How we designed the Atoms program for pre-seed startups

June 16, 2022

Accel has been investing in entrepreneurs globally for close to two decades now. And one thing we’ve always felt compared to our counterparts in the west is that the journey for most founders trying to get off the ground in India and SEA has been very hard.

We’ve always wanted to change that. This is part of why we exist at all, and a question that we have tried to answer with whatever we have done.

Over the past couple of years, Accel has been focusing deeply on building community-led initiatives for early stage entrepreneurs in the ecosystem. We launched FounderStack and Rebound as part of our Seed To Scale initiative, both of which received an overwhelming response from the ecosystem. FounderStack was a learning community for early stage founders, and Rebound is a closed community for repeat entrepreneurs, both of which are partner-driven.

Community wasn't enough

This was great, but receiving feedback from 100+ founders across the FounderStack and Rebound cohorts, we realised that community alone wasn't solving all the challenges that they faced. 

There were other challenges, including the biggest one: Fundraising at the idea stage is hard in India.

Most founders raised too little and diluted too much to kick-off their idea before they even got some signs of success. And most startups didn't even get to this stage - a lot of them ended up making the same mistakes as the ones before them.

We discussed this internally, and the consensus was clear: Enabling startups at the pre-seed stage to raise at friendlier terms and grow quickly was a worthy cause.

Hence the seed for what became the Atoms program was sown. 

Talking to founders

We began having conversations everyday with founders, focused on identifying how we can make building in India easier.

Over the next 8 weeks, we received a lot of inputs, and started getting a sense of what could really help founders. Some commonalities were

1. A quick & friendly way to get experimentation capital

2. Advice that's not for “founders like them" but just for "them"

Spending time over the next few weeks, we came up with a program structure that looked like this:

1. $100-300k capital as a convertible note within few days of application (valuation cap & discounts to be decided on case-to-case basis)

This was because we realised that for most startup ideas, $100-300k was money that was more than enough to validate their value proposition(s) and build an MVP.

2. A community-led program to let founders interact and support each other; additional support from the Accel team based on our experience in working with other founders.

After having a proposal in place, we decided to launch the program on July 1st, 2021. 

We were excited.

But, something was missing

Just before launching, we went to founders who had already raised money, and asked them something fundamental: did they feel this program would have changed their life if it was available when they were raising their first rounds? 

No one jumped off their seat to say yes.

We realised something was missing. We were disappointed, and knew we had to go back to the drawing board. All timelines were pushed, and in my head I wondered if we would ever launch the program.

I thought about it a lot, and one thing that kept coming back to me was the question: Are we making Atoms the most valuable offer for founders? Is it an offer they can’t refuse?

That had been our attempt, but it wasn’t translating, and the answer was still no.

We were already proposing great terms on the capital. It had to be something else.

And then it struck me. Every person who has ever changed the world has had a specialised leader - Harry had a Dumbledore, Frodo had a Gandalf, and Obi-Wan had Master Yoda (indulge the nerd in me for a bit). 

Why not have each startup get a personalised advisory panel: a set of experts who are picked based on the startup's areas of focus and business, experts from the Indian ecosystem, who have built things in the past and will build more in the future, experts who care for the individual startup's success and who will give them the most personalised advice.

The last brick in the wall

This was it, the piece that brought the entire value proposition together. The idea of Atoms and why it would be an offer that couldn’t be refused became clearer in our mind. 

As the last brick in the wall, we wanted to further simplify all the capital related questions in founders' minds. So we decided to go ahead with the uncapped convertible note, making the deal even sweeter for founders.

The package now looked complete, and I was happy to put it in front of India's founders.

We launched Atoms at the end of August, and opened applications for the Diwali cohort. I knew we got it right, but it was still gratifying to see the number of startups that applied. 

There are now 15 startups in the Atoms Diwali cohort who are already midway into a program designed to get them everything they need to take on the world. We’ll be announcing their names early next year, and will introduce the world to what they are building.

Applications for the Holi cohort are now open

But it’s also time for the next big startups to enter the Atoms program. 

The Holi cohort applications are now open and we are continuously reviewing the applications. And please note that Atoms is open for both India and SEA focused startups. 

Please fill this form to apply.

Applications will only be accepted through this form, please do not send applications on email.

We look forward to seeing what the east is building.

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