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The Insider's Guide to Startup Bootcamps and Accelerators

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Being an entrepreneur can feel like a lonely journey. I was not surrounded by entrepreneurs on a regular basis. Many of my friends don't have the same passion for it, or understand my desire to run a startup. "You have a good paying job already. Why do you want to add more to your plate with a startup?" was a question I received on a regular basis. I spent time thinking to myself about how great it would be to surround myself with people who understand the fears and exhilaration of the entrepreneurial journey. And while hearing, "That's a great idea!" is always nice, people who would challenge my business model, or ask me tough questions to get me thinking critically about my startup was something I truly needed.

If you've ever felt the same way I did, an entrepreneur bootcamp or accelerator program may be the answer for you. These programs are designed to give you direct feedback on your startup and teach you new skills. You'll be challenged more than ever, and exhilarated at the same time. The best part is that you'll be surrounded by fellow entrepreneurs, from all walks of life and different stages in their startups, who understand you. Bootcamps take place all over the world and can last between a few days to a few months.

I just returned from MIT's Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp in Seoul, South Korea. As the plane from Korea sent me on my way back to Washington, DC I found myself full of emotions. Not out of fatigue or relief, but because I was sad that the experience was over. During the bootcamp, attendees had 6 days to start a company and pitch investors on the last day. The experience of being my team's CEO, pitching investors, running on 2 hours of sleep per night, collaborating with 5 strangers, all while emotions and tensions run high and giving 100% of yourself was the best experience I've ever had. The bootcamp confirmed that I'm meant to be an entrepreneur. I felt alive, invigorated, and truly proud of all that I accomplished.

If you're considering applying for one of the many bootcamps and accelerator programs out there, here's some advice from someone who has attended a bootcamp and lived to tell the tale.

You will have clarity
The program experience helps you understand what it's going to take to make your startup a success. By the end of the bootcamp, you will either want to continue with your startup idea based on what you've learned, or you may decide that entrepreneurship is not for you.

You'll come home stronger
By the end of the bootcamp, I felt like I could do anything. The challenges you encounter during the bootcamp only make you stronger and show you exactly what you're made of during the tough times your startup will experience.

You won't sleep, but it's really ok
On my way to the last day of bootcamp, a fellow bootcamper commented on his lack of sleep throughout the week. "I counted my total hours of sleep for the week. I had 9 hours of sleep from Sunday to Friday". It might sound insane now, but you will completely understand once you're in a bootcamp. Make sure you get as much rest as possible before going.

Leave your ego at the door
Getting accepted into a program is a big deal. Bootcamps and accelerators are highly selective in who they accept into their programs. You can, and should, be proud of yourself. You should be confident in the skills you bring to the table. You shouldn't, however, go into the program as though you are the true gift of the program and everyone will be honored to be in your presence. That will leave you without future contacts, no one wanting to work with you, and you won't get as much out the program. Summary: get over yourself.

Network, network, network
You're surrounded by the future of entrepreneurship. Get to know your fellow bootcampers on a personal level. Learn about their startups, but take the time to learn about their personal lives: where they're from, their dog's name, what else they do when they aren't focusing on their startups. You never know who has a connection that could be invaluable to your future success.

Do your homework
Some programs have mandatory reading assignments to complete before the program begins. Make sure you read everything they assign you. That way you can focus on getting more out of each lecture related to the readings instead of wondering what everyone is talking about. Like I mentioned before, you won't get much sleep. Use your energy to learn something new from the lectures based on the readings than trying to catch up with the rest of the group.

Book time afterwards for play
If your accelerator program is far from home, spend a few extra days after the program to check out local attractions. Many of the bootcamp attendees did this and I wish I had done the same to get the most out of the trip and further connect with the group outside of the high-stress bootcamp environment.

You'll bond with your team more than you thought was possible
In 6 days, everyone who attended the MIT Bootcamp formed teams with complete strangers, stayed up late working on a startup idea, and learned how to work on a team with dynamic personalities. Being in a new situation, where you have to trust and rely on one another to get through it, will make you incredibly close by the last day. In full disclosure, there may be some people you happily chose not to speak to after the program ends, but that number will be few and far between. On the last day, teams were crying as they said goodbye to their teammates. Some teams began making plans for after the bootcamp to get together. People who attended previous bootcamps are still in contact with their teams and fellow bootcampers years after the bootcamp ended, proving you develop a support system for one another's startups and a trusted resource for much needed critical feedback for years to come.

Follow the steps above and enjoy your time in an accelerator program or bootcamp. It's an incredible time and you will leave the program transformed with close friendships to last a lifetime. What other tips do you have?