Dec 26, 2013 · 3 minutes

New York's best accelerator isn't much of an accelerator at all. First Growth Venture Network has operated for three years under the radar. It's not covered by the tech blogs but well-known among founders and VCs. The program has hardly advertised itself, but once I found out about it, every person I asked in New York's tech scene seemed to know it. "FirstGrowth? Oh yeah, that's a great program."

Its stellar reputation among founders and investors is due, in part, to the success of its most high-flying companies. Many of New York's hottest startups have participated in FirstGrowth, including Birchbox, Loverly, Skillshare, Adaptly, Venmo, Food52 and Baublebar.

As with all accelerators, there are plenty of duds, too. Three quarters of all startups fail, after all. But moreso than the other accelerator programs in New York, FirstGrowth has an impressive number of breakout hits with recognizable brand names.

That can be attributed to its unique structure. By most standards, FirstGrowth isn't an accelerator at all. FirstGrowth takes no equity, there is no co-working space, and no demo day. The application process is not advertised. Most applicants come from referrals. The program is organized as a set of six half-day networking and mentorship events organized by Ed Zimmerman, the chair of the tech group at the law firm Lowenstein Sandler. The only requirement is that incoming companies have not raised more than $1 million in outside capital.

"It's a great accelerator for people who don't want to do an accelerator," Zimmerman says.

If anything, it's more of a community than an accelerator, a way to keep a strong network of alumni, mentors and investors connected. Between one and two hundred techies are part of the group, including founders, execs, 40 to 50 VC's and a few dozen angel investors. FirstGrowth counts a wide swath of venture firms as its partners, including Accel, First Round Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Battery Ventures, TCV, Spark Capital, Bessemer Venture Partners and Flybridge Capital Partners.

The low commitment level is how FirstGrowth counts so many of New York's most exciting startups among alumni. The current class is promising, as well, including Delve, a news-sharing enterprise startup that also participated in the New York Times' TimeSpace accelerator, and Sols, a stealth-mode 3D printing startup co-founded by Kegan Schouwenburg, former director of operations at Shapeways.

The event I attended this Fall featured a panel of high-profile investors and founders discussing the topic of recruiting and company culture, followed by more intimate small group discussions about business strategies moderated by well-known entrepreneurs.

From Zimmerman's perspective, the program is about community. Obviously if Lowenstein Sandler finds new clients in the process, that's good too, but Zimmerman says it's more about the "reciprocal education" that happens during the many discussions with founders and networking. Unlike a number of accelerators, FirstGrowth does not come with free legal advice. Further, Lowenstein Sandler doesn't believe it should have all of the FirthGrowth companies as clients. "That's not the point of this," he says. "There are no strings attached." The program is good for the firm's reputation among founders, he says, and it "keeps us in interesting rooms."

Likewise for advisors and investors. Many younger employees at VC firms and mid-level employees at startups have used FirstGrowth to build reputations as movers and shakers in the startup scene. "They grow their reputations and relationships and networks if they show up and add value and are nice," Zimmerman says. "I don't want to say that it works on a karma model, but if you are a junior person and roll your sleeves up, it goes a long way."

As accelerators continue to evolve, we have seen more "no equity" programs crop up, including GreenStart, TimeSpace and even REach, a real estate-focused accelerator that actually charges its companies money to participate (some would call that predatory but six companies signed up for the first class). Corporations are launching accelerators with varying success and reputation, and industry-specific ones are becoming more popular. Others, like Work--Bench, are corporate-backed but target later-stage enterprise startups. Steve Blank argues accelerators should should mimic Moneyball.

Having been invented less than a decade ago, the accelerator model is in a state of flux. The end result may end up looking more and more like a community than an investment.

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