How to apply to an accelerator: Do’s and don’ts

Want to impress a startup accelerator? Focus on testing your assumptions, says Matt Boyd. It goes without saying, but starting a company is hard. Really hard. Probably the most difficult thing any of us will ever do. The decision making process in a startup is fast paced, and you’re never quite sure that what you’re…

applying_for_accelerator

applying_for_accelerator

Want to impress a startup accelerator? Focus on testing your assumptions, says Matt Boyd.

It goes without saying, but starting a company is hard. Really hard. Probably the most difficult thing any of us will ever do. The decision making process in a startup is fast paced, and you’re never quite sure that what you’re doing is the right thing, or even in the ballpark. Enter the Startup Accelerator.

I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to see and work with a lot of early stage companies, in the trenches working hand in hand as a witness to both failure and success. If you’re starting a company, regardless of what it is, I’d recommend applying today. Finish reading this post, then stop everything you’re doing to fill out the application. You have nothing to lose, but everything to gain.

That said, the application process can be rigorous. As the Program Manager to NMotion last year, I can attest to the high volume of applicants, so standing out isn’t really an option. Getting in is hard, so spend time and take the application seriously. I’ve compiled a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” to help you along the way.

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” -Lao Tzu

Do’s

1. Connect with people in the Managing Director’s circle

When you’re applying to an accelerator, networking is key. Find the accelerator’s “MD” on LinkedIn and get to know the people in their circle. This process is long but has compounding effects. If played right, this strategy will work to get your company on the radar and ultimately, the more face time and recommendations you have from the MD’s trusted contacts, the more serious of an applicant you will become.

2. Build early traction

A lot of founders think it’s all about the idea. I promise it’s not.

If you’re starting, know that there’s nothing more powerful than traction. The first question we, as the accelerator’s staff will ask is, “Have they sold anything?” If the answer is yes, your application will naturally climb the ladder and stand out among the other thousand applications. If you have traffic, users or customers, then you’re ahead of the game because most people don’t.

3. Focus on validation

How do you know that people will care about what you’re building? Have you tested your assumptions? Have you spent time validating the market?

“We need to reengineer companies to focus on figuring out who the customer is, what’s the market and what kind of product you should build.” -Eric Ries, Author of The Lean Startup

If you don’t have traction, show that you care about startup fundamentals like market validation. Learn the language and start testing. Setup interviews with potential customers and show quantitative data that your assumptions are correct. Investors love “de-risking” their portfolio, and market validation is one sure fire way to do so.

Dont’s

1. Don’t rest the future of your company on getting into the accelerator

“Sometimes I feel my whole life has been one big rejection.” -Marilyn Monroe

When I was 23, I applied to the second cohort of TechStars, flew to Boulder on my own dime, and met with David Cohen personally. As things progressed, our prospect of joining the summer cohort grew daily as did my excitement. Interview after interview, we became a finalist. In the end, it was down to us and another company.

We got that call on a Tuesday. We didn’t get in.

Our ambition, our drive, our vision and our company was crushed. I spent days wondering how the process could’ve been different and what I could’ve changed to edge us in the right direction. The truth is, we were more excited about our future as part of TechStars than actually building our company. We let an accelerator blind our true ambition.

Don’t repeat my mistakes. Guard your ideals, protect them and never let rejection stand in your way from building something great.

2. Don’t spend money on a fancy video

I’ve seen it time and time again. Founders think that video production quality matters. In truth, it actually works against you.

The qualities I look for in a strong application is a sense of “scrappiness” and the ability to work quickly, with little resources. Working with a production company and spending $10,000 on a video shows me that you have little creativity, throw money at problems and can’t adequately communicate your vision personally.

Don’t make a fancy video. Simply record your pitch on your phone or point and shoot camera. Focus on communicating well, and showing us that you actually know what you’re talking about.

3. Don’t ask too many questions

Another common mistake I’ve seen founders make is sending email after email, seeking advice on the most trivial problems during the accelerator’s application process.

Let me save us both some time and give my number one answer to these types of questions: Google it.

Asking too many simple questions will ultimately give the impression you’re naive and incapable of keeping your head straight when the going gets tough. And I promise, the going will get really tough.

Please don’t misunderstand. That’s not to say you can’t ask questions, just make sure they’re the biggest, most challenging ones. To me, it’s like a puzzle. I love sitting with startup founders, solving really difficult problems, but there’s a line where you should do your own research. Eat, sleep and live on Quora, read everything you can and become extremely adept at solving your own problems.

Ask us the really hard, opinion based questions, but if you need help with business card design, Google it.

Conclusion

The startup application process is rigorous, and if you’re going to get in, you’ve got to stand out. Highlight your strengths and make them known by connecting with the community. Embrace where you’re weak and face each challenge as they come. Spend serious time building growth and traction because in the end, that’s all that anyone cares about.

Work really hard at doing the right things and, regardless of getting in, you will set yourself and your company up for success.

Matt Boyd is co-founder of Sqwiggle, an app designed to make remote working a more collaborative experience. He also co-hosts Inside Outside, a podcast that looks at startups outside Silicon Valley.

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