By: Gigaom
March 08, 2012 at 12:41 PM EST
Would you give 20% equity for three days at an incubator?
Germany's IdeaCamp, a short mentoring program for budding entrepreneurs, is causing concern among Berlin's startup community. Why? Because it asks attendees to give up a fifth of any business developed as a result of its three-day workshops.

Starting on Thursday, Berlin plays host to the latest edition of Ideacamp, a hackathon that claims to help you “found your startup in three days”. On the surface it looks like typical fare: €150 for a long weekend featuring a mixture of brainstorming, workshops, and training sessions aimed at helping budding entrepreneurs develop an idea and start their own company.

Except there’s one glaring difference between this event and most others like it: the real price for taking part is not just your time, or even your cash — it’s 20 percent equity.

On their “Participation” page (in German) the group says it has a “philosophy of low participation fees”, promises to help them achieve “instant success”, and offers support to startups once they have completed the camp. But attendees also have to agree, up front, to give away up to 20 percent of any company they start.

“For startups that we continue to support after the camp,” it says, “We get involved with 20 percent equity.”

Signing away so many shares in your company for something so vague makes IdeaCamp more than a little unusual, even in the world of accelerators and bootcamps.

Y Combinator, the industry’s most famous accelerator program, has spawned startups including Reddit, Airbnb and Dropbox. It is very public about what it offers: three months of intensive mentoring, a small sum for living expenses, connections to Silicon Valley’s biggest investors. For that, it takes an average of 6 percent equity.

For a more local comparison, take pan-European incubator HackFWD, which happens to be holding its own quarterly startup camp in Berlin at the same time as IdeaCamp. Run by a team of experienced entrepreneurs and led by Xing founder Lars Hinrichs, HackFWD takes 27 percent equity in return for a full year of intensive mentoring and up to $250,000 of funding.

Community concerns

IdeaCamp, which has been running events in Germany since April 2011, was started by consultants Katja Andes, Kalle Eberhardt and Philip Wilhelm. The team says it is inspired by the likes of Eric Ries and Tim Ferriss and ultimately wants to help people follow their dreams. The site lists official mentors who work in areas like SEO, customized printing and crowdsourcing.

But its offering has concerned a few local entrepreneurs, who told us that they worried about the lack of transparency and the nature of the deal on offer.

“Incubator models are fantastic for the right type of founders, particularly if they’re young,” one Berlin founder, who asked to remain anonymous, told us. “But 20 percent is madness, and a bit exploitative. You can’t validate all the meaningful risks in three days, no matter how good you are.”

Another said that while it “totally makes sense” for there to be a three-day event dedicated to helping entrepreneurs develop their ideas and skills, it “should be independent from any equity finance deals.”

The arrival of deals like those IdeaCamp seems to be offering is, perhaps, a consequence of the glut of accelerators that have appeared in the wake of bigger names like Y Combinator, TechStars and Seedcamp. With excitement about startups growing across Europe, dozens of bootcamps have appeared in a short amount of time. Last year we wrote about how they offer wildly varying deals to founders, and in some cases even offer terms so onerous that they effectively kill the companies they are supposed to support.

When asked to explain IdeaCamp’s approach, founder Kalle Eberhardt said that taking a share in the companies it helped build was a way to “show our support for the team.”

“We ask for 20 percent equity because we are sure that this is a fair deal for both sides,” said Eberhardt in an email. “Most of our participants come to our camps with nothing but the idea that they want to change their lives, follow their dreams — and to reach that, start their own company. As they don’t have a business idea, or they lack the knowledge of how to implement the idea, they come for our support.”

So how is IdeaCamp’s program different from what other incubators — including those that take a smaller equity cut — provide?

“Our share in the companies might be higher because we accept almost everyone interested in founding their own company to our workshops,” Eberhardt wrote, arguing that although the organization asks for 20 percent up front, it is only a starting point for further negotiations with “businesses we believe in.”

“Our primary goal is not making money with these camps. We are not interested in a sale of our share after a few years, but want to support people in achieving their dreams,” he continued. “Our maxim is to help people become financially independent. If people get that and can do in their lives whatever they want, 20 percent equity for us sounds fair, I think.”

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