Does the Rise of the Accelerator Spell the End for Old-School Tech Startups?

By David Knight |

It was like something out of Inception; going down a further level. A demo day of demo days. Eight accelerators from across Europe taking their turn to pitch, alongside three of their member startups. It was already a theme in 2013, but will 2014 be the year of the accelerator? More to the point, is that a good thing?

The boom in such startup programs prompted the hy! Berlin team to make accelerators the theme of their fourth event last weekend. And for a day dedicated to diving in at the deep end to contemplate one of the biggest current driving forces behind the European tech scene, the Stattbad Wedding – a dilapidated but much-loved former swimming pool now more associated with the excesses of Berlin’s nightlife – was the perfect venue.

I’ll be honest, I wrote that intro on Saturday. The rest of this piece has been brewing in my brain since then, and in that time, I keep seeing evidence of the looming presence of accelerators everywhere I look. An invitation to another demo day, this time from Immobilienscout24’s YouIsNow; the first investment in a Berlin Microsoft Accelerator startup; even the EU is getting in on the act, with European Commissioner Neelie Kroes in Davos to announce the Startup Europe Partnership, an “accelerator” and think tank.

The eight hand-picked accelerators at hy! duly took their turns on stage to talk about what they do, what they look for, and why you should pick them, backed up by pitches from participating startups current and past. Some I knew, some I didn’t. But all were indicative of the way the wind is blowing.

And yet I just can’t decide whether that is a good thing or not.

In the past, I’ve voiced my concern that increased competition amongst accelerators would lead to a decrease in the overall quality of participating startups. Greater minds than mine have disagreed with that, not least Robin Wauters, co-founder of and formerly of TechCrunch and TNW. When I put the point to him – via the brilliant Catchbox – during the Q&A following his talk at hy!, he argued quite reasonably that every startup, every entrepreneurial idea, deserves a chance.

But isn’t the whole point behind being an entrepreneur that your idea, your drive, your work needs to stand for itself? To quite unnecessarily draw out the swimming pool puns, should it not be left to sink or swim?

Of course, the first time a startup whose founders swear blind would never have had a chance without the help of an accelerator goes on to do great things, that argument will become fairly moot. But perhaps the inevitable amalgamation – perhaps that’s too strong a word; closer ties, say – between startups and corporates is changing the way we entrepreneurize. I’m not disparaging the current trend towards partnerships between businesses of different sizes; far from it, it’s clearly the way forward for an ever-more global economy and, dare I say it, society.

But it could mean the end of the ‘traditional’ tech startup, as bizarre a notion as that is. Why would anyone struggle for years, working and sleeping in a crappy little apartment elbow to elbow with their co-founders, maybe forced to live off a partner’s wage, with the vague promise of being the next Facebook, Apple, Skype, even the next SoundCloud, when they can prove or disprove their ideas from the comfort and stimulation of an accelerator office with nothing really to lose?

That in itself is not a bad thing, of course. The steps forward we take will be quicker and surer. And there will always be the odd exception, especially perhaps from outside the ‘comfort zone’ – Africa, say, or South America; places where the entrepreneurs of tomorrow will still face real hardships.

But perhaps something will be lost. Perhaps, in 20 years time, we will look back with incredulity on how much nonsense people were willing to put up with in the name of their startup.

It’s a bit like the old football bores who tell anyone who will listen that Best, Beckenbauer and Moore were “better than all that modern rubbish.” True to a point – but if they laid down the groundwork for Messi, Ronaldo and Özil, I guess I can live with that.