Best practices for applying to seed accelerators

Posted: February 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

A few weeks ago, I posted some advice to entrepreneurs applying to the various seed programs. As the deadlines loom, I’m sure that many more are in the process of tackling the application. I’ve been reviewing some applications for DreamIt Ventures and based on some of what I’m seeing in those reviewed thus far, I wanted to put some additional advice out there.

  1. Put some thought into the applications. The program coordinators aren’t expecting an essay for each response (in fact, it’s good to be succinct), but one sentence responses to questions that don’t demonstrate any effort, thought, and/or motivation are not going to help your cause. Motivation is big – not showing any in your application begs the question if you’ll have the energy and drive to push a startup through to success. Remember, this is an application for thousands of dollars and hours upon hours of mentoring. Inspire some confidence that you can take advantage of this and harness it to achieve what you proclaim. As an example: In response to the questions around competition, don’t just say something to the effect that “There is no competition. We are the only ones who have been smart enough to think of this idea.” First off, it’s a red flag that you don’t think there’s any competition – there’s usually always something you can point to. Second, even if there’s nothing you feel competes directly, use this as an opportunity to emphasize your competitive advantage. I focused on the competitive question because that’s one that stands out to me, but this is equally true of any question on the application. Take some time. Think. Don’t take the easy way out of a question. That’s the fastest way to get a rejection.
  2.  

  3. Co-founders and the product. Everyone who writes one of these advice posts talks about the quality of the team. Even though (in general) single founders are red flags, do not just add a co-founder because you need a second warm body. Make sure they add something to the overall package. And if both of you are business grads and have only studied marketing, let’s be realistic – how is the product going to get built? The product is an integral aspect of any startup, so you’d better make sure that your application shows evidence of how you’re going to be able to make something. Not having a dedicated technology co-founder, is a red flag, but if you’re thinking there’s some other way to implement your plans, you had better be extremely detailed in explaining your thinking. And when describing your tech co-founder’s experience in the application, this is when it’s important to illustrate relevant past work. Please don’t just toss in generic buzz words – people with tech backgrounds will see through you and discredit you. Demos, prototypes, mockups – any kind of code will help to demonstrate that there’s something to your team.
  4.  

  5. For the love of all that is good, don’t simply submit an application that is a blatant clone of one of the program’s earlier portfolio companies. First off, the partners have been advising this company for almost a year at this point. There’s a very good chance they know as much about the market as you – you’d better make sure you show that you’re an expert in the space. Any gaps in your thinking will be extremely evident. Second, you’d be well advised to show some original thought and differentiate yourself somewhat. It’s been nearly a year since the original company was accepted. The market landscape for startups shifts extremely rapidly. As such, logic bears that something must have changed or progressed. The original startup has learned and evolved. Does your idea show the same evolution? In general, I would be cautious about cloning ideas – I think there’s little reason to accept them and furthermore, if you’re showing the kind of forward thinking and innovation that these accelerator programs promote and encourage, then you’re probably not going to be an exact clone anyway. Iterate and evolve. You’ll be doing it all summer anyway.

Finally, I can’t overemphasize the importance of building a dialogue, as I wrote earlier. Don’t wait until the last minute! Allow time to have a conversation! But also, the strongest applicants find ways to go beyond the application form to show the program that they’re motivated and have what it takes to get stuff done.


Getting Accepted

Posted: January 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments »

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…

Show Progress

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.


Help for Startups! – A semi-complete list of startup accelerator programs

Posted: January 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , , , , , | 202 Comments »

This is a post I’ve had a running draft of for some time. I’m happy to be getting it out of my draft bin and out onto the web!

Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital spoke at DreamIt Ventures this summer. During his talk, Josh mentioned how he expects to see an increasing number of DreamIt/TechStars/Y Combinator-style locally-focused “seed stage startup accelerator” programs in the coming years.

This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Between the research that led to the founding of the Lion Launch Pad at Penn State and my research into startup accelerator programs before joining DreamIt Ventures this summer, I’ve talked with / read about a number of programs.

But I wasn’t really sure how many programs were out there, nor have I been able to find a comprehensive list anywhere else. The programs certainly don’t all operate in the same fashion, so there is a lot of diversity as far as terms and offerings, but in general, I think everyone can agree that it’s a good thing for startups that so many are taking an interest around the globe in helping early stage ventures get off the group and take flight.

So, here is the list I’ve been compiling – I’m sure I’m forgetting a few – what else is out there?

Global Seed-Stage Startup Accelerators

  1. Ann Arbor, MI – SPARK Business Acceleratorhttp://www.annarborusa.org/start-ups/spark-business-accelerator/
  2. Atlanta, GA – Shotput Ventureshttp://www.shotputventures.com
  3. Athens, Greece – OpenFundhttp://theopenfund.com
  4. Austin, TX – Capital Factoryhttp://www.capitalfactory.com
  5. Austin, TX – TechRanch Austinhttp://techranchaustin.com
  6. Bangalore, India – iAcceleratorhttp://iaccelerator.org
  7. Bangalore, India – The Morpheushttp://www.themorpheus.com (formerly Morpheus Venture Partners – http://www.morpheusventure.com)
  8. Bangalore, India – Upstart.inhttp://www.upstart.in/programs.html
  9. Barcelona, Spain – SeedRockethttp://www.seedrocket.com
  10. Belfast, Northern Ireland – StartVI (Start 6)http://www.startvi.com
  11. Berkley, CA – Berkley Ventureshttp://www.berkeleyventures.com
  12. Bloomington, IN – Sproutboxhttp://www.sproutbox.com
  13. Boulder, CO / Boston, MA / Seattle, WA – TechStarshttp://www.techstars.org
  14. Boston, MA and other cities – IBM Smartcamphttp://www.ibm.com/ie/smarterplanet/smartcamp/
  15. Boston, MA – Start@Sparkhttp://www.sparkcapital.com/start/
  16. Cambridge, UK – Springboardhttp://springboard.red-gate.com
  17. Champaign, IL – iVentures10http://www.iventures10.com
  18. Chicago, IL – Excelerate Labshttp://www.exceleratelabs.com
  19. China – Innovation Workshttp://en.innovation-works.com/
  20. Copenhagen, Denmark – Startupbootcamphttp://www.startupbootcamp.dk
  21. Dalian, China – China Acceleratorhttp://chinaccelerator.com
  22. Dallas, TX – Tech Wildcattershttp://techwildcatters.com
  23. Detroit, MI – Bizdom Uhttp://www.bizdom.com
  24. Dublin, Ireland – NDRC’s Launch Padhttp://www.ndrc.ie/projects/entrepreneurial-internships/
  25. England – The Difference Enginehttp://thedifferenceengine.eu
  26. Greenville, SC – NextStarthttp://www.nextstart.org
  27. Hamburg, Germany – HackFwdhttp://hackfwd.com
  28. Houston, TX – Houston Tech Centerhttp://www.houstontech.org
  29. Italy – H-Farmhttp://www.h-farmventures.com
  30. Italy – Working Capitalhttp://www.workingcapital.telecomitalia.it/2010/03/koinup-selezionata/
  31. Jordan – Oasis 500http://arabcrunch.com/2010/06/oasis-500-a-startup-accelerator-to-launch-in-august.html (launching in August – no specific site yet)
  32. Lexington, MA / Menlo Park, CA – Summer@Highland Capitalhttp://www.hcp.com/summer/
  33. Lexington, KY – The Awesome Inc. Experiencehttp://awesomeinc.org/the-awesome-experience
  34. Limerick, Ireland – The Greenhousehttp://greenhouselimerick.com
  35. Lisbon, Portugal – Maverick/SeedCapitalhttp://maverick.pt http://seedcapital.pt
  36. London, UK – Seedcamphttp://www.seedcamp.com
  37. Los Angeles, CA – LaunchPadLAhttp://www.launchpad.la
  38. Madrid, Spain – Tetuan Valley Startup Schoolhttp://www.tetuanvalley.com
  39. Menlo Park, CA – Lightspeed Venture Partners Summer Grantshttp://lightspeedvp.com/summergrants.aspx
  40. Montreal, Ca – BOLIDEAhttp://blog.bolidea.com
  41. Montreal, Ca – Flow Ventures Accelerator Programhttp://www.flowventures.com
  42. Montreal, Ca – Montreal Startuphttp://montrealstartup.com
  43. Mountain View, CA – Y Combinatorhttp://www.ycombinator.com
  44. Nashville, TN – JumpStart Foundryhttp://www.jumpstartfoundry.com
  45. New York, NY – FirstGrowth Venture Networkhttp://www.firstgrowthvn.com
  46. New York, NY – The Hatcheryhttp://www.hatchery.vc
  47. New York, NY – NYC SeedStarthttp://www.nycseed.com/seedstart.html
  48. Orange County, CA – OCTANe LaunchPadhttp://www.octaneoc.org
  49. Orem, Utah – BoomStartuphttp://boomstartup.com
  50. Phoenix, AZ – Gangplankhttp://gangplankhq.com
  51. Philadelphia, PA – DreamIt Ventureshttp://www.dreamitventures.com
  52. Philadelphia, PA – Startl – partners with DreamIt Ventures – http://startl.org/apply/accelerator-apply/
  53. Pittsburgh, PA – AlphaLabhttp://alphalab.org
  54. Portland, OR – The Portland Tenhttp://www.portlandten.com
  55. Providence, RI – Betaspringhttp://www.betaspring.com
  56. Redwood City, CA – Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs (SVASE) Seed Programhttp://www.svase.org
  57. San Francisco, CA – The Start Projecthttp://thestartproject.com
  58. San Diego, CA – Springboard program at CONNECT.orghttp://www.connect.org/springboard/
  59. San Francisco, CA – i/o Ventureshttp://www.ventures.io
  60. Seattle, WA – Founders Co-ophttp://www.founderscoop.com
  61. Silicon Valley – PayPal Startup Acceleratorhttp://www.x.com/community/ppx/xspaces/accelerator
  62. Singapore – Neoteny Labshttp://www.neotenylabs.com
  63. Singapore – Joyful Frog Digital Incubator (JFDI)http://jfdi.asia
  64. Sydney, Australia – SeedAcceleratorhttp://www.seedaccelerator.com
  65. Taipei, Taiwan – appWorks Ventures Incubator Programhttp://appworks.tw/incubator/
  66. Toronto, Canada – Extreme Venture Partners Universityhttp://www.extremevp.com/university/
  67. Tokyo, Japan – Open Network Labhttp://www.onlab.jp
  68. Utah – Startup Utahhttp://startuputah.com
  69. Vancouver, Canada – BootupLabshttp://bootuplabs.com
  70. Washington, D.C. / Durham, NC – LaunchboxDigitalhttp://www.launchboxdigital.com
  71. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada – Impact Ventureshttp://www.impact.org
  72. Wilmington, DE – BetaFishhttp://betafishde.tumblr.com (on Facebook)
  73. Zeeland, MI – Momentumhttp://www.momentum-mi.com
  74. Multiple Locations – The Founder Institutehttp://founderinstitute.com
  75. Unknown Location – Youniversity Ventureshttp://www.youniversityventures.com
  76.  

    Social Entrepreneurship

  77. Boulder, Colorado – Unreasonable Institutehttp://www.unreasonableinstitute.org
  78. Philadelphia, PA – GoodCompany Ventureshttp://www.goodcompanyventures.org
  79. India – Dasra Social-Impacthttp://www.dasra.org/dasra-social-impact.htm
  80.  

    University-Affiliated Startup Accelerator Programs

  81. Finland – Aalto University – Aalto Bootcamphttp://aaltoes.com/aaltoes-venture-track/bootcamp/
  82. Arizon State University – Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative - http://studentventures.asu.edu
  83. Babson College – Summer Venture Programhttp://www3.babson.edu/Newsroom/Releases/Summer-Venture-program.cfm (no specific site avail)
  84. Berkeley Entrepreneurship Laboratoryhttp://entrepreneurship.berkeley.edu/resources/bel.html
  85. College of the Atlantic – Sustainable Ventures Incubatorhttp://www.coa.edu/press-releases_pg1_724.htm
  86. Cornell University – eLabshttp://www.elabstartup.com
  87. Couri Hatchery at Syracuse Universityhttp://whitman.syr.edu/eee/incubator/
  88. Duke University – DUhatchhttp://www.cerc.duke.edu/duhatch
  89. University of Michigan – RPM10http://www.rpmvc.com/rpm10/
  90. University of Michigan’s “Techarb” Business Acceleratorhttp://techarb.org/about/ and http://cfe.engin.umich.edu/businessaccelerator
  91. University of North Carolina – Carolina Launch Padhttp://www.carolinalaunchpad.org
  92. Penn State University – Lion Launch Padhttp://www.lionlaunchpad.org
  93. University of Pennsylvania - Wharton Venture Initiation Programhttp://vip.wharton.upenn.edu
  94. RIT Student Business Development Labhttp://entrepreneurship.rit.edu/business_lab.php (part of the Venture Creations program at RIT http://www.venturecreations.org)
  95. Santa Clara University – Global Social Benefit Incubatorhttp://www.scu.edu/sts/gsbi/
  96. Stanford University – Student Startup Labhttp://sselabs.stanford.edu/
  97. Syracuse University – Start-Up Acceleratorhttp://accelerate.syr.edu/ForStudents/index.aspx
  98. Syracuse Student Sandbox at the Tech Gardenhttp://thetechgarden.com/studentsandbox
  99. Union College – U-Starthttp://www.union.edu/resources/technology/u-start/index.php
  100. The University of Texas at Austin – Texas Venture Labshttp://www.texasventurelabs.net
  101. Virginia Tech – DayOne Ventureshttp://dayoneventures.com
  102. University of Waterloo – VeloCity “Dormcubator”http://velocity.uwaterloo.ca
  103. Wayne State University – SmartStart Business Development Programhttp://techtownwsu.org/business/smartstart.php
  104. Yale University – Yale Entrepreneurial Institute / Yale Startupshttp://www.yalestartups.com

 

Other Useful Resources:

  • Map of Seed Accelerator programs around the world: On Google Maps
  • List of Application Deadlines for programs: here

 

** In the comments, there was a program from Kettering University suggested. I see this program as more of a conventional incubator than what I have come to term a seed stage accelerator program. For this reason, (nothing against the program) I have not included it in the list (there are far too many conventional incubator programs to try to compile a list of those), though if you are in Flint, MI, hopefully the program is able to be of assistance.

Again, I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list and there are others out there.  Let us know – where else can startups find help!

Sources: Numerous blog posts and tweets + Jed Christiansen’s dissertation appendix + great tips in the comments! The New York student programs were listed at http://bianys.com/student_incubators

Edited: From the comments below and the thread over on Hacker News, there have been some great suggestions for the list. I’ve updated the list with the applicable programs. Further programs added in April 2010. Added IBM Smartcamp. Updated April 22 with program from comments. Updated on April 24 to include deadpool. Updated May 14 to include the additional resources (count at 93). Updated June 11 with new programs (count at 102).

  1. merged with Launchbox Digital in April 2010
  2. Inactive per comment below and their site.