Getting in: Four keys to writing a solid accelerator application

You’re trying to change the world—or at least a slice of it. That means days, nights and weekends under extreme conditions with scarce resources and massive amounts of uncertainty. It’s called a startup. And it’s hard.

The good news is that getting accepted into an accelerator program can help you focus your efforts, give you access to the right people and shorten your journey from having an idea to operating a real company.

The bad news is that spots are limited, competition is fierce and writing a kick-ass program application takes a serious amount of time.

So we thought we’d save you a few steps by throwing out four key tips that will improve your chances of standing out from the crowd.

1. Team and traction trump everything.

When selecting applicants, accelerators are making an investment. Some of that investment is in cash, but the bigger investment is in time and opportunity. Accelerators are trying to pick the companies that have the greatest chance at success, and they will spend months working side-by-side with the founders of these companies to do everything possible to help them succeed. Your team is key. Show that you have a well-balanced team with some combination of domain expertise, technology chops and business savvy. Passion counts. Being well rounded counts. Playing nice with others counts. So make sure those characteristics come through in your application.

Traction is a combination of your product, people, customers, users, revenue and investors.

  • What have you done to prove that your business will succeed?
  • How far have you come in building a demo, prototype or minimum viable product with limited resources?
  • How many customers have you learned from?
  • How many of them are willing to vote with their chequebook, validating your claims of problem-solution fit?
  • Who else have you added to your team as non-founders, advisors or partners?
  • What tangible evidence do you have that users are able to move through the “awareness-trial-adoption-advocacy” cycle?

Traction is a proxy for product-market fit. It is a proxy for hustle, for doing the right things and for doing things right. It is a proxy for your team. Chances are you can’t demonstrate all of these things, but the ones you’ve made progress on really need to shine through.

2. Get in early! 

Accelerator program application periods are typically open for at least 30 days. However, a crush of applications will hit the system on days 29 and 30. Applying earlier in the cycle will get you a greater share of the selection committee’s attention and reduce the risk that your application will get lost in the pile that arrives just before the clock strikes midnight. Want to prove you are worthy of the program’s money, time and trust? Being organized enough to get your submission in well ahead of the deadline is a good start.

3. Do the legwork.

Generally speaking, accelerators make it pretty easy for you to find their selection criteria, mentor/advisor network and partners. Figure out whom in your world is connected to the program and start asking thoughtful questions. Road test your answers with knowledgeable people who will help you fine-tune your responses before you submit your application. Note that this only applies to existing relationships. Cold-calling the executive director to pitch your story or spamming the program’s mentors to get a recommendation will not help your chances.

4. Honesty is always the best policy.

Investors put money and resources into people who they trust. While fudging your numbers, being less than clear on the status of your beta customers or being overly cavalier about who is actually on your advisory board might not set off alarm bells when you hit “Submit,” if you make it to the interview process and it’s starting to look like your company isn’t passing the scratch test, you may find that you have bigger issues than not getting into the program.

It is a very small world out there. Be truthful, clear and sincere in all of your dealings and let the chips fall where they may. All startups have things about their business that aren’t perfect – t’is the nature of the beast. No one expects you to have answers for everything; they’re just trying to get a sense of where your company is at and where it is going.

A few more thoughts on the matter that may help you write a stronger application: