Ok. You have a great thing going with your new startup and are thinking about applying to an accelerator. Good on you. You have done your research to figure out if your company is a fit for a program like YCombinator, Techstars, UpRamp, or one of the many others in the world, and now you are ready to start the online application process. Good friggin’ luck, because you have likely already lost the game.
Out here in Colorado there is a consortium of 70+ accelerators called the Global Accelerator Network, and their members report that 30% or less of their accepted cohort startups come to them from online submissions. The other 70% is accepted based on investor, mentor, and alumni referrals. Knowing that the typical accelerator only accepts 1% of total applicants for each cohort, we can quickly see that unless you have that coveted referral, your online application is competing for only 3 spots. Ack. So, if you are trying to get into that 0.3% window, you better get it right.
Let’s look at 3 things you need to avoid, and 3 things you better get right.
The top 3 things you need to avoid in your startup accelerator application:
- Not validating with real customers. As startup founders, we have all been told that we should build something that scratches our own itch. That’s a fine place to start, but before you write that first line of code, you better hit the street and talk to 30 or more people about the idea. Not your friends and not your mom – go talk to actual people who might have the actual problem you’re trying to solve and have no emotional obligation to make you feel good. Then, get them to pay you money! Money is the only real validator. Most people you speak with will not want to rip your idea apart; instead, they will try to be helpful and positive. It’s nice to hear that stuff, but it doesn’t actually provide value. Unless they are willing to give you their hard earned cash, it is not an idea they believe in.
- You are focused on features, not benefits.We all love the stuff we have built, and, usually, it was really hard to build it. Naturally, we want to talk about all the hard stuff in our business, so we default to talking about the features, not the benefit to you potential customers. I tell companies in the UpRamp Fiterator, that it is a lot like Super Mario. That little plumber dude is not jumping on mushrooms because they are the best mushrooms in the world. Mario only jumps on a mushroom in order to become “super”. Your customers are the same way. They don’t want your mushrooms, they want the result of your mushrooms.
- False market sizing and competitive landscapes. This one can be death. I cannot count the number of startup pitches and accelerator applications we see at UpRamp that include some variation of “…if we can capture just 1% of this $XXX billion market…”. This is lazy thinking, and not particularly helpful. Even worse, is that dreaded competitive landscape slide that shows your company with all the check marks, and the other guys with only one or two. Come on, man! Building a company is hard, and we put great value on founder teams that can see the world for what it really looks like. Solving a problem in a known market with active competitors is not a bad place to be, if you have proven that you can close deals. (see #1 above…)
Now, let’s look at the things you can do to optimize your chance of getting a spot in that 0.3%:
- Do the actual work. If you really want to position your company into that 0.3%, do the work. For those of us that run startup accelerator programs, we have worked hard to make the application process as short and frictionless as possible. But like poetry, every word counts. Those questions are on the application for a reason, and if you take the lazy approach, we can tell. Not doing the work on the application is the fastest way to communicate that your team is unlikely to do the work in building the business.
- Be yourself. Being accepted into the next amazing cohort at a world famous accelerator is cool, but this is the starting line, not the final goal. We are embarking on a journey together, as real people. Our ability to engage, challenge, and support each other through the good days and bad is magic that will help us both succeed together. When we are watching your video, doing a phone interview, or sitting down over coffee, we want to learn about the company, but what we are really doing is trying to figure out if we can work together. Be you. Be upfront. Be open to new ideas, and be opinionated about those things that make your company unique.
- Show your math. Once that managing director has convinced herself that you are a fit for the program, she will need to back it up to the rest of the team. Make this easy, and show your math. Give us the real numbers on growth, churn, revenue, pipelines, markets, etc. Tell a story with the numbers that gives us a foundation to help you build upon. As humans, we all love the origin stories, but to get the deal over the line, you need to prove it.
Do this stuff, and you will get a fair read of your startup accelerator application. However, if you want to put your company on the other side of the line and get into the 0.7% of applicants, your path should be obvious. Repeatedly sell something for more than it costs to make, and, as a CEO, you should build your network and tell your company story to the investors, mentors, and alumni of the accelerator you are targeting. You are far more likely to be accepted into an accelerator if THEY ASK YOU to apply. So build a winning business and help them know you exist.