When should I apply to an accelerator?

By Kelli Raker, Managing Director, Duke Law Tech Lab

All year round, we talk to entrepreneurs with legal tech solutions about what they’re working on and whether the Duke Law Tech Lab might be the right fit for them. The choice to join an accelerator program is not one that any legal tech company should take lightly.

Of course, our conversation covers many factors. Some founders are just starting out with their idea, others have been working on their startup as a side job for a long time, and still others are full-time.

Apply to an accelerator in handwriting

Several factors make the Duke Law Tech Lab different from other accelerators. We focus on early-stage companies with a mission to increase access to legal services. As companies in our cohort pilot their beta products with early users, we leverage our networks to provide unique content and help founders connect with industry leaders and organizations. We don’t take equity, and our program has been remote since 2016 in order to be accessible nationally.

Elizabeth McMillan, co-founder of SmartLien (2018 Duke Law Tech Lab Audience Favorite & Second Prize Winner) shares about what they got out of the accelerator:

Finding an accelerator that best fits your needs can be daunting, which is why we created a list of accelerators and incubators focused on legal tech on our open access resources for legal tech startups. Every accelerator is different, and it takes precious time even to apply. (This is why we try to make the application for our light-touch program easy — read more here).

When is the right time to apply?

Sonja Ebron, CEO of Courtroom5 — 2019 Duke Law Tech Lab Grand Prize winner — shared with us her wisdom:

Participation in an incubator is a signal to potential partners and investors that the startup has already been vetted by a reputable source, like the Duke Law Tech Lab, or LexisNexis Legal Tech Accelerator, or NC IDEA. There may also be funding — or funding opportunities — associated with the program.

But any founder whose company is eligible to join an accelerator knows that time is their most valuable resource. Incubators and accelerators require a significant time commitment — time that should be spent building the business. If a founder can’t use the program to build her business during the time she’s involved, it’s not the right fit.

My advice is to use the application process to discover how you’ll leapfrog to the next level in your business by the time the program concludes.

Pictured left to right: Jeff Pfeifer of LexisNexis, Debra Sloan of Courtroom5, Sonja Ebron of Courtroom5, Ken Heaps of Latham & Watkins, & Callie Schnog of Travelers at 2019 Duke Law Tech Lab Demo Day.

Let’s get into the weeds a little bit more about what we’ve observed.

Start with assessing where you are as a company and what you need.

What resources do you need most right now and over the next six months?

What are the one or two highest priority areas of your company that you need to accelerate or develop in order to get to the next level?

Then, consider applying to an accelerator program when…

You’ve hit a plateau and have unanswered questions about why you’re not gaining the traction you think is true of the market.

This requires self-awareness and willingness to receive feedback, both from experts and other founders.

Your company is in the appropriate stage for the accelerator/incubator.

Different programs may also be a better or worse match for you depending on the potential outcomes stated by the accelerator, how much risk and investment you are interested in taking, and your future desired exit.

You need a boost in connections, resources, and/or publicity that that accelerator can provide.

Talk with past founders from the program who can speak to the impact of the program — and build your network as well.

Being able to connect with other founders during the program can be helpful given that the founder’s journey can be very lonely. However, remember that your experience will be specific to you and your company compared to your peers.

Building relationships within an accelerator’s cohort is valuable but does take time! If you are open minded, you’ll be able to learn from them, learn more about the market, and see how their success impacts the market/regulations/etc.

Conduct a brief search of the accelerator on social media and in the news.

You’re willing to give the time required.

Time is a precious commodity for a startup, as Sonja mentions. Do you know how much time you’ll need to give? Are the expectations clear?

You’re willing to give the equity required.

Some programs don’t require equity (like the Duke Law Tech Lab and the LexisNexis Accelerator) while others do.

Consider what type of risk you can tolerate as well as what type(s) of exit you are considering before giving equity.

More words of wisdom

Jeff Pfeifer, Chief Product Officer, North America at LexisNexis and advisor to the Duke Law Tech Lab, suggested that companies think hard about selecting the right accelerator program.

Participating in an accelerator program is a big commitment of time for a company at any stage of development. Accelerators, like products, usually have a ‘value proposition.’ Some help early stage companies while others help companies refine their commercial offering.

Fortunately, the legal community has seen an expansion in programs uniquely tailored to legal tech in recent years. There is no better time for legal tech start-ups to find the experience that is best served as a catalyst to growth.

LexisNexis is proud to work directly with Duke Law Tech Lab on this program and to also sponsor an accelerator that is targeted at later stage start-ups. An interview with any accelerator is a good opportunity for a start-up to think about where it needs guidance and whether the accelerator is aligned with those areas of interest.

If you’ve thought through the above five considerations and decided that you’ve found the right accelerator for right now, your next question may be:

Where should I participate?

Many programs are becoming remote, at least for 2020 or 2021, while we all navigate COVID-19 and its impact in our communities, so the question of “where” may not be as complex as it was even a few months ago.

For many, the question of where is often driven by financial considerations. Founders might wish to consider the costs and risks of relocating to a geographic area in order to participate, and the opportunity costs of leaving their home network.

The question of where is also driven by non-financial considerations. Founders might wish to consider the impact to their family if a program requires relocation, or the potential disruption to their work flow by temporarily operating from a new location. It may also help to be nearer to your users, for example.

For others, such as the A2J-driven start-ups that might apply to the Duke Law Tech Lab, investment considerations might not be primary. Companies operating in the social impact or social entrepreneurship world might be operating as nonprofits and unable to receive such investments, or might find it more important to remain close to the populations they serve.

The best program for you might be local to your community even if it is not legal-tech specific, or it might be a larger national program with different resources. Consider asking for recommendations for programs from your personal network, including mentors or advisors. Entrepreneurship-focused organizations in your geographic location or industry may have announcements in a weekly newsletter, for example, about accelerator timelines.

If you think the Duke Law Tech Lab might be the right fit for you, we encourage you to apply by our upcoming Monday, June 1st deadline at dukelawtechlab.com/2020.

The Duke Law Tech Lab is a program of the Duke Center on Law & Tech. Follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn for the latest updates about our programs and initiatives.

Accelerating legal tech startups with a mission to increase access to justice

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