How To Get Into An Accelerator Program
Going through a prestigious accelerator can make all the difference for an early-stage startup. Throughout three or sometimes six intense months, you'll rapidly scale your startup with the support of top industry experts, venture capitalists, and like-minded entrepreneurs.
Why Join An Accelerator Program?
An accelerator program has a lot to offer—whether you’re a solo founder just getting started, or you’ve already raised seed funding and hired a team.
When you join a startup accelerator, you typically trade equity ownership for three to six months of intense growth. Each day, you'll brush shoulders with other highly motivated founders and learn from industry experts. You'll gain access to initial clients and investors and likely secure media coverage. Being associated with a prestigious accelerator will also give you and your company credibility.
A note for international founders: Participation in a prestigious accelerator like Y Combinator, Techstars, Plug and Play, SOSV, or 500 Startups often enables founders to qualify for the O-1 visa.
Tips for Getting Into An Accelerator Program
Select the best accelerator
Selecting the best accelerator for your startup is not about choosing the most prestigious or flashy accelerator. Instead, you should focus on an accelerator that will be the best fit for your industry and business goals. Look into the mentors and team you'd be working with at the accelerators you're interested in. Consider each accelerator's exit and acquisition rates, and how many portfolio companies are still active.
To get the inside scoop, reach out to alums in your network (more on this below) or cold outreach to alumni. In your cold outreach messages, get straight to the point with what you want. For example: “I’m trying to determine the best accelerator for my startup. I have a few questions about your experience with Plug and Play. Would you be willing to jump on a 20-minute call sometime in the next two weeks?” You might have to send messages to twenty or even a hundred alumni on LinkedIn before one agrees to chat with you. It can be intimidating, but it is possibly the best way to ensure you apply to the right accelerator.
You should evaluate accelerators just as much as they evaluate you. You'll be dedicating significant time and energy to the program upon acceptance. Remember, depending on the program, you may pay for the program or give up equity ownership to join.
Round up your team
The admissions team will want to see that you've rounded up the right people to lead your startup to global success. This includes you and your co-founder(s), plus your first hires.
Techstars founder David Brown has frequently been quoted saying that the six criteria Techstars considers are: team, team, team, market, progress, and idea. Yep, a startup's team is so vital that David repeats it three times.
Maximize your network
Before you apply, reach out to anyone in your network who has gone through an accelerator that interests you.
Learn from their stories, but remember that each story is unique. For example, the amount of traction that YC startups have before being accepted varies greatly. Out of 15 YC companies, GrowthMentor found that around a third were accepted into YC with "little more than an idea and a pitch deck."
Although your friend may have gotten into an accelerator with significant traction, know that it's not impossible to get in with just an idea. Take each thing you hear with a grain of salt.
Be sure to leverage your network as you prepare for the interview process. If you have an interview with 500 Startups, do your best to find 500 Startups alums to practice interview prompts with before the interview. If there isn't anyone in your network, take advantage of the internet and reach out to people on LinkedIn and by email.
Simplify your story
In both your written application and your interview, it's essential to be concise. Y Combinator's co-founder, Paul Graham, emphasizes this:
"If there's something about you that stands out, or some special insight you have into the problem you plan to work on, make sure we see it.
The best way to do that is to be concise. You don't have to sell us on you. We'll sell ourselves, if we can just understand you. But every unnecessary word in your application subtracts from the effect of the necessary ones. So before submitting your application, print it out and take a red pen and cross out every word you don't need. And in what's left be as specific and as matter-of-fact as you can."
Rehearse your responses
To nail the interview, you'll need to practice ahead of time so you can respond quickly and concisely to each question.
You'll probably be able to find example questions for your specific accelerator by searching on Google.
In general, you should have a response prepared for questions like:
- What are you building?
- What problem are you solving?
- Who are your customers?
- How are customers finding out about you?
- What makes new customers try your product?
- What makes reluctant users hold back?
- How will you make money?
- How did your team meet?
- How did you determine who would be CEO?
- What is your team missing?
- Who would you hire if we gave you $200k for hiring a team right now?
- Who are your competitors?
- Why did you choose this startup idea?
- What's the most challenging problem you've ever solved?
- Why did you choose this accelerator?
Although there is a chance you'll be accepted into an accelerator with just an idea and a pitch deck, your chances significantly improve when you can show traction.
For example, 500 Startups encourages B2B applicants to mention both paid and unpaid pilots, as well as Letters of Intent (LOIs). They encourage B2C applicants to highlight any momentum they have gained—even if it's just the conversations you've had with early customers.
If you fail, try again
With YC specifically, many alumni are rejected at least once before being accepted into the program. Don't let a rejection slow you down. Spend the next few months investing into your startup's growth, and then apply again.
Other startup founder resources:
- What To Attend An Accelerator In the U.S. - A Guide for International Founders
- U.S. Work Visas for Web3 and Crypto Founders
- How to Launch a Startup as an International Student
- Green Card Options for Startup Founders
- How to Start a Company on an H-1B Visa
- O-1 vs EB-2 NIW for Startup Founders