What I Learned from Being Rejected by an Accelerator
A quick web Execu|Search will tell you that there are only a few basics to getting into an accelerator: a big problem, an innovative and superior solution, a large growing market, and a great team.
Last fall, I applied to an accelerator with a foolproof plan. I had a product that is by definition innovative, as no one else in the world is doing it, and a superior solution – every member of the admission panel agreed that it is a no-brainer that it was just a matter of time before the industry would switch to my solution.
I was targeting a rapidly expanding market that had been on the front page of TechCrunch and Mashable every day for months. On top of that, I had a rock star team. I, myself, have some decently respectable credentials to cover the business side of things. And if I asked you to name the 10 companies or organizations producing the world's greatest technological marvels, I'm pretty sure that half your list would have counted my two engineer cofounders as employees or alums.
And we were rejected.
What went wrong? I think I've figured out most of the answer to that question now, but I wish I could have done it sooner. To help anyone in a similar situation avoid my mistakes, I present a few words of advice. As to specifics, my list below is pretty far away from comprehensive, but it is a few things that I didn't get from online sources, and that I wish someone had told me.
Know your audience.
The panel of judges was made publicly available, and while we read over their profiles, we didn't get to know them personally due to time constraints. People like this are generally very willing to meet with you, hear about your company, and give you their perspective. Figure out who these people are before the application period even begins, and start to build relationships. Their advice will probably be very helpful, and is an investment in your future, even if it leads to nothing for your company. You'll be able to ferret out their concerns and learn what they like and don't like ahead of time. On top of that, it will make them a lot more receptive to what you're saying; when they hear you repeating their perspectives in your presentation, it will put them on your side, making it as if they have a stake in your success.
Above all, consider your audience's experience. If they have all reached success by founding or investing in social media startups, they might not be comfortable investing in your advanced manufacturing startup. Remember, they are evaluating not only you, but also their ability to help get you where you need to go.
Understand the accelerator's business model.
This particular accelerator is designed for web-based companies. The time period is about half a year, and the initial investment is $25k. We wanted to have a team of four people develop a product with hardware for an industry that is historically slow moving. For web-based companies, $25k can mostly support two developers and a few miscellaneous administrative costs, which is all you need to get a web-based company to the next stage. Again, put yourself in the accelerator's shoes, and evaluate if your plan fits with their model. Will the resources you'll have get you to the next stage? If not, re-evaluate your plan.
Budget time to practice (and sleep).
We finished putting together our presentation at 2:00 a.m. the night before our early morning presentation, then ran through it twice. I'm perfectly comfortable with public speaking, but I felt unprepared, and it showed. Sleep deprivation accumulated over the prior few weeks also didn't help. Guy Kawasaki, renowned Apple executive and entrepreneur, estimates that after you have finalized your speech, you need to go through it uninterrupted 25 times before you have practiced sufficiently. I don't think he's far off. Budget accordingly. (My #1 recommendation as a source for these types of presentations is Guy Kawasaki's book Art of the Start, by the way.)
Get the presentation over with.
Your presentation will have very little value, because it is very hard to know what your audience is thinking. You may think that they will have certain concerns (or look positively on certain things) based on your perspective or even past experience with similar audiences, only to discover that they are completely comfortable with what you thought would be a concern, and very concerned about what you thought was a non-issue. Cover the basic points as quickly as humanly possible, and leave as much time as you can for Q&A. I would suggest, as a rule of thumb, that you put together your presentation like you want it, time it, then limit your final presentation to a quarter of the time that it took to go through your original. However, I would also recommend including a massive appendix section in your PowerPoint. The idea is to convey the basics, get to Q&A as fast as you can, then have a slide answering every possible question that could be asked. A team member can navigate to each slide as you answer the question.
Do your research, and bring a notebook.
Some advice that you'll probably get frequently is to appear supremely confident, but coachable. Translation: make sure you know more about your market than your audience, and find a way to prove that you are continuing to learn at an extremely rapid pace. The first part is relatively straightforward – just don't underestimate your audience. A foolproof way to get the second part down is to simply pull out a notebook as soon as the Q&A starts. Every time a question is asked, write it down (or at least appear to write it down) or take a note. This makes you appear like you are constantly seeking new perspectives and information, which is a key quality that accelerators want to see. If you happen to have a third founder, the one who isn't lead speaker or PowerPoint navigator can be the note taker.
Sounds simple, but it's powerful.
If you're applying to an accelerator, or even just thinking about it, PM me. I'd be happy to share my perspective.