There are lots of great advice posts on the application process to seed accelerator programs like Y Combinator, TechStars, and DreamIt Ventures. (And many others.) I was recently advising someone interested in applying to one such program on what we did right at Three Screen Games that helped us get into the Philadelphia-based DreamIt Ventures program. I figured the thoughts might be useful to others, so here they are…
Begin a Dialogue
Unlike most other application processes that you’re probably familiar with (college, grad school, etc.), there’s something that’s uniquely different about applying to a seed accelerator program. The application is not a black box. You don’t send in your application and just sit back, waiting to get a response. If you do, you probably won’t get in, or your chances of a positive outcome are reduced.
Instead, you want to send in your application early and start a conversation. Whether it’s through the questions that Y Combinator posts back to you through their application system or engaging in a conversation with the program partners via email, you want to get this dialogue flowing. There are several reasons. First, the reactions you get back on the initial idea are probably what you’d hear back if you just mailed in the application. Don’t pass up an opportunity to find out what they think and be able to refine your concept further. Second, the entrepreneurial process is very much about putting a concept out there, testing it in the market, iterating to make adjustments, and repeating. By starting the dialogue early, you have an opportunity to demonstrate that you can not only put a good idea out there, but that you can also take feedback, choose the input that is critical, and iterate again. You’ll be doing this throughout the life of the business – you might as well get started…
You’ve put your idea out there, gotten some feedback, replied intelligently – the conversation is underway. Now what?
The question that everyone asks is “Do I need a working prototype?” I think there’s been a lot of discussion out there that shows that the vast majority of companies who apply to seed accelerator programs have a prototype and may have done a little market testing.
But, the key is not the code. The critical element is showing that you can make progress.
We did not have a coded prototype when we applied to DreamIt. (I hacked the first version of FanGamb together in a week or so before the DreamIt program started in May, so we started the program with code that we could use to market test the concept, but we did not have a coded prototype when we applied.)
You don’t need code to show that you can make progress with an idea. In fact, there are a lot of other things you probably want to do before laying down code. So, if you’re a business-guy and you can’t code the prototype, go and get yourself a wireframing tool (Balsamiq rocks!) and figure out what the thing will actually look like. Figure out how to do a “paper prototype” and test your target market. (We ran a test of the early game rules for FanGamb with a spreadsheet and email during the March Madness tournament. No code needed to get a lot of useful insight and learn that people actually enjoyed playing the game.) Identify the key assumptions in your business and derisk them. Figure out what you will need for a MVP and how you’ll build it. Talk to customers. Figure out how to be agile, iterate, and pivot.
Mike Levinson, a DreamIt Ventures partner, wrote a blog post that captures this well in the last paragraph. In short, three non-technical entrepreneurs approached him before DreamIt’s applications opened. He told all three to go and make progress on their ideas and get back to him. Only one put a set of mockups together and formed a technology team. Guess who was accepted and who was not?
So, in short, find a way to show that you can execute. There are many ways to demonstrate this. After all, execution more than anything else is the key to success in startups. And unless you can show that, all you demonstrate is that you can respond to an application form and send emails.
How Can We Help You?
Aside from making sure that you have a business idea that they can get behind and that you seem like a team that can execute, the program partners have another key concern. They want the business to be one that they can help you with. Fair enough – otherwise, what’s the point? Excluding the extreme cases of bio-tech startups applying to seed programs that typically only deal with web technology, the partners will want to make sure that it’s a market space that they can advise you on and that they have mentors that align with.
There’s only so much that you can do to ensure this kind of alignment (you can’t force it), but there are some ways that you can emphasize it. Most of the programs operating today have lists of their mentors and speakers from prior years on their site. Dig through these – find mentors that align with what you’re interested in. Be sure to point this out (remember, you’re engaging in a dialogue!). Is there a company that went through the company in previous years that’s similar in some way to what you want to do? Reach out to them and find out how the program was able to advise them and who their mentor was. Any kind of initiative that you can show in this regard, to demonstrate that the program aligns with your business and can give you the kind of advising you’ll need will go a long way. (And if you don’t find any alignment, it’s good you did the research, because you should probably keep looking…)
Build It Before You Need It
Ok, so you’ve started to look into the various accelerator programs. They sound fantastic, but you aren’t ready to apply or you don’t have the ideal team yet. Or this year isn’t your year and you don’t get accepted. What can you do now?
Become a known quantity, rather than just another random name on the web. Personal branding is just the start. Find ways to learn more about the program. Be an advocate for the program – help promote the program on your college campus. Read the partners’ blogs, essays, and tweets.
Explore the local entrepreneurship community that the program is a part of. Are there meetups that you can attend if you’re local? Even if you’re not local, you can learn about who has been a major presence in the community. Who knows, you might just come across someone in the community who aligns with the business you’re trying to start and can make further intros for you.
Finally, continue to refine your idea(s), find the ideal team, and start executing. With so much information available through the web today, you can make many of the same connections and contacts, as well as find tons of material from mentors, on your own. Entrepreneurship is full of many twists and turns – find out how to make it work for you.