Learnings from the other side of an accelerator program
In the Spring of 2018, I was approached about collaborating on a new project being presented by New York City’s Department of Small Business Services and the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.
The project came about from the City looking to further their support to creative businesses. Media & Entertainment in New York contributes an estimated $9.1 billion to the city’s local economy and employs over 385,000 jobs.
Following a collaborative research process with business owners and industry experts in the media & entertainment community across New York City, the project proposed by the City was to design an accelerator program for a cohort of media & entertainment companies working across live events, marketing & advertising, and media tech.
Stepping into my first meeting with the team working on the program’s pilot edition, I learned it was to be titled the Accelerator for Media Pros – AMP NYC.
It’s June 2019, and our second cohort have just finished their 10 week journeys in the program, culminating in a 2-part graduation day at the Made in NY Media Center: pitch presentations to their peers, mentors, and the program team, followed by a demo night showcase to industry, partners, alumni, friends, and family.
It was a wonderful end to what’s been a challenging, exciting and emotional journey for many of our group: new products have launched, pivots been taken, missteps made, courses corrected, partnerships put together, and firm friendships forged.
This program isn’t like a regular course though; sure, we spend time exploring Blue Ocean Strategies and Competitive Positioning frameworks, but AMP NYC has been designed to serve the cohort as leaders and humans as well as entrepreneurs. The journey of running a business can be emotional, and we recognise and embrace that. You may not step all the way out of your comfort zone, but you’ll definitely stretch it.
During the past 12 months as the curriculum and facilitation lead for AMP NYC I’ve spent time with 40 company founders from across the spectrum of New York’s media & entertainment landscape. Over the 2 cohorts so far I’ve designed and facilitated over 50 hours of in-class curriculum, run 25 office hours sessions, reviewed over 100 assignments, recorded a bunch of video and podcast walk-throughs, fed back on 60+ pitch decks, created more than 700 slides of content, and drunk more than a few cups of coffee.
Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned.
Frame the commitment
As well as the obvious time and attention commitment for classes, mentor sessions and other touch points, a program like this requires participants to be open, active, driven, reflective, and vulnerable. This doesn’t always come easy. Framing the commitment in advance (ideally during the first round of an application process) helps participants start to get a sense of what they will need to invest in terms of time, but also in energy and emotion.
Build connection early
For cohort 2, we added an additional Meet and Greet event before the kick off day. By keeping this light and fun with just a few quick round-robin sessions, the group got to spend time getting to know us and each other without feeling the pressure of having to absorb too much information or ‘perform’. At first glance an event like this may feel superfluous, but even a brief in-person interaction in the right environment can create surprisingly strong and rapid bonds.
Once the participants had been selected, we set them quite a lot of pre-work. For busy founders without much context of what they’re getting into this can feel like a bit of a drag at first, but the pre-work is there to frame what’s ahead and regular refer back to later down the line. It also hugely helps us as a program team when it comes to tailoring and personalising content, and building a better understanding of the individuals who will be joining us.
Pre-work ranges from exercises on industry trends to searching questions on participants’ self-assessment of their businesses strengths and weaknesses, as well as sharing their observations on their personal reactive behaviours and triggers when things aren’t going so well.
I invested significant time into reviewing each participants’ responses, and despite the limitations from what was in essence just text on a spreadsheet, I gained a much better understanding of the commonalities and also the differences across the participants about to join us for the next 10 weeks.
Day 1 of this program touches on a number of topics relating to the sector, small businesses, and participants’ own companies, but the more important overarching goal is simply to allow humans to show up. Sometimes the humans in question are customers and clients, but more often it’s us humans in the room together.
For some people, the first event was more than enough to get them feeling connected and engaged. For others, it takes a while longer.
There are a number of powerful exercises we run on day 1 which encourage vulnerability, connection and more than a few ‘aha’ moments. These set the tone for how all of us show up during the rest of the program. But more important than content and exercises is environment.
Design the environment
Environment is everything.
The way we welcome people, the room we’re in, the seating plan, the temperature (we even ask about preferences here in the pre-work) – all this relates to the environment we create.
The environment is important for so many reasons – whether it’s to support those with particular needs (visual or hearing impairments for example), to ensure the right mix of personalities and learning styles in a smaller group, or simply to be able to make everyone feel seen, heard, comfortable, and involved.
There are a hundred ways of designing an environment and this of course changes depending on the particular factors at hand, but some of my basic preferences for in-person environments include:
- Set a room in small clusters rather than a U or circle
- Avoid theatre seating except when in a pitch/presentation setting
- Encourage participants to switch seats at least once during a full day session
- Don’t run any session longer than 90 minutes without a coffee / bathroom break
No longer than 30 minutes without either a hands-on exercise or (small) group discussion
- Encourage diversity in small groups; whether age, gender, company type, experience level, etc.
- Have snacks on hand at all times (or ask participants to bring their own)
Get present – have a chat
Showing up to a full day classroom thing when you’re busy and may have had a rough commute isn’t always hugely appealing.
A simple exercise to get people on the same page was simply to ask them to chat in pairs for 5 minutes about whatever was on their mind.
As Seth Godin says, he uses his blog partly just to get rid of ideas. Having a chat can be a great way of getting rid of whatever’s flying around our brains, and bringing us back to where we are.
Use silence… wisely
It’s weird how phobic most of us are to silence. It’s actually a pretty good negotiating tactic – if you stay silent the other person will probably just start talking eventually.
In our sessions, silence could often feel uncomfortable, but used well it could be very effective.
One silent exercise is reflection. We’d do short reflection sessions at the start and end of each class, usually through journaling. The silence can feel a bit weird at first, but it often enables good stuff to come out. This doesn’t work for everyone, so I don’t encourage long reflection – 3 minutes is usually enough.
The uncomfortable nature of silence can be agitating for people, so where there are other periods of silence (for example, providing end of session feedback) where it’s not explicit that silence is the point, I’ll play music. Pro Tip: Pick your music carefully; I once blasted some hi-NRG disco stuff and it definitely didn’t fit the environment for that day. It got a few awkward laughs at least.
Embrace the unexpected space
A big takeaway from the program has been where the unexpected can suddenly surface. Finishing up a short bit of lecture content on networks, someone brought up the challenge of network building for introverts. What followed was a 20 minute discussion across the cohort on best practices, where introverts can succeed, and whether there really is such a thing as introverts anyway.
My learning design had not accounted for this to happen – perhaps I could have predicted some discourse around the broader topic, but not on this particular piece of content, and not to this depth. It warranted discussion though, especially as we heard from some of the quieter members of the group.
These unexpected moments are important, and a good reminder to a designer and facilitator as to the value in allowing space. Sometimes we’d rather know in advance where they show up, but the value of the conversation nearly always outweighs our need to make a few small trims and edits elsewhere.
This program involves deep-dive class sessions every 2-3 weeks, so keeping the ‘glue’ in place is important, especially with a cohort of busy business owners.
Having something every week as a strongly encouraged connection point is a great way to bring people together, share ideas and learnings, and to monitor progress.
There are many ways you can implement this; we found networking breakfasts and office hours to be very effective (although doing 10 office hours sessions back to back was a lot!).
The key is ensuring there are multiple touchpoints – they can be online, offline, or both. There needs to be an open flow of information and connectivity so everyone is in the loop and seen and heard, but so much than any party feels overwhelmed. Again, this all comes back to designing an experience and an environment.
The environment is everything.
There’s so much more I could cover here, but in the interests of keeping this post under 2000 words (my current self-imposed post limit), we’ll pause here for now.
I’ll be back shortly with a follow up with more learnings from accelerator program design. To get notified when that goes live, click here.
For more on program design and facilitation:
And a few words I shared at the start of the (opens in a new tab)”>final presentation session >
Finally, applications are now open for the next cohort of AMP NYC: if you or someone you know is working on an emerging media & entertainment company in New York we’d love to hear from you.