Ways to make your application thrive, so that your startup can, too
Six months ago, my company, Jaco, was in Tel Aviv building the first version of our product. Today, we have dozens of customers and are raising funding from top-tier investors in Silicon Valley.
How did we get here so quickly? A ton of hard work — but also by joining an accelerator, UpWest Labs, and taking advantage of the resources offered to us in order to operate closer to our target market in the U.S.
Having just graduated from our program, I thought it would be helpful to offer some tips to the hundreds of entrepreneurs who will apply in the coming months to similar early-stage programs. Some of suggestions concepts will seem obvious, but if you heed them they’ll have a lasting impact on your chances of getting in, and more importantly, on how you approach building your company.
1. Decide if the program is right for you
What do you hope to gain by joining an accelerator program? Your main criteria for evaluating an accelerator program should be its track record and capacity to provide the resources you need to reach your goals. For us, our primary goal was to establish momentum by speaking to high-profile customers (attracting further customers), and in turn, draw investors (drawing further investors). We believed that a move to Silicon Valley via UpWest Labs would help us reach these goals and increase our chances of building a big company.
Are you ready to move? In our case, the program consisted of four months living in the U.S., in the heart of Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs must be able to make the move to wherever the accelerator program is located, because working closely with other startups at a similar stage is absolutely the biggest advantage of going through such a program.
Are you prepared to commit yourself for the long term? It’s important to understand that an accelerator program is just the beginning, and you should have a longer-term vision and commitment to your company that extends beyond the time frame of the program itself. Your commitment or lack thereof will come across really strongly in your application. You need to ensure that your company has runway beyond the program, because building a company takes time.
2. Engage with alumni
It’s important to get all the information you can about a prospective program from firsthand sources. What did the alumni get out of the program? Did they think it was worth it? How engaging was the accelerator for the months (and even years) after the team first joined?
In addition, creating relationships within a strong alumni community is important because they can advocate for you with potential customers and investors (and the accelerator program itself). You can also leverage these relationships in other interesting ways; for example, if you are a B2B company, you may gain some alumni as customers!
3. Know your market
During the application process, it is paramount to demonstrate a strong understanding of your industry, including the competitive landscape and how you plan to differentiate your offering. You must be able to clearly articulate the different strategies deployed by your competitors, how the market dynamics have evolved, the direction in which the market is heading, and why this is a great time to address the problem you are tackling. Not only is this understanding critical for you to succeed, but it shows that you are serious in pursuing your venture.
4. Team: have resources to leverage
When it comes to making the most out of an accelerator program, the bigger your team, the better. An accelerator will accelerate whatever you are doing and the more resources you have to pull from, the faster you can run. Aim to have at least a two- or three-person team participate in the program, if not more. Over the course of the program, you will need people to help you with product, marketing, and other functions while the CEO focuses on business strategy. Of course, it’s even more important to have quality over quantity. After all, your team consists of people that you spend 90% of your waking hours with.
5. Have more than a slide deck (often much more)
Finally, it is important to demonstrate that you can execute. In most cases, having a product in market (or at least a working MVP) is key to setting your company apart from the pack. This is particularly true for domains such as consumer applications or some SaaS products, which require a few months of dedicated work. However, if you are operating in a domain that requires significant development effort (such as drones, security, etc.), showing a basic demo and a strong technical team with direct experience in this domain will be enough to generate a meaningful discussion with the diligence team.
Obviously, the more advanced you are, the better — we had teams in our batch that had already generated sales and raised their seed round prior to joining UpWest Labs, and this will vary from program to program. Any proof that shows the team is capable of executing at the highest level will increase your chances of being admitted.
Just applying to an accelerator is a great exercise, because it forces you to get organized, to think about your market and your vision, define team member roles, and execute basic company functions. Do the legwork and preparation to make sure you understand the program, the commitment that is involved, and how you plan to take advantage of the wave of resources that will be thrown your way if you are accepted. All of this will not only strengthen your application, but also help your company ultimately fulfill its mission.
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