“You’re not a startup unless you’re growing,” is the anxiety-inducing sentence at the back of most entrepreneurs’ minds. Sure, accelerators like Techstars and Y Combinator are an obvious solution for those looking to rapidly scale their company. However, in reality, with a one percent acceptance rate, these programs are more competitive than some of the world’s most prestigious universities…
Eamonn Carey, Managing Director of Techstars London recently visited TQ to talk about building products people love and why it’s necessary to use mischief when designing your product. Curious about what he and the other decision-makers at Techstars look for in startups, I asked him to share some advice on how to successfully apply to Techstars or other accelerator programs — or more specifically, what not to do.
While there’s no perfect formula for getting accepted, Eamonn says there are five common mistakes you should definitely avoid if you really want to maximize your chances of success:
1. You’re not scratching an itch that you felt yourself
What’s your solution to your problem, and how can you share that with other people? That’s the best method to building a product according to Eamonn: “That way, your passion for your product is really going to come across in your application.”
“We see lots and lots of applications, and in a lot of cases, you meet people who are building companies because someone else built a similar company and they want to emulate it. And that’s absolutely valid, and very successful companies have been built in that way. But, for me, companies really stand out when they’re like ‘I had this specific pain point myself so I got together with a friend of mine and built this company that’s doing something really interesting.'”
2. You haven’t put enough focus on your team
“For us, the things we look at when we assess applications are team, team, team, market, traction, and then your idea. And so, having the right team — that right founder-market fit — and having a range of skill sets, and a diversity of people and hopefully backgrounds and genders in your founding team — that’s unbelievably important for us now,” Eamonn explained.
“Especially as we try to assess early-stage companies and go ‘are they going to be able to make it through a three-month program without hating one another or killing one another.’ If a company moves from one country to London for the program and they all have to live in one apartment, for example, three months can be pretty intensive. So the team piece is obviously super important for us and one of the things I overemphasize on.”
3. You’re too afraid to engage or reach out to us
“There are 37 other managing directors at Techstars. We’re all on Twitter and we’re all on Linkedin. It’s pretty easy to guess what our email addresses are. So, short little emails saying ‘Hey, I’m doing this, I’m thinking about applying, what do you think?’ — you’re guaranteed to get at least some sort of response. And we might point you towards webinars that we’re doing, or we might send you some videos to take a look at so you can see if you still think it’s valid to apply. But, I think definitely just connect and engage with us.”
4. You have no referrals and you haven’t reached out to the wider community
“For all of our programs we publish lists of the mentors who were on the programs. People who organize Startup Weekends in every city in the world are connected to us, so engaging with the wider community and getting referrals and getting people to go ‘well, this company is amazing’ is huge,” explained Eamonn.
“PartyWith [formally Party with a Local], for instance, were on my last program in New York and I think they had eight to 10 different referrals from people that I knew. That makes it a lot easier for me because I’m far from infallible. The more data points that I have from people going ‘This is a great company. This is a great product,’ the easier it is for me to go ‘ok, this moves you further up in the rankings.’ So, build those relationships and don’t be afraid.”
5. You think your idea is so amazing you can’t tell anyone about it
“I see lots of companies going ‘My idea is so amazing I can’t tell anyone about it’. I get founders emailing me asking if I will sign an NDA. Well, that’s kind of insulting: It’s not establishing a relationship of trust straight away. You’re basically saying that you think I’m going to steal your idea, and it’s like ‘I already have a job.’ So, I think it’s incredibly important to build that trust and share your idea with people,” explained Eamonn.
“Socialize and get those referrals. That advice from folks as well is key. Because ultimately, no company grows in isolation. You’ve got to have really good people around you and lots of little nudges along the journey saying ‘do it this way,’ or a lot of what we do is ‘don’t do it that way.’
So, while there’s no magic blueprint when it comes to getting accepted into the world’s most elite accelerators, following Eamonn’s advice will definitely increase your odds. Flaunt your passion, form a strong team, engage with the network, and share your idea to get the feedback you need — these things will set you up for success.
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