It’s the program of your dreams.
Mentors. Networking. Skill development. Oh, and don’t forget about that non-dilutive stipend! This accelerator program has everything you need to help your business grow. But there’s one thing standing in your way…
That dreaded application.
Here at Future Founders, we’ve read thousands of applications for our Startup Bootcamp and Fellowship programs. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that not all applications are equal.
Amazing businesses get denied from startup accelerators every single day. And it generally has little to do with the business or the founders. More often than not, rejections come to those who missed the mark on their application.
Popular accelerator programs receive hundreds (or even thousands!) of applications each cohort. Meaning if you want to earn your spot, you must stand out.
Thankfully, the Future Founders team is here to help. Here’s our list of 7 things you can do to ensure your startup program application is getting noticed.
Humans love stories. They’re memorable, engaging, and convey loads of information in bite-size pieces. So why not use your startup program application to tell a story of your own?
Every program will have a unique set of questions that they ask about you and your startup. Don’t be afraid to add some personality, weaving your answers into a story as you move through the application.
Regardless of what’s asked of you, be sure you’ve found a way to answer these important questions by the end:
By answering these questions, you’ll craft a story. One that will catch the attention of the reader on the other end.
It’s easy for founders to focus on all they get from participating in a program. The prestige. The money. The connections.
But what will you give?
Community is at the core of every quality bootcamp and accelerator program on earth. And the quality of that community is determined by what founders give, not what they take.
Be sure to highlight what you and your co-founders (if applicable) will bring to the cohort. Perhaps it’s your technical abilities. Maybe it’s your unique understanding of a particular industry. Or possibly your encouraging and supportive nature.
Make it clear to the reader that your presence will make the cohort stronger.
One of the most common mistakes we see on program applications is lack of clarity. Littering your application with jargon and corporate-ese doesn’t make your team look smart. It confuses the reader. As one application reviewer for the prestigious Y Combinator program put it,
“Revolutionizing the world of digital communication via the social web” gets me no closer to understanding what you’re actually doing. Write in plain speak – e.g. “a mobile application showing you nearby restaurants your friends recommend”.
Applications get skimmed in a matter of seconds (or minutes, if you’re lucky). Meaning you need to be crystal clear about who you are and what you do. Write your application as if the reader has no understanding of your startup or your industry. Because chances are, they don’t.
Same goes for your numbers. Sure, assuming 100% of your free users will convert to paying customers may make revenue projections look amazing. But is it likely to happen? Of course not! Unrealistic projections are easy to spot, and will do nothing but hurt your chances of success.
Speaking of numbers, if you’re asked about your goals for the program, be sure to quantify them when applicable. For example, say your goal is to “Grow Users”. Well, that’s not painting a very clear picture for us. How many users? What percentage growth would that be from your current user base? How long do you think it will take to achieve this goal?
By being clear, you tell a better story, and make it easier for the reader to know whether or not their program is the right fit for you and your business.
So, what’s an early-stage startup supposed to do if they can’t fill their application with impressive-sounding language and inflated numbers?
Accelerators don’t just back businesses. They back founders. Meaning more than anything, they’re investing their time, energy, and resources into you. So show them you’re someone worth backing.
Don’t have a ton of users? Explain what you’re doing to fix that. Not making money yet? What have you done so far to validate that this could one day generate revenue?
Traction doesn’t measure the size of your business. It measures the effort you and your team are putting into making this business succeed. And when faced with backing one or the other, startup bootcamps and accelerators will almost always back the teams putting in the effort.
If you’ve searched for a job recently, you know it’s getting harder and harder to land an interview with a generic “To whom it may concern” cover letter. These days, you need to stand out with a personalized application that speaks directly to the company.
The same is true for startup program applications. Don’t copy and paste text from your website and expect it to impress application reviewers. Put it in the effort to explain why this particular accelerator program is the perfect fit for your business. Make it unique and make it personal. (Bonus points if you do some research and are able to mention specific workshops or speakers from the program you are applying to and how you anticipate you’ll benefit from them.)
We promise, this extra effort always pays off. Even if you don’t land a spot this time around, you’ll be top of mind for when applications open for the next cohort.
It’s shocking how many applications don’t provide all the necessary information.
Avoid skipping questions and application fields at all costs. If something doesn’t apply to you or your business, write “N/A”. Or better yet, use that field to help tell your story (you remember our conversation about stories, don’t you?)
For example, if there’s a question about current revenues (and your business doesn’t have any), don’t leave it blank. Use it to show your traction on validating the business model: “We are not currently generating revenue. But, we have interviewed 100 of our free users, and 65% have indicated that they would be willing to pay $19.99 per month for a premium version of the app with features X, Y, and Z. We are currently developing these features, and will be launching our first paid version of the app in 4 months.”
This answer and “N/A” both tell the reader that you don’t have any revenue. But which answer do you think will grab their attention?
Also, if the application requires a video, DO NOT skip this, as it will automatically invalidate your application. Additionally, don’t just reuse the same video for every application – some programs ask specific questions to be answered in the video portion and submitting the same pitch video you’ve used for the last year won’t cut it.
It’s time to share a hard truth – even with a perfect application, there’s always the chance you won’t be accepted into the program of your dreams. So, what do you do when that rejection comes through your inbox?
Take a deep breath. Be proud you gave it your all. And start thinking about how you’ll apply again next time.
Drew Houston, Founder of Dropbox, was famously denied from Y Combinator when he first applied in 2005. But he kept trying, and was eventually accepted into their 2007 batch. Today, Dropbox does over $500 million in revenue each year!
The point is, you’ll never know all the circumstances behind a rejection. Perhaps there was an unusually high number of applicants this year. Maybe you’re a bit too early (but they still love the idea). Or the program is focusing on specific industries this cohort.
Whatever the reason, you should never be afraid to reapply when future applications open up. In fact, your willingness to try again will speak volumes to the program team reviewing your application.
There are no set rules when it comes to applying to a startup accelerator program. But this list should give you a sense of what we look for when reviewing applications for our Startup Bootcamp and Fellowship programs.
The most important thing to remember is that no program should ever stand between you and success. Even if you fail to land a spot in the accelerator of your dreams, don’t let it stop you from chasing your dreams. Because while startup bootcamps and accelerators can be incredibly helpful, there’s absolutely no substitute for a dedicated, passionate founder.
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