- Accelerating into Control
Researchers have generally found that entrepreneurs are more optimistic and more confident than non-entrepreneurs.1 While it may help entrepreneurs persevere in the face of potential business failure,2 we cannot mistake their confidence for always knowing what to do with their business idea. Entrepreneurs in fact seek out mentors and other useful connections to help them succeed throughout the growth of their businesses, particularly at the start. Many entrepreneurs seek advice informally and in a piecemeal manner, but some seek more formal assistance through structured or semi-structured entrepreneurship programs. Indeed, we currently are witnessing the rise of the “support ecosystem,” which offers a plethora of entrepreneurship education and training programs. These programs vary in their design and operation; some, for example, are run by universities and colleges, some are offered by nonprofits or the government, and others are offered by for-profit entities. They might operate just a weekend in length, or last several months or years. The scope of a program’s intervention and how closely it works with each entrepreneur or startup varies widely.3 With this increase in the number and scope of program offerings, we wonder if adoption is outpacing evidence of their effectiveness. In this article, we examine various types of programs, with a primary focus on the accelerator, provide some context for current research and research concepts in this area, and discuss some implications of collecting data for program operators and policymakers.
We begin by defining the accelerator:
Accelerators are organizations that provide cohorts of selected nascent ventures seed-investment, usually in exchange for equity, and limited-duration educational programming, including extensive mentorship and structured educational components. These programs typically culminate in “demo days” where the ventures make pitches to an audience of qualified investors.4
For the purpose of this article, we distinguish between accelerators and incubators. While some use the two terms interchangeably, we see them as distinct categories. Incubators lack a mentoring component and have been around for much longer than accelerators.5
Like other education and training programs, accelerators are also on the rise.6 We argue that research is lacking in entrepreneurship education generally, and specifically on accelerators, which means from a research perspective we cannot say many definitive things about this type of program. We don’t have concrete evidence of their value. This does not mean we seek to deride accelerators or other [End Page 139] entrepreneurship programs as “bad,” or conversely, promote them as “good.” It means at present we are at best ambiguous about the overall effects accelerators have on entrepreneurs. To help entrepreneurs, program operators, and funders of programs, we therefore call for studies that examine what accelerators do well and what they don’t do well.
Finally, we review the concepts of treatment and control groups and randomization. One of our primary arguments is that control and treatment groups are necessary to explain the counterfactual—that is, what would have happened to an entrepreneur/startup if it had not participated in a program—and that they are overlooked by both researchers and practitioners. With any given entrepreneurship education program, there are individuals who receive the treatment of the program, and there are individuals who do not receive it. Following these two groups enable researchers to compare results and establish a counterfactual outcome.
How the control and treatment groups are constructed determines the strength of any findings. Consider the people an entrepreneurship program attracts. The decision to enter a program not only identifies someone as an entrepreneur, but as an entrepreneur who seeks formal assistance through a program, which is a distinct subset of entrepreneurs. This choice of actively seeking assistance could be associated with a number of factors. For example, we might imagine that someone who feels they could benefit from structured assistance in the startup process has greater potential than someone who lacks such foresight and planning skills. Conversely, the entrepreneur who needs structured assistance could have less potential than someone who perseveres without it. Therefore, this treatment group cannot be compared to just any individual or group of entrepreneurs, as the control group must have characteristics that are highly similar to the...