Should I apply to an accelerator? I’m not sure we’re ready

A: It doesn’t matter whether you’re ready. You should apply if you think you match the criteria

I don’t mind if founders want to ask me for a quick opinion on whether they’re ready, or for advice on how to optimise their chances, or advice on whether I think the terms are fair, or whether I think accelerators in general actually work (as in, increase the chances of the success of the startups in their programs).

I don’t mind because one of my best sources of potential investment deal flow (for the last decade as an angel investor, soon as a VC) is startup founders who get in touch to ask me for advice about applying to one accelerator or another.

But since people keep asking, here’s my default position: if you aren’t sure whether you’re ready to apply to an accelerator, then I will almost always tell you to apply and see what happens. It’s almost always worth it.

Practice makes us better at things

How do we get better at anything? Practicing applying to an accelerator teaches us how to produce better applications. There are no demerit points for applying to multiple accelerators or to applying multiple times. In fact, the reverse is true: accelerators like to see startups apply again for the next cohort, if you can show you’ve made further progress in the meantime.

If you’re offered a place, you don’t have to accept it

Deciding whether to accept an offer of a place is a great problem to have. Roughly 1-in-5 to 1-in-10 applicants will be offered a place, depending on the program. Deciding which offer from which accelerator is an even better problem to have. But you won’t get to experience these problems unless you apply. Don’t try to decide in advance whether you’ll accept a place, just focus on step one: completing an application.

What’s involved in applying to an accelerator?

Here’s my authentically messy diagram showing the process flow, and roughly how much of your time each stage will take if you make it through to being offered a place.

A flow chart graph describing process of accelerator applications.

It’s a good use of your time

The typical accelerator program application process looks like this:

1.Online application form with maybe 10–20 questions and a video

Just answer these honestly — be truthful about what you don’t yet know and what is an untested hypothesis. Accelerators are trying to pick a cohort of startups all at the same stage so they can design a program that suits companies at that stage. If you try to pretend you’re more advanced than you are, you’ll be found out before you’re offered a place in the program and your reputation will be trashed.

Leave out hyperbole and avoid jargon. If you don’t have answers to all the questions they ask, then by applying you’ve learned something about the criteria that accelerator programs use to screen applicants.

If you have cofounders, and especially if you each have different areas of responsibility, make sure you share the ‘talking stick’ — all areas of the business should be represented in the application. Startups are a team sport and conveying how you make decisions and make progress as a team is an advantage.

If you have to upload a video as part of your application, remember that the video’s primary purpose is to convey a little about the personalities in the team, not demo your product or blow our minds with industry and business stats. It’s much more important to be your authentic and memorable self than to try and impress the application review committee. Remember to involve your cofounders. Remember the review committee will need to watch a very large number of these videos — do them the kindness of being concise and to the point and it may help your chances.

Often, just answering the questions in the application process will prompt you to give more thought to an aspect of your plans, or to escalate the importance of something you were planning to do later.

“Hmmm… why did they ask me how many cofounders there are and how much equity each of us holds? Oh right, maybe they think having more than founder in the business is a good idea. I can emphasise that we’re three cofounders who’ve known each other since High School and could never let each other down. And that reminds me, I really must follow-up on that awkward discussion we had about how much equity each of us should start with and finalise the ownership of the company…”

Not even half-way through the application process and you’ve already learned something important about your business you should attend to, and something about what accelerator programs look for in startups.

The online application stage has the most attrition — typically several hundred applications will be thinned to the best 30–50. Leading to…

2. Either online interviews or an interview day

Once a few hundred applications are winnowed down to a manageable size for interviews, some accelerator programs will conduct interviews online, or invite you to attend an interview day, where you’ll be asked to participate in a series of short, intense interviews with a panel of mentors or with individual mentors.

Interview day is mostly about getting cut-through and standing out, because most of the founders in the interview day are already good enough to be selected for the accelerator, or they wouldn’t have been invited.

Be memorable (don’t be afraid to be self-confident and concrete about what you know and don’t know). Be concrete not abstract and hypothetical. Focus on repeating a set of short, clear unique features, customer benefits and market opportunities.

Make sure you are concise enough that the interviewer has enough time to ask you questions about your business, and you have enough time to answer those questions. How you answer is more important than whether you have an answer. Are you smart but humble? Do you have strong opinions, weakly held? Are you tempted to bluff your way through something you don’t know? Can you describe how you’d start finding the answer to a question?

Explain how you think the accelerator can help your startup accelerate and don’t be afraid to make it clear how much effort you’ll put towards being the best performing startup in the cohort. Help mentors retain names of cofounders and startups by wearing your startup’s logo on a tee and by making sure each mentor has your name and contact details. Leave them with a one-page printed summary of what you’ve pitched them (no more than one double-sided page).

If there’s a social mingling element to the interview stage and find yourself in the company of other founders, or with your own team, you are not mingling with the right people! You need to mingle with mentors and accelerator staff. Don’t continue to tell them more about yourselves, use this opportunity to ask them about their own history and motivations. Research your judges!

3. A bootcamp

Another common way of evaluating the final set of startups is to run them through a bootcamp — an intense, education and evaluation experience usually conducted onsite at the accelerator venue. Some bootcamps run only a half day, some run for as much as two weeks.

Think of a bootcamp as an extended trial of the education, mentoring and program management of the accelerator itself. If selected, at the very worst the bootcamp is going to be a great indicator of how valuable the full program might be, at best it will be full of educational, networking and marketing opportunities, and you don’t have to give any equity away to get it.

Is it worth the time?

Hell yes. Look at my diagram above and you’ll see that you can get a lot of free advice to help your startup succeed if you just get through a few selection rounds for a typical accelerator.

Do you think we should apply?

Hell yes. I think you should apply!

Remember we all improve with practice, so applying to accelerator programs – even when you’re not ready – is a great way to practice and learn about how to submit the best possible application.

Remember there is no penalty for applying to multiple accelerators, or the same accelerator more than once, in fact, it’s a positive sign of resilience and determination, as long as the applications you submit improve over time.

So get that application in for the Remarkable #SYD21 accelerator program!

Applications close on 31 January 2021.

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