Every startup trying to get off the ground could use some help. Whether you are just getting established or are looking to scale, learning from a team of successful founders can make all the difference. One of the best ways to give yourself the edge is by joining an accelerator.

The Basics

An accelerator is a program that a startup’s founding team uses to transform their idea into a viable product. As with all formal programs, there’s an application process with deadlines. The programs are typically 3 months long, and run anywhere from 2 to 4 times a year. Most of the programs run in only one city, but some run in more. While there are accelerator programs across the United States, you’ll find more of them situated in places that have a heavy concentration of startups, including Silicon Valley, New York, Boulder, Boston, Austin, and Chicago.

While some accelerator programs target startups in certain industries, most are open to a variety of fields. What they’re looking at is not only how much they like and believe in your idea, but also how much they believe in your team’s ability to build this product into a viable, scalable business with the potential to attract a large user base and a high return on investment. For this reason, small businesses that don’t scale, such as retail stores, would not generally be candidates for accelerator programs.

How to Gain Acceptance

While it’s possible to apply as a single founder, you’re generally better off applying with a cofounder or other team members with whom you work extremely well. The quality of the programs varies; there’s also a range as to how competitive these programs are, and the top ones (including Y Combinator and TechStars) are extremely competitive and accept only a very small percentage of their applicants – think of these as the Stanford and Harvard of accelerators.

You may not get into your first choice, so consider applying to more than one, or reapplying in the future if you’re not accepted into your program of choice. Even if your company isn’t brand new, you may benefit from joining an accelerator. When you’re deciding which one(s) to apply to, there are a number of factors to consider, including the types of companies they target, the location, the program dates, the reputation of the program, and how well its graduates have done.

What to Expect

There are certain elements that are standard across most programs. Programs are generally 3 months long and require you to live in the program city for the duration. (You generally don’t need to stay in that city once the program is over, although a few may have a residency requirement.) It’s an intense period, so you need to be completely committed and prepared to work extremely long hours. This is not a 9-to-5 commitment.

The people that you meet during these 3 months will become part of your permanent professional network. They will include the founders from other teams, in addition to business and technology experts. After the program is over, you’ll want to find a founders’ network so you can continue developing your connections. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a support system that includes interested family members and friends, so a founders’ network can be an important source of support for you along the way. There, you’ll be interacting with people who “get” you – and what you’re doing.

There’s no fee to participate in accelerator programs. Instead, what you give up is equity in your company; it’s generally a rate of 5 to 8 percent, but that can vary depending on the company. What you’ll gain includes seed funding – there’s no set amount. Typically, $20-25K is granted, but some programs provide more, while a few give less.

The seed funding is only part of the support. Throughout the program, you’ll be mentored by successful entrepreneurs who serve as advisors in the program. They’ll make introductions within their network that can include venture capitalists, angel investors, and business development partners. They’ll guide you, keep you grounded, and help you focus on developing a working product by the end of the program (which can sometimes be a different product than the one you set out to develop!). The program typically concludes with a “demo day,” where the new products are showcased. Some go on to receive outside funding; a lucky few may grow into the next big thing.

If you’re serious about growing your business, an accelerator is a great resource. Being mentored by people who’ve been there and done that can make the difference between a company that flounders for several years and one that scales very quickly. Their funding and introductions can be invaluable. Don’t be intimidated by the competitiveness of accelerators – not only is this good preparation for the ultracompetitive marketplace, your mentors will also help find the elements you’ve been overlooking. If you’re truly ready to work really hard and learn a lot, look at the different programs and get ready to accelerate.