Accelerators are on the rise and are viewed as having a positive impact on the startup landscape. For many startup founders, getting accepted to an accelerator program is a key step in moving their dreams forward in one big leap. In many cases, it can determine whether you ever make those dreams a reality.
Because funding is so important, it's critical that you get it right. Although picking the right program is important, preparation entails more than that. Before you apply to an accelerator program, you need to think through a few things to ensure you are aligned and prepared for success.
As someone who's advised at multiple accelerators and incubators, I recommend you ask yourself and your team the following questions.
1. Which accelerator is the right one for us?
There are a number of factors you should consider when deciding which accelerator is right for you and your startup. That fit will be informed by several factors, including the sector the accelerator works in, the startups in its portfolio, its resources and its network.
"The one thing that you should look for when deciding on an accelerator is the strength of its network," says Jenny Fielding, managing director of Techstars and a general partner at The Fund. "Having access to a deep bench of resources including mentors, domain experts, investors and corporate partners can give founders a massive competitive advantage."
Also, evaluate the directors of the program and look at the mentors in closer detail. Do they have relevant experience in your niche? Have they been a part of successful startups? A strong leadership team can whip your startup into shape and also help you become the best leader and entrepreneur you can be.
2. What are our team's strengths and weaknesses?
If your startup's leadership team is weak in a certain hard or soft skill, try to fill all such gaps before applying to an accelerator -- don't expect the program to do it for you. To gauge what you need to work on, try a few different approaches.
Consider whether the skill is truly missing from your team or you simply don't have the right people wearing the right hats. Have an open conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of each person on your leadership team, and judge that against the level of performance you need.
In many cases, you might need a technical co-founder, or a chief product officer who can drive the development of the product or service. It's very important to address this before you apply.
3. What do we hope to accomplish from working with an accelerator?
Don't apply to an accelerator without a clear vision of what you hope to gain. Do some brainstorming with your founding team, and seek inspiration from stories of successful startups that emerged from accelerators.
Also, discuss what you'd like to achieve a year down the road, and ask yourself what a potential accelerator can do to help you get there. Having clear objectives will come in handy when an accelerator's leaders ask how you expect their program to accelerate your business.
Many accelerators will consider which applicants have the most to gain from their particular program. As VP of fintech strategy at nbkc bank and managing director of its Fountain City Fintech accelerator, Zach Pettet finds that a lot of companies that apply to his financial tech-oriented accelerator "have great technology." Pettet continues, "They have great access in terms of their ability to acquire customers. But in a lot of cases [they're] missing some of the banking products that can actually add real value to the customers' lives."
Unless you can show an accelerator's leaders how their help will enable you to provide that value, they're likely to look elsewhere.
Some of the most exciting ideas of the next decade are being nurtured in today's accelerators. Start now, get creative, make your research count and submit the most powerful application you can. An accelerator may not solve all your problems, but it will certainly help fuel your progress -- and take you further than you'd get on your own.