Being interviewed by 500 startups
There is not much information out there about the interviewing process at 500 startups from an applicant’s perspective. Full disclosure, I was invited to the interviews for batch 7 to talk about my startup Popout but I didn’t make it into the accelerator. However, I had a really great time at 500 startups and I think future applicants can learn from the mistakes I made! I am not going to talk about specific questions asked but rather give a more personal view on what to expect.I had a lot of fun during the interviews, so take my advice with humour.
The office of 500 startups is in Mountain View in a tall building on the 12th floor. Luckily, there is a cafe on the ground floor, for all applicants in need of their caffein shot before feeling ready to face the interviewers. We got ourselves a coffee and entered the building. We’re Germans, so we were over punctual. This is in our German DNA, we had no choice but be 10mins early. I can assure you that this is completely unnecessary.
The security supervisor of the building couldn’t stop praising German virtues once he heard that we’re from there. If you want some reassurance and a self-confidence boost before stepping into the elevators, tell him you’re from Germany.
Everybody told us beforehand that we shouldn’t expect Dave to be present for the interviews. First thing that happened upon sitting down — Dave walked through the room, a huge grin on his face, saying something about how cute and nervous all the applicants looked. What we did: smile and wave. What you should do: smile and wave, boys, just smile and wave.
What I strongly advice you not to do: scream, swoon, pee in your pants, tackle him and anything else that could make you look like a crazy person.
You’re expected to clear 3 hours of your schedule for the interviews but don’t worry, everything is over within 45mins. Three back to back to back interviews are conducted with members of their investment team and afterwards you’re free to go! For us it was with Max and Matt, Christine and Sean, and Parker and Dave. Trust me, as soon as it starts time flies. Back to back to back might sound stressful to you but in reality benefits the interviewees — once you’re in proper interview mode you’ll be surprised how short 45mins are.
Before we went into the interviews we made a list of all relevant questions that we could expect and also talked about how to answer these.I would strongly recommend making a list of all potential questions and knowing all the answers to those questions — that’s the least you should do.
The general topics we touched on were: how does your startup work, where is the proof that it works, why do you think the team works and why do you want to be part of 500 startups.
For the first question you should be prepared to give a short pitch and know all about the operational part of the business. Especially marketing was a recurring topic in the interviews. I can’t help you with a correct answer to that. Make sure that you don’t sound too naive. Making people pay for stuff is tough. Telling them that you will use some SEO strategies is certainly not enough. That already leads us to the next question. If you have proof that it works in terms of numbers and traction, nobody can dispute your execution ability. That was our weakest part. We had some initial traction and revenue but nothing significant. I know it works and I know we’re able to execute but unfortunately I have no proof. There is a German saying that I learnt from the grandmother of my co-founder that fits very well to this situation: it makes me want to bite myself in the butt.Don’t make that mistake!
About the team, we were later told that the fact that we worked together for quite a while already is a great plus. We did our best to make our eyes sparkle with enthusiasm and passion, which was not very easy for my reserved European co-founders. I think the interview is the best opportunity to show how passionate you are about what you’re doing. It’s the passion that make us entrepreneurs keep going.Christine wrote a great blog post about interesting answers to the question why different teams wanted to be part of 500 startups. We didn’t do much boot liking here, everybody knows how great 500 startups is, we talked about how and why we think we could benefit from specific mentors.
I’m really glad that Dave took the time to conduct one interview himself. Dave seems to be an extremely nice and down to earth person. I believe that he had our presentation open on his laptop, since he asked very specific questions. He made some out-of-the-box suggestions, such as suggesting a different name for our startup, and I enjoyed that we could feel that we was really engaged with the topic, namely our startup. I experienced some interviews in other settings in which the interviewer tried to distance himself from the interviewees, for example through displayed boredom or arrogance. This was not the case with Dave! He actively participated in our discussion and threw in his own ideas and suggestions. I just wish that we could have handled that better. Typically German, we were listening and nodding all the time but I wish we could have taken that opportunity to show off our intelligence, by going into deeper discussions or by challenging his suggestions. If I had the chance to do it again, I would interact a lot more with his ideas and suggestions.
All in all, the interviews were a great experience. The interviewers were well prepared and made us feel very welcome and confident.The entire atmosphere was extremely forthcoming and friendly. Thanks also to Melissa, their amazing office manager.
After the interviews I developed a quite obsessive email checking disorder. Don’t do that, it’s not healthy!
We went into the interviews knowing that we have a plan that we are going to follow, with our without the help of 500 startups. Our plan is inevitably going to happen because we are the drivers. That’s the mindset you should have. Of course, it would be a bit easier with the help of 500 but your success is not dependent on them. You and your team is responsible for your success. Nobody else. Make sure that you are aware of that! This awareness will make you a lot calmer.
If you get into the accelerator, take a couple of hours to be very proud of yourself. You deserve it. Then get your lazy ass back to work!
If you don’t make it, take a minute let it settle in. As a child I firmly believed that my Hogwarts owl died on its way delivering my letter. I knew that sooner or later they would realize that I’m missing at Hogwarts and send another owl. First, you have to accept that you’re not going to Hogwarts anymore, in this case 500 startups.
Then take a minute to be upset. You deserve it. Then look at the feedback they sent you (this is something I really appreciate, thanks Christine!), be honest with yourself and ask yourself “is this something that is going to keep me from succeeding?.” Use the feedback to make your startup better. Don’t be childish, take their feedback seriously. Make the necessary improvements or prove them wrong. Then get back to work, either way you’ll have a lot of work to do. Remember, your success is only dependent on you and your team! I like to think that you should postpone judging about failure to when you’re old. What seems to be a failure now might lead to success later. Failure and success contributes to a pattern that you can only see when you’ve lived most of your life. Now, get your lazy ass back to work!
@Sean, if you’re reading this, your package is almost there. I hope you and Dave like it! Tweet a picture at me with you wearing it ;)
About Popout: we are a tool that enables small merchants to take part in international trade by taking away the pain of distribution and logistics.The feedback we got is that logistics and operations are very challenging and that the market potential is unclear. Our own thoughts are that we are lacking a clear focus. We are taking care of logistics and also have a marketplace. While we give the merchants tools to acquire customers themselves, we can’t fool ourselves, there will be a lot of work for us as well! We’re thinking about how to eliminate one of the challenges, to make our lives easier and to make the business more scalable. We all agree that simple and cheap logistics is the key to international trade. That’s the direction we’re taking. Follow me on twitter @laurabehrenswu (I’m new on twitter, it’s not such as big thing in Europe) or write an email for feedback/ideas behrenswu(at)gmail.com.
Edit: this is the new direction we’re taking: http://bit.ly/1bymRdw on www.goshippo.com