Written by Leanne Armstrong, Director of Programs and Client Experience and Tabatha Laverty, Director of Marketing and Communications.
Starting a company is hard. Not a ground-breaking statement, but true none-the-less.
Entrepreneurship is exciting, challenging, and risky. Accelerators and incubators go a long way in helping to increase the odds of long-term success. We see this every day with the founders in our AC:Incubate programming. But traditional incubation programs aren’t suitable for every founder, particularly those who want to move not just fast but at light speed.
We ask our founders regularly, “what do you need to be successful?” Since the pandemic, the most frequent feedback we have received from founders is that they don’t have the time, money, or talent to keep up in today’s competitive startup ecosystem. We know what they need most:
And where they most often fail.
And we work to fill those gaps by providing everything a founder needs to build a business that thrives.
Since 2014, we’ve run the incredibly successful AC JumpStart program. The seed funding program supported over 300 companies and created more than 1,800 jobs. But more than that, the program provided critical funding to these companies to help them get through the high-risk phase between validation and first sales.
But we know that those “light-speed” founders need more.
A new model built based on founder feedback
Following the final cohort of the AC JumpStart program, we set out to design a new program that blended the best of AC JumpStart with additional supports that would improve founders’ odds of success and accelerate their time from start to scale.
We were inspired by founders who succeeded in the program, like Beatriz Zanatelli, Co-founder of Lightouch, and her story of needing to be resourceful in finding talent to help her execute the milestones in the program. On the flip side, there were lessons to be learned from founders whose ventures failed, like Ryan McCartney’s venture LumenEd and his experience being overwhelmed with needing to be a founder, a sales professional, and a marketing expert all at the same time.
We came up with a brand-new model that combines the best of AC JumpStart with the internationally successful venture studio model to bring founders the right supports at the right time.
The new program, dubbed AC:Studio, builds on the successful AC JumpStart model to create a full network of supports that gets to the heart of what startups really need — great IP, access to capital, and the talent to execute quickly.
The program integrates the best of AC Jumpstart with the added benefits of matching founding teams to create ideas and providing mentorship, skills training, and tactical support – all in one structured, proven program.
With funding support from FedDev Ontario, the AC:Studio will work with 100 companies and provide them with up to $100,000 in seed funding grants, up to $30,000 of in-kind professional mentorship and professional services, and up to $60,000 in-kind tactical support services and skills training from industry professionals in marketing, design, research, accounting and more.
Beyond the status quo
Curating and validating great ideas
Finding the right idea, forming the right team, and finding product-market fit quickly is key for “light-speed” founders to be successful. For experienced professionals like Ryan, entrepreneurship was a dream, and finding the right idea and the right founding team was an early hurdle.
“When we started, we didn’t have product-market fit,” he says. “Ultimately, we pulled the plug on the idea because the timing was off, and we couldn’t land on a well-defined problem and solution. We invested a year into that process,” he recalls. “As a former founder, I’m really excited to see that AC:Studio leverages a structured program that forces you to work through all the critical success criteria of building a successful business, like market validation, quickly.”
Through partnerships with academic institutes across Southern Ontario, we will also be providing pathways for serial entrepreneurs and academic researchers to “match. These curated partners will create new, high-octane founding teams with the right mix of skills and experience to help commercialize IP and bring new ideas to market.
Providing funding, and then more funding
One of the biggest pieces of feedback we got from founders in the AC JumpStart program was an ask for assistance with follow-on investments. $30,000 goes quickly. As a team that is dedicated to helping high-potential founders succeed, we often ask ourselves, “how can we keep helping these amazing founders through these high-risk periods in their startup journey.” That’s why the three-phase, follow-on funding model is so exciting and unique. It allows us to identify the best-of-the-best and ramp up funding and supports as they work towards being ready to scale.
“I think that the AC:Studio’s funding model is amazing,” says Beatriz. “As a founder, particularly one who is originally from outside of Canada, one of the biggest challenges we face is funding. The seed funding is exactly what every founder needs, and increasing funding as companies grow and face bigger problems will make a big difference.” She adds, “In addition to being essential in helping us get off the ground, having been through grant funding programs with the AC makes a lot of difference when we look for our next source of funding. Investors look at us with different eyes when they see we have an institution like the AC behind us.”
By the end of the three-year AC:Studio program, we will have given out almost $5M in seed funding grants. By we won't stop there. Alumni from all stages of the program will integrate into our AC:Excel offering to ensure they maintain momentum and scale globally with access to investment from our curated investor network.
The AC is known globally for its mentorship model. We invest in high-impact, one-to-one mentorship in our programs through our growing network of professional mentors. That means founders in the program met one-to-one with experts who are trained to mentor and coach startups through the typical challenges entrepreneurs face. In the program, founders meet with mentors to learn the basics and work side-by-side with the team to create plans specific to their milestones and objectives rather than wasting time on general advice.
“One of the great things about working with the AC was the quality of the mentorship, says Ryan. “As a first-time founder, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. We were able to go to them to ask challenging questions and go the feedback and advice we needed.”
Access to talent to get the job done
This program is a game-changer for solo entrepreneurs or small founding teams who don’t have the funding to bring in world-class talent or the time to quickly deliver on critical components of their businesses themselves. The integration of tactical supports is a huge part of what makes AC:Studio unique.
First, we’re focused on helping founders develop the skills they need to lead their organizations through the early stages. One area where such skills training is necessary is sales. Today, Ryan works with Uvaro, a tech sales upskilling program with global reach and impact. Uvaro, which was co-founded by AC alumni Joseph Fung, is joining the AC:Studio to provide founders with sales training that has been designed specifically for founders.
“I like so many people in tech sales, ended up here by happenstance, says Ryan. “Revenue growth is the most critical success factor in startups, but here is a giant hole in entrepreneurship skills training in sales. I think it is really important that programs like AC:Studio have sales mentorship, but what I’m excited for in this program is the opportunity to integrate training on the ‘doing’ of sales into their businesses from day one,” Ryan reflects. “Through Uvaro’s partnership with AC:Studio we are going to be able to help companies design for selling in their startup development and have a systematic way to teach founders how to go through and sell their product to find early adopters and prove they have a real company.”
Additionally, through partnerships with Conestoga College’s Gig Lab, AC:Studio will provide founders with access to freelancers that can help them develop and market their solutions.
Integrating this support into the program was inspired by founders like Beatriz, who found creative ways to get access to the expertise they needed. “Luckily, we got tactical support from other platforms and programs that connected us to the resources we needed,” Beatriz recalls. “Those resources make a lot of difference and if they would have been available in one place and aligned with a single program, it would have been much easier and saved a lot of time and effort for me as a founder.”
Ready to join AC:Studio?
We’re excited to launch AC:Studio and to welcome our first 100 companies into this innovative and game-changing entrepreneurial program.
Applications for the program are open from June 6, 2022 to July 1, 2022 with 100 companies starting the first phase of the program in September 2022.
Are you ready to go at light speed? Apply now or learn more.