How to write a winning startup application for accelerators and incubators

In the past few years, I reviewed a few hundred startup applications annually, most of them were early stage startups applying for the incubation programs I worked on. And early-stagely, most of them get filtered out for the same reasons. Sometimes you could be working on a great idea or you may even have a world-class product but if you fail to convey that in your application for the startup accelerator or incubator that you want to join, the chances of you making to the program are almost zero.

I have tried to put together my thoughts in form of following tips. Even if some of them are not directly related to your application, they will help you a great deal in an indirect way.

1. Do your homework.

Design a business model and get initial feedback from customers. If you are new to this, I recommend that you take Steve Blanks free course on Udacity. It is fun yet powerful.

Study the market, both on a macro level (market size, history, number of competitors, global and local trends etc.) and a micro level (direct and indirect competitors, their advantages, channels, pricing, marketing strategies, etc.).

There isn’t a limit for how deep and wide you can go about this, but when you realize that your strategy is only as good as your understanding of your environment, you will find yourself willing to put in the effort and time.

Even if it is not required, it would be better if you have a prototype and test it with customers. It is a proof that you are serious, practical, and thorough.

Study the program and develop a clear idea about how it will benefit your startup. Accelerators differ greatly in what they offer startups, and it is important for you to be clear about what you hope to take away from each one you are applying for. This increases the likelihood of a successful match.

Educate yourself about becoming a CEO. Below are some resources I recommend you look at:

  1. Advice for ambitious 19 year olds by Sam Altman
  2. Do things that don’t scale by Paul Graham
  3. How to get startup ideas by Paul Graham
  4. Chapter 3 – 5 from Zero to One by Peter Thiel
  5. Startup = Growth by Paul Graham
  6. How to start a startup by Y-Combinator – 20 Lectures by world class experts
  7. Introduction to the lean startup by Eric Ries
  8. The 18 mistakes that kill startups by Paul Graham
  9. Making yourself a CEO by Ben Horowitz 

2. Be brief and to the point.

In general, it is safe to assume that over communication is better than under communication. However, knowing that accelerators review hundreds and sometimes thousands of applications, you should keep your answers focused. For example, when you are asked about the problem you are solving, be specific about your customers’ pain, why this is a problem, and how big it is.

3. Don’t underestimate the competition

First, underestimating competitors will not increase your chances of getting accepted. It will only decrease your chances of surviving as a business. Accelerators are looking for candidates with the greatest likelihood to succeed, and those are usually entrepreneurs who are aware of their competition, and whose judgment is not clouded by ego or romanticism. Being in a very early stage and considering your startup to be superior to Google or Microsoft will only make you appear as immature.

Second, you are not expected to beat your competition just yet. You are only expected to understand them as deeply and as comprehensively as possible. And this is what you need to show, no matter how scary it might look.

4. Don’t overestimate your growth potential

By the same merits, you don’t want to be perceived as naively optimistic. In fact, pessimism in sales forecast is well appreciated. Accelerators know that you believe in your idea and see hope in it. They just need to know that your expectations are rational and achievable, not just promising.

5. Highlight your team is competent and capable of building this business

Here you need to show that you have built the right team that can build this business. If you are a tech startup, you need a technical co-founder. Yes, there are exceptions and I can hear you shouting “Airbnb”. For accelerators, it is extremely difficult to decide to support a team that outsources their core offering. Because it makes it very difficult to iterate and change your product as needed. And you will need that a lot.

6. Highlight the progress you have achieved so far

“If you can’t generate basic momentum without the money, you probably are not worth the money.” – Khaled Bichara, CEO of Accelero Capital. Accelerators, just like VCs want to see that you could make progress without external support. This way, it is more likely for you to succeed with their help.

7. Don’t stress over the video pitch

We understand that you are not a TV presenter and we don’t hope to be entertained by your video pitch. However, we do hope to see you pitching your idea confidently and convincingly. This way we know as a CEO you wouldn’t shy away from asking for whatever your business needs. Make sure the video is good quality; sound and picture are clear. Again, you want to be focused on what matters the most.

8. Be flexible

Hold on to your vision, but be flexible about the strategy. Because, most likely, it is not what you will end up doing for your business to succeed. Accelerators don’t like to work with hard-to-coach founders that believe too much in their strategy and are not actively seeking feedback and improvement. It is healthy to show that you are willing to test your strategy and deliberately dig deep for flaws. This way everyone knows that their effort, time, and money will never be wasted on you.

Ibrahim Mahgoub
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