The collision of fashion and tech has spawned a cottage industry of those looking to shepherd the would-be disruptors into the ways of the industry.
Fashion incubators and accelerators like Pratt’s Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator, the New York Fashion Tech Lab and the CFDA Fashion Incubator have sprung up, designed to help budding industry talent get off the ground. The idea: new designers and young fashion-tech startups enter these programs to get access to resources and to find a sense of support through a likeminded community. In exchange, the teams running the incubators and accelerators get access to the industry’s upcoming technology and talent, helping them build relationships with investors and retailers.
While each incubator and accelerator offers its own benefits to participating startups and designer — a partnership with a major retailer, a grant, a workspace — they’re not all created equal, and some don’t always have the young companies’ best interests at heart. For entrepreneurs with an idea and a dream, choosing the right incubator or accelerator is an important decision — and not an easy one.
In this edition of Confessions, in which we exchange anonymity for honesty, one fashion startup founder who’s been through seven different incubators and accelerators shares what the experience is really like for newly launched companies.
Which model provides a more beneficial experience?
The accelerator model is intense. Either you bring your business to a whole new place, or you fail, and very quickly realize the faults of your business. In an incubator, you can make your own timeline. There are good and bad sides of both. The incubator is less taxing, but the downfall is that you have to create your own milestones and goals and be more proactive, so a lot rides on the personality of the team to get something out of it. The accelerator makes you accountable and forces you into a tight timeline, which can be good for testing new things, but puts a lot of stress on the team and its founders.
Can you talk more about the stress of the accelerators?
Accelerators will have mandatory meetings, hours and KPIs that the company has to outline with advisors and investors, and it usually ends in a Demo Day for a new product at the end, which is a lot to prepare for. It’s not realistic for all companies in the timeframe of the accelerator. Some businesses can’t accelerate as quickly as they’re pushed to. It can be frustrating.
If you don’t hit certain milestones, you can’t continue. In one accelerator, they gave us a grant — but only half of it was given at the beginning. We had to hit big milestones halfway through to receive the rest of the grant. I really didn’t like that model, because with what they outlined for our goals, we were pushed to be very aggressive. It was a very stressful time for us. We were in jeopardy of not getting the rest of the grant, which, as a startup, we needed 100 percent. That wasn’t a positive experience.
You’ve had experience in both fashion-specific and general incubators and accelerators. Did you see a difference?
The retail and fashion world is so unlike every other industry out there. It’s very traditional, and it’s all about who you know and how to get people to trust you. The traditional incubator doesn’t have that clout in the fashion industry. We started in tech incubators, but moved to fashion incubators for the connections. Otherwise, we would still be trying to get established, and even still, it’s been a very long process.
Fashion incubators and accelerators often promise to help match startups to established retailers. Do they deliver?
It’s important to understand the terms of the business relationship and the motivating factors behind each party. Some incubators cater to certain retailers and brands, so those retailers are paying them. You have to understand where the incentives lie, and that sometimes it’s about what works best for the incubator, not you. It’s about educating yourself — who is benefiting here and what are the goals?
When a retailer is paying to participate in an incubator and have access to the companies first, there’s an underlying reason to force deals to happen quicker, which can actually be detrimental to your company. In the beginning, we were naive, and thought everything was in our best interest. But now we ask ourselves in the beginning: why are we here and what do we want to get out of this? You want to make sure you’re actually going to bring value to whomever you’re partnering with.
What solutions are retailers looking for in fashion tech?
Most of them don’t even know what they’re setting out to get. Fashion tech is the Wild West. I’ve met with brands who don’t even do e-commerce, which is shocking. It’s 2016. Many are working off of Excel spreadsheets. There hasn’t been a ton of technology implemented. There’s so much that can be done to make more efficient supply chains, or to rethink the business model entirely. Nothing has changed in 100 years — it really hasn’t. The business model hasn’t changed at all, and that’s what’s needed.