How to get into a startup accelerator — Part I

A multi-part mini guide for startup founders who are planning to apply for a startup accelerator.

These insights are based on my personal experience as an evaluator and advisor at NUMA: the top early-stage startup accelerator in France.

Why you should join a startup accelerator

For startups, accelerators provide a head start for the long marathon towards building a successful business.

The value of this experience is multi-layered: learn from industry experts, get privileged access to clients, reduce administrative expenses, maintain morale through peer support, boost acquisition through media coverage, attract better human resources, secure initial capital, gain credibility in the eyes of investors and be guided in critical choices.

What a startup accelerator does is time compression.

It allows you to shorten the learning cycle to the extreme, reduce distractions and increase serendipity. The details of how this happens would warrant a separate article, so let’s assume that you’re already sold on the idea.

Now, how do you actually get into a startup accelerator?

Prerequisites

Your current state is a determining factor in whether you can or even should get into an accelerator, here are the requirements.

Have a minimum viable team

Finding cofounders and key team members can take a while, but accelerators are not meant for this task.

At NUMA, we’ve seen many well-meaning entrepreneurs with great potential completely stuck with their project simply because no one could execute on decisions or burned out from carrying too much responsibility on their own.

You need to make the most out of your few months of acceleration: spending it all on finding a partner or recruitment is a waste of resources both for you and the accelerator.

Most programs don’t accept solo founders or incomplete teams. Exceptions are rare, so without this prerequisite the risk of getting refused is high.

If you’re solo, take this as your first challenge: convince someone that you’re an excellent business partner and that your project has great potential. If you can’t do that, how will you persuade your customers?

Make sure you can afford it

Even though most accelerators programs provide some initial funding, it doesn’t automatically mean that you or your cofounders can afford it. Accelerating a startup is a full-time, energy-intensive activity that will most likely change your habits and impact your lifestyle.

You want to make sure you can free yourself from other responsibilities or delegate them, that your friends and family understand and support you and that you have a viable exit plan if your startup adventure comes to an abrupt end.

Regarding this last point, some successful founders could argue that when you don’t have a viable exit plan giving up is not an option and that success stems from perseverance. If you are of the same persuasion you should at least consider survival bias.

Many accelerators require your physical presence on-site because of the great value provided by the peer community: consider the implications and costs of moving away from your current location.

Be coachable

Over the years we’ve seen experienced entrepreneurs do great at their written application only to fail at the live interview because of their inability to listen.

During the program your choices will be constantly challenged by a wide array of mentors and experts. The point is to give you the most complete perspective on your business and its challenges. This process cannot happen without a constructive feedback loop.

Having strong opinions doesn’t mean being close-minded or stubborn, accelerators value people that believe in something as much as they value people who are able to respond to criticism in a relevant way.

If you have tunnel vision you will miss on one of the main benefits of the program which is mentorship. It would be unwise for an accelerator to invest their experts’ precious time with no guarantee of an impact.

One of NUMA’s mottos is “you carry the vision, we carry the light”: the faith of the startup lies ultimately in the hands of its founders and the choice is yours on whether you want someone to walk with you and guide you.

In short: the job of an accelerator is to speed up the development of viable businesses, but this cannot happen if the basic components are not in place.

If your space rocket is not ready for takeoff, you can always choose to apply for the following acceleration season.

Practical tips

Take your time

The first rule is: don’t rush it. If it’s your first time, an application questionnaire will require some serious thinking and discussion with your team: print out the questions, fire up the coffeemaker and gather your companions around the whiteboard.

Evaluators can easily tell when an application has been thrown together in a haste or copy-pasted from a generic slide deck.

Show them you are serious about the program, otherwise why are you even applying?

Putting effort in your application sends the message that you care about the quality of your work.

Filling in the questionnaire is a collaborative effort: sometimes it will require each founder to answer individually so make sure you set aside some time to work on it as a team.

Even if you don’t get through on your first round, it’ll be worth it: time and again startups have told us that the research and refining that requires a well-crafted application becomes an asset later when presenting their business to clients and investors or when mapping out strengths and weaknesses of their product.

Get straight to the point

The first question an accelerator will usually ask is what you’re making: they expect an answer that is straight to the point, in plain and factual language.

Paul Graham from Y Combinator makes a very convincing point of why clarity and concision should be every applicant’s priority. Given the amount of applications evaluators read, it’s essential that your message is packaged to come across crystal clear: you want to paint an instant picture of your future product, one that leaves no doubt about the nature of what you’re building.

Take this statement:

“We are a free energy-saving service for budget hotels”

What can be said about this startup is:

  • They are in the energy market
  • The service is free
  • Their value proposition is to reduce energy costs
  • Their client segment is budget hotels

Despite being very succinct, this one-line pitch doesn’t tell us what it is that they are actually making, the vehicle of their value proposition. We are left to wonder how they reduce expenses: do they build insulating panels? Do they negotiate better rates with providers? Is it even scalable? How do they make money if it’s a free service?

A better way to put it could be:

“ProductX is a connected hardware device that automatically turns off air conditioning when clients are not in their hotel room allowing budget hotel managers to save up to 30% in electricity bills”

Now, in addition to what we knew before, we also know this:

  • It’s a hardware product
  • It is automated
  • The way it reduces costs is by controlling AC

The evaluator now has situated the product or service in an identifiable category and is probably curious to read further and find out how this works in detail. Also, he can now infer that profitability could come either in the form of direct product sales or as a commission on savings.

While trying to be specific, avoid the mistake of decorating your product description with baroque or “salesy” language, evaluators read through that bullshit.

If you’re having trouble describing your product in one sentence you can make a parallel with existing popular products, for example “we’re the Github of patisserie recipes”.

To test whether you have been factual enough in your description, ask someone to either draw your product or describe the customer journey. If it looks like your product you know you nailed it.

Describe a solid team

The quality of the team is the most important factor in deciding whether an accelerator will be working with you or not.

At NUMA we try to get an idea of your team as a system. The questions we ask ourselves are: have they already worked together and how well do they know each other? How experienced are they in their respective fields? Do their skills match the project’s challenges? Are the roles clearly defined and is there a natural leader?

In this excellent guide, Mattan Griffel, startup founder and YC alumni notes that the team is an important risk factor for a startup’s success.

If the team dynamic is cohesive and founders personalities fit well together, there is a greater chance of long-lasting internal stability. Incompatible characters can lead either to paralysis (when none of the founders is a decision-maker or risk-taker) or to break-up (when more than one founder has a controlling personality).

Another red flag for evaluators is when a team is taking on a challenge in a field in which they have no experience in or in building a product for which they do not have the skills.

Make sure that you draw a clear connection between your challenges as a startup and your skills as a founder.

Let’s say you are building a SaaS that allows bakers to optimise the ROI of pastries by calculating costs and revenues for different product recipes, it is a pretty specific field and the first question that will pop in and evaluator’s mind is: does this guy even know what he’s talking about?

Here’s how one of our alumni preemptively countered such doubts:

“I studied physics and chemistry before graduating in business administration. I worked two years as a strategy consultant for <name of big consulting company> but decided to leave to create a bakery and pastry chain in Brazil so I undertook a pâtissier qualification to get to understand the industry. When the director of my pastry school showed huge interest in the excel-based profitability analysis tool I had built, I decided it was time to turn it into a scalable business.”

When you present your team you are building a puzzle for the evaluators, when they have finished reading all the pieces should fall into place, none missing.

Griffel gives some tips on how to reassure the accelerator you are a solid team: show what you have already achieved together, mention how long you’ve known each other for and if you have just recently met focus on your complementarity instead.

— End of Part I. read Part II.

If you run a startup accelerator or if you’ve gone through the selection process as a startup or you are planning to, we would love to hear your thoughts: what is the hardest part of the process? What are other tips that you would give to an entrepreneur applying to a startup accelerator? Have you discovered any secrets?

If the feedback is positive we’ll publish a Part III about the live interview process and how to pitch in front of the jury.

Part II includes:

  • Why one value proposition is better than two
  • Do your market research
  • Know the customer and the problem
  • Explain your competitive advantage

For those of you who are serious about accelerating their startup and want to experience living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world: NUMA’s acceleration program starts next February in Paris. You can apply until December 16th.

Like what you read? Give Fiodor Tonti a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.