In most aspects of life, the gulf between expectation and reality is larger than expected, but that’s where growth comes from.

This principle also applies to startup accelerators, where founders fortunate enough to gain admission can access networks that provide mentorship, emotional support, and eventually, funding.

Tristan Pollock, a 500 Startups Venture Partner and Entrepreneur-in-Residence, is part of a team at 500 that reviews thousands of applications for each 12-week batch, which usually only admits 40 or 50 companies.

Today, we’ll reveal the most common myths founders have when they join an accelerator, and how Tristan’s own expectations evolved after joining 500.

EIR + Venture Partner Tristan Pollock

EIR + Venture Partner Tristan Pollock

What are some of the top misconceptions founders have before joining an accelerator?

A large part of it is setting expectations at the beginning. Sometimes, the people that do the best coming into the accelerator are the ones who realize that most things in life are what you make of them.

They come in and say, ‘I want to talk to this person about this specifically,’ they ask the best questions, they put the time in where it’s needed, but they don’t go to every single thing if it’s not helpful. They have good EQ, overall.

The people that struggle think we’re going to work for them, like 500’s going to be like adding more employees to the team. It’s not the case. Most founders coming into the batch are really bad at standing up and presenting. If you could see the quality of the pitches at the beginning versus what people look like at the end, it’s like night and day.

The smartest founders are interested in the more actionable things that will help their business grow.

Do people think they pitch well?

I think people come in probably with a higher level of confidence than they should.

Many of them confirm the idea that Americans are way overconfident. You’ve seen those studies about how Americans think they’re good at math, but they’re way worse than they think they are? Like that.

Maybe they just haven’t been challenged in a public speaking setting. It’s one thing to be good in your head, but to convince other people who work in startups or investors is different.

Even people who have good experience in the past — bought a company, or sold one — might not have been challenged to be a better public speaker. Some people come in who are horrible, some are OK. Getting that confidence and boiling the pitch down to a short, simple message? That can be the difference between getting funding and not getting funding.

How much does prior experience help a founder who joins an accelerator?

Generally, people coming in with past experience have something specific that they’re looking for, like all the newest growth marketing avenues they could be using, or they want to access the 500 network because they’re not from Silicon Valley, so they’re gong to meet as many people as they can here, and take advance of the founders’ network.

People come in thinking different things about what they’re going to get out of it, usually it’s not the money, though.

 

It’s not about the money? It IS an investment vehicle.

The smartest founders are interested in the more actionable things that will help their business grow. You can throw money on a failing company, but once they come in in and take advantage of our growth expertise, the network or the founders around them, then they can get a lot more out of it.

Which of your expectations were the first to fall after you joined 500?

[laughs] That’s a good question. For me, having raised money from 500, I didn’t go through the accelerator, so it’s like a night-and-day comparison since founders are taking a small $50 to 100K check. 500 did Storefront‘s seed and series A, so I was kind of clumped in with a ton of other companies, but 500’s accelerator has a real community.

I went through AngelPad, and some of the things from that experience definitely helped, like the mentorship and the network. My biggest misconception was looking at 500 as ‘spray and pray,’ where they’re just going to do a s–t ton of companies.

People come in thinking different things about what they’re going to get out of it, usually it’s not the money, though.

Did other perceptions shift after becoming an EIR and venture partner?

When I came in, I saw that the community was so strong, along the people on the team. The culture in the office that our founders selected, making sure that people are respectful and very conscious of each other and taking care of each other?

I don’t know, there’s just something special about the culture that I never really saw from the outside.

Working in a startup can be isolating. Do founders get culture shock when they’re dropped into an immersive social environment like 500?

Most are eager and enjoy it, but for some, maybe if you’re on the technical side of the company, it can be very difficult to get work done. I know I need to focus and it can be hard to get work done in the office.

But, that’s also one of the big benefits; there’s serendipity when you can introduce a founder to someone who’s dropped in, and a lot of good things cam come of that. But yes, it can be distracting a lot of the time. You spend a lot of time with founders in each batch, and they spend a lot of time together. During a Demo Day, I saw how tight those relationships can grow, which was unexpected.

They’re not only building a network that they’ll bond with and go to with questions or hard times, but also people they can have that beer when they really need it, as well as 500 staff people who really take care of you and make sure you have an outlet. I’ve had meetings with people where they cried, or we’ll go for a run or go get beers. There’s that hard side of startups that 500 really acknowledges, so you can come to us not just for the business side, but for everything. We’re a very loving family.

Are there cases where a founder you voted against accepting into the accelerator defied expectations?

Oh, for sure. [laughs] And it’s happened the other way around, too. The accelerator is a place where you get to see real progress, so it’s really incredible to see where things go. Sometimes, you have that ‘I told you so’ moment, and sometimes, you’re thinking, ‘this is a great founder to have around, but the business is going to have a hard time succeeding.’

The best companies sometimes come out of polarization in the selection process. When one person says, ‘I hate this company,’ and another person says they love it, that creates great debates, because it causes people to have such strong opinions.

Related:

>> APPLICATIONS TO BATCH 20 ARE OPEN NOW <<