Is joining an accelerator right for you?

I often get asked if joining an incubator or accelerator is worth it. My answer is, it depends. Frustrating, I know.

Jennifer Barney, Principal

February 15, 2023

3 Min Read
Jennifer Barney, principal, 3rd and Broadway

Many brands worry about giving up equity and spilling their secrets in an incubator or accelerator. Or they worry they won’t learn anything and it’ll be a waste of time. Having mentored two accelerators with SKU, and having had one of the brands in my advisory go through Mondelez’s CoLab in 2022, I can tell you those concerns are unfounded.

A primer on incubators and accelerators

You’ve probably heard of the Chobani incubator and Mondelez’s SnackFutures CoLab accelerator. But there are many others. Not sure what’s out there? You can access a list of incubators and accelerators for CPG/ Food & Beverage from Startup CPG’s community here. You can also find those that are local to your area by searching: “food incubators and accelerators + your city.”

The standard definition of an accelerator is a program that “accelerates” the growth of a business, while incubators “incubate” ideas and help you build a business model for your company.

Incubators typically require on-site participation but not all accelerators do. Some will take you at pre-revenue while others require a minimum sales threshold. Most provide a grant reward for joining, but only some ask for an equity (single digit) stake in your company. The commitment is anywhere from 6-12 weeks and the reward for participating is access to a vast network of experts, real services (like design, insights, data), exposure to investors, and potentially at the end, investor commitment.

Those are the basics. But here is what you really need to know.

You get what you put into it. I know I sound like your high school coach but it’s true. The quality of the mentors in these programs is high—for example, in my cohorts I was joined by big name CMOs, VPs, head retail buyers and owners of branding agencies, food science companies, VC investors and CFOs, to name a few. All of us are involved to serve the brands, but we won’t spoon feed you. You have to show up, put in the time and be prepared. If you aren’t all in, your mentors won’t be either and it will indeed be a waste of time.

No one cares about your innovation. What I mean is, no one is interested in stealing your secrets. The motivation for the VC arms and executives in big CPG to help you is to have the option to invest and later potentially acquire your brand—not to take your idea. If Big Food has learned anything in this past decade, it’s that they aren’t good at running startups, so they don’t want to.

Giving up equity. Not all programs require you to issue stock in exchange for participation, but some do. It all depends on their business model. But this is not some scheme to take advantage of you. In my opinion, having skin in the game levels up both parties' commitment to success, not only during the program but beyond. I have personally maintained an advisory relationship with the brands in my cohort and they know they can count on me in their times of need.

Lastly, I would be remiss to not mention the peer community in these programs. The relationships you build with other brands can be invaluable. You can really learn a lot from others going through the same things you are.

Incubator and accelerator programs are great for startups who are able to put in the time and willing to be open about their businesses. If you already have a community of mentors, peers and experts helping you get to the next level, these programs might not be for you. If not, they are a fabulous way to develop those networks.

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About the Author(s)

Jennifer Barney

Principal, 3rd and Broadway

Jennifer Barney is a CPG industry expert with deep startup roots from founding and building her own almond butter brand, Barney Butter. Jennifer melds classical brand marketing training with practical tools for startups so that small brands can get off the ground and be investor-ready.

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