator, with all of its mentors, investors and corporate partners.
It was interesting to use the language of sociology and, in particular, social network theory, to describe accelerators. It gave a far clearer understanding of the things we do instinctively, and produced clear guidance on how accelerators and corporate innovation programmes can be designed to achieve more, and to work better.
Dr Tobias Stone is a startup founder and investor, and CEO of Newsquare, an innovation consultancy. You can read more on the findings from his research at www.medium.com/@newsquare