Five application tips you should know before applying for a startup programme

Are you a founder looking to apply for a startup incubator or accelerator? Here are five tips you should know before applying.

Creative HQ startup founders in a workshop

What do CVs, online recipes and programme applications have in common?

Many of them can be terribly hard to read and make it hard to find what you’re looking for.

As a selection team, we see hundreds of applications, and we’re often making decisions with imperfect information. This means that we rely on the narrative you provide in your application to make an initial judgement about whether or not we should get to know you further. So, you need to learn how to craft that narrative well. We don’t want you to be a bad recipe and hinder your chances of success.

To avoid that, here are some of the tips we crowdsourced from a bunch of founders, investors and programme managers to help you put together your best application ever.

#1 Application tip: get face-time, not get “in”

We tell founders that the goal of an investment pitch isn’t to raise money, it’s to create interest, curiosity and excitement. First application tip: your goal is to get a follow-up meeting that could lead to investment. It’s in the follow-up meeting where relationships are built and the magic happens.

Your application is the same. Your goal is to cut through the noise and create curiosity – to land an interview or some face-time with the selection team. To put it bluntly: we use your response as an initial filter to answer one key question:

Do we think it’s worth spending more time to get to know you/your team and the thing you are working on?

If you are unable to help us answer this question because your application is jumbled, opaque, rambly or simply not a fit for what we are looking for, then it’s unlikely you’ll get the chance to shine face-to-face.

#2 Application tip: know what the programme is looking for

Most programmes have publicly-visible criteria regarding what they’re looking for. For example: industry or sector, stage of company, local vs international focus, minimum team size, growth ambitions, and the list goes on.

Make sure you clearly understand what the programme is looking for before applying. It doesn’t make sense to apply to a programme that is looking for companies that can scale globally if you are focused on building a local co-op or a community initiative. While that’s cool, it probably won’t fit with the impact thesis of that particular programme.

Save yourself the time and frustration by first researching the programme, read their criteria, look at alumni companies who have gone through before, and if you can, speak to others who have been through already.

#3 Application tip: be concise

Keep your answers sharp and on point. We aren’t looking for long paragraphs or essays. We want concise answers that answer the question. Remember, your goal is to get to the next round for some face-to-face, not tell us everything in your head. Part of our filtering process is to test for founders who can take their ideas, as complex as they may be, and clearly articulate them in an easy-to-understand format. It’s not “dumbing down”, it’s simplifying.

Something that can help: get someone who knows next to nothing about your idea to read your application. They should be able to immediately tell you what problem you’re solving, what your solution is and why the market opportunity is so exciting. If they can’t, maybe you need to revisit what you wrote.

#4 Application tip: establish credibility

Part of our filtering process is to answer two key questions:

  1. Do we think that this problem/market/opportunity is big enough?
  2. If yes, do we think that this person/team can really build this company?

If you want to make it to the next round, you need to quickly establish credibility in both of these areas. 

We get excited when we see the following:
  • A robust experience in the market in which you are planning to operate.
  • An unfair advantage due to industry connections and deep domain expertise.
  • Diverse teams with different backgrounds and skills.
  • Genuin passion and excitement about solving this problem and have a bold vision.
  • Primary customer insights gained through proper market validation and research. Just talking to a couple of friends or your mum doesn’t count!
  • Social proof, early signs of traction or strong indicators that people want what you are building. We want to see more than just Facebook likes. We’re talking waiting lists, beta users, sales pipeline, etc.
  • Demonstrated resourcefulness or hustle.You may still be in the idea stage, but tell us how you are getting out there. Who are you speaking to? How are you learning, validating and testing?
  • Understanding of the market, the existing competitors and have identified a real gap that your value proposition serves.

All of these things need to be woven clearly and concisely into your answers.

Here are some things that make us nervous:
  • You are building a technical product. And you don’t have a technical co-founder yet, or you are outsourcing all the tech to a third party.
  • Little progress after having worked on your idea for a long time.
  • What you say in your application doesn’t match what we can see on LinkedIn or your website.
  • Lack of any evidence of strong validation or you haven’t spoken to customers.
  • You say you don’t have any competitors, but we are able to quickly find some after a quick Google search.
  • Not being able to articulate what market you’re in and how you differentiate from existing players.
  • You can’t articulate your vision or mission in a couple of sentences.
  • You’re working on a problem that is really tiny (maybe a personal itch) that doesn’t translate to a larger market.
  • You lack excitement, enthusiasm, vision, transparency and openness.

#5 Application tip: faith in you

At the end of the day, we are looking to support incredibly brave founders who are on the path to make a difference. For many of you, your application response is probably the first time we get to meet you. That’s your opportunity to tell your story and win us over to your side.

People don’t want more information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell… Once people make your story their story, you have tapped into the powerful force of faith.

Annette Simmons
Group Process Consulting

Yes, application forms are designed to capture information, but what we really want is your story. So tell it well!

Interested in giving your idea a shot? Check out what startup support is available to you.

Applications for the Impact Accelerator are now open – Apply now.

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