Sioux Falls Paul Singh RJTT

Overcoming the odds: How to get into the best accelerators

Just as much as I think entrepreneurs should skip the local investors first, I think entrepreneurs should skip the local accelerators too.

  • Aim for the top. I don’t care whether you don’t want to leave your hometown or if you don’t think you’d get into the best accelerators, apply to all of the best ones — YC, 500, Techstars and the others along the coasts. In the worst case, you’ll learn to answer the questions that real investors ask. In the best case, you’ll get in. Either way, you win.
  • Apply early. This sounds too easy but, having been involved in a bunch of accelerators over the years, I can tell you that the vast majority of submissions tend to come in during the last week that applications are open and it’s a huge missed opportunity to founders. If you want to increase the likelihood of getting your application reviewed (and your likelihood of getting a meeting), get your application during the first week — before the flood.
  • Put in the effort. When you’re answering questions on the application, keep the answer to three sentences or less. Anything longer is usually a sign that you don’t know the answer. Or, worse, that you don’t know how to communicate. Again, having been involved in so many accelerator cohorts, I can’t tell you how often I see a half-assed rambling answer to a simple, crisp question which gets the entire application dumped.
  • Look for warm intros. As you’re applying to the accelerator, look up the people running the program, the mentors helping with the program and the founders that have been through the program. You’re looking for a mutual connection to at least one of these people via AngelList, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Then ask for the intro — and try not to be weird about it.
  • The alumni network matters. Following on the last tip, the success of the alumni companies is a pretty good indicator of the accelerator’s quality. Try to avoid being in an accelerator’s first cohort unless the people running it have some way to prove that they’ve helped other companies grow in the recent past.
  • Drop the script. An incredibly large number of founders come in prepared with a pitch deck and a script in the footnotes. It’s uninteresting and, more often than not, you’ll get tripped up the minute you get a question you didn’t expect. It’s better to relax, keep your traction numbers handy and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”
  • Maximize the speed of iteration. If you get a “no” from an accelerator, it’s safe to categorize it as a “no for now.” Take the feedback on why they don’t think you’re ready, apply it and reach back out to the interviewer ASAP once you’ve applied that feedback. This is especially important if you apply early.
  • Focus on the trajectory. The best accelerators are focused on the growth of your company, not your product. This is a pretty good litmus test of a good founder and a good accelerator.

Actually, that’s a good way to wrap this up: all of these things are a pretty good litmus test of a founder worth backing or an accelerator worth joining.

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Also published on Medium.