After years of working with every kind of startup program — read: incubators, accelerators, tech clusters, public tech transfer, universities, entrepreneurs’ networks, corporate platforms, and various EU initiatives — I keep asking myself: are we still learning anything new about startups?

For early stage startups, there are basically only three things to remember:

  1. If you’re a one-man startup, you will fail;
  2. Spend time working on tech and products instead of seeing where the market has a problem, and you fail;
  3. Don’t start working in English, and you will never scale (that one might be blunt and would deserve a full article, but yeah, essentially, this is what is going to happen).

After that, tons of tools, books, and theories are tedious wishful thinking and elaborate reformulation of the « don’t be stupid » principle.

For startups that are 18-24 months old, the three next things to remember are:

  1. If you haven’t sold a thing or started a (paying) proof of concept with someone, you will fail;
  2. If you haven’t organized a small team with some sort of insiders board, you will fail;
  3. If your burn rate doesn’t make sense with the kind of market you’re aiming for, you will fail (usually because the burn rate is actually too low).

All this might seem a negative take on startups. Believe me; it’s not. It’s just that no one knows what will make you a success; we just know what will obviously kill you in the short term.

The nature of the game for startup programs

That’s it. A startup is, by nature, a risky business that defines itself by going where normal companies wouldn’t go, that is always underfunded actually to achieve its goals, and that has to move faster than what common sense would dictate.

Is there anything else? Have design thinking, lean startup, open innovation, or any other trend actually given us a single extra shred of insight on top of that? Then you might ask if the answer is no, why all startup programs don’t just focus on these three key things at every step? Why do so many programs act as if they could reinvent the wheel?

Well, first, let’s be clear: many of these programs do just focus on what matters and don’t overextend in stupid trends. I have names and am very thankful to work with quite a few of them in Europe…

But not all startup programs are about making startups a success.

A fair majority of these programs focus first on maintaining themselves in a crowded marketplace of competing innovation programs. With so much EU public money flooding for startups, everyone wanted a piece of the cake these last few years. We probably ended up with more programs than solid startups to incubate or accelerate throughout Europe.

So eventually, how do you sustain your program when there are not enough startups for everyone? You often try to pimp up your program with fancy methodologies, pieces of training, experts, jam sessions, network events, and other waste of practical time. You bring bling to a trade that relies on a few practicalities. Human nature, right?

But this is where we have been for a few years.

Do startups need bling?

If there is nothing really new to learn about startup venturing, there is a fair incentive for the networks to play a game where they still pretend to invent fancy new tools and theories.

As I said, I’m a regular contributor/expert/trainer for many startup programs. So I’m very keen not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. If you’re a startup selecting solid programs should be very straightforward. I would recommend looking out for five positive indicators:

  • The program works on fundamental tools, which essentially consist of pushing you in your market as fast as possible with a good mix of mentors and insiders to support you.

The program is at least three years old and has a good track record (the older, the better).

The program is not embedded in a huge shiny new building where it will have to spend its time filling offices and open spaces with people not actually working for them.

The program has European connections in different regions, and is not only working in a twenty kilometers radius.

The program is solid enough to attract both public and private investors (not just local business angels, which can be OK but far from enough).

In the end, what makes startups difficult is that they respond to very basic rules. Not much edge can be gained from having some magical process. This is all about a few key nudges, hard work, and stressful dedication.

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