For many founders in startup land, startup accelerators are the best way to take their idea to the next level. Funding, mentorship, community value, potential clients and VCs introduction are just some of the advantages that one could enjoy. There are thousands of startup accelerators worldwide. Perhaps if you leave in a reasonably populated area you might have more than one option around you.
Although there are (too) many alternatives in the market, your startup might end up competing with other thousands of others out there trying to get that spot! You need to be sharp, focused and choose wisely.
There is no easy way to get accepted in a startup accelerator program. There is no shortcut. It just depends on too many factors. There are some steps, however, that you can take to increase chances to impress those in front of you and also, if accepted, make the most out of it.
These are 10 actionable steps for every startup founders to increase their odds to be accepted in a startup accelerator.
The first, and perhaps, the most important thing you have to do to find the right accelerator program is research. You can’t be successful if you don’t know what you are applying for. Research carefully the following:
a) How many accelerators there are in your area or the area of interest
b) What is their focus (category specific or generic)
c) What past alumni or other people say about these programs
There are different platforms that allows you to get information on accelerator programs and what they have to offer. The best, most likely, is AngelList. You can also have a look at our section on startup accelerators to find out past alumni reviews.
2. Get involved
This is a must-do for those looking to apply to startup accelerators nearby where they live. Get involved. Now! Most of accelerator programs organize either meet-up or office hours. Drop by and talk with people working there.
Getting involved before applying is the best way you have to understand what kind of people are behind the program and what experiences they have. It’s also interesting to meet current alumni and mentors, this might be an advantage when applying. If you get referred, as Parker Thompson from 500 Startups says, you have more opportunities to succeed. On top of that, knowing the mentors will also allow you to critically asses its quality.
3. Work on your application
All startup accelerators require you to apply online. Each accelerator program will ask you similar things: team members, background, traction, market, elevator pitch, and sometimes a video.
I find this last one to be quite challenging. Are you supposed to be serious about it or catch their attention? You need to find a good balance. Get help and ask around. Get feedback. However, don’t overlook on this simple step. Accelerator programs in the top league regards this as a very important part of their application process and might be used to just cut down poor applicants. You don’t obviously have to produce a professional video; but you can work on its content.
It’s important to start the application in early days and dedicate to it some time. Before submitting it, check it again and again, make sure everything is perfect, no typos or inconsistencies. Don’t apply the last day!
4. Be prepared
As obvious as it might seem, it’s important to be prepared for an eventual call. Don’t wait for it to start preparing. You will have limited amount of time, between 15 – 30 minutes depending on the accelerator program. The pitch time is usually 10 – 15 minutes and you need to tell who you are, what you do, how you want to do it and strategies. There’s a lot of things to say and just 15 minutes.
Once you finish pitching, you will be asked questions. Remember that you are the only one that knows your product. You might find in front of you several expert mentors and founders that might have an overview or insights in the industry, but not on your product. You are the expert, it’s time to show it.
5. Keep it simple
Don’t use jargon that no one understand. Keep it simple and make sure that everyone around understands your idea.
Not every startup is trying to be the “Uber for something”, I know. I get it, your startup is trying to save lives by analysing stellar interconnection while taking in consideration nuclear power generated by Mars… but still, keep it simple, in front of you there are people that not necessarily understand your complex idea. Find a problem, give a solution. Tell a story.
I have seen technical people struggling in explaining simply their idea. Usually those with a business background are able to focus on problem and solution. Techies tend to describe in details their baby. If your product is heavily on the tech side, try to find a way in the middle. By not saying everything and just hinting at some points, you might actually be able to stimulate interest and get asked more questions. Remember you have at most 15 minutes, you want them to be intrigued by your startup idea not confused.
6. Pitch it, nail it!
The pitch is the trickiest and most exciting thing you will work on in the early days. You are telling a story about your dream. You are trying to convince strangers to buy in your dream. Go over your presentation tons of time. Don’t read, learn it by hearth. Find someone who is willing to listen and ask for feedback.
As your startup progress, it will get more complicated. You will have more things to say and always less time. Once for a competition I had to pitch my startup in 3 minutes. How can you decide what is important? Everything is important!
The idea behind the pitch is to give enough information to trigger interest from the other party. Don’t just talk about general stuff, be specific, but at the same time don’t overcomplicate things.
6. Find supporters
Accelerator programs have different approaches to the magic day. Some will ask you to come a day earlier and present in front of mentors who will give you tips on how to improve. Some others will let you talk with them after the presentation. Nevertheless, you need to understand who is your stronger supporter. Once you find him or her, you need to convince them that your startup is the right choice. If they buy it, they will strongly support you in the application process. Usually a strong supporter overcome any negative feedback or doubt.
7. Team, team and team
If your startup isn’t showing already great traction, your team will be scrutinized. Is your team able to do build a great product? Are you able to grow your dream into a real company? Team is most likely the most important factor considered by startup accelerators when evaluating an early stage startup.
As a founders, you will also be “judged” on the type of teammates you are able to bring on. Think about it in this way. If you are not able to attract the right team members, why would you be able to convince customers to buy from you?
Find the right people, the one you respect and like. You are going to spend a lot of time with them. Your startup is about to go through a lot of things; change of directions will be happening quite often. Build a strong team that can make it.
8. Start building your brand
Take the time to work on your startup image. Obviously no one expects you to spend big money on this. However, having a nice landing page or a well-designed website is a good start. Are your social profiles well maintained? Does it look like people are already looking at your product with some kind of interest?
It’s always a good idea to keep a good external image, even in the early days. Invest time (and some money if you can) in creating something that can attract external interest. The best thing is to find a designer (a friend possibly) that can help you out.
9. Prototype or MVP
This is something you will be ashamed of after 3 weeks. So, don’t worry about it. However, a prototype (or MVP) is something that will give your listeners an idea of what you are working on. When I firstly pitched my startup, we had an awesome design, a killer powerpoint presentation and a shitty prototype. It had nothing of our great design. It was just an idea, a representation of where we wanted to go. Our listeners knew that and appreciated the fact that we put some effort in preparing something that was more than a simple presentation.
10. Show some traction (if you can)
Having traction, whatever that might be, is always better that presenting slides with ideas. Accelerator programs get excited when they see a startup which is already showing users interest or (ideally) making some money.
Whatever your traction is, make sure that they understand what it is. Don’t overcomplicate things, keep it simple, like you are telling it to a kid. Remember though that not all accelerators are looking for traction. Accelerators are not created equally. There are some that are willing to take your idea to a finish product. There are others that are looking for a finish product and are willing to take it to the next level.
These are some practical steps that you can take to increase the odds of getting into a startup accelerator. Consider that each program is looking at something particular in each application that might not be so obvious.
Startup accelerators can be a great resource for your startup dream. If you want to get in one, make sure to do your homework and be focused. If you want it, you are going to take it.