How Not To Apply To An Accelerator
Note: A version of this post appeared in my semi-regular column on AlleyWatch.
Since first launching in 2008, Dreamit has received thousands of applications – heck, I’ve personally reviewed thousands of applications in the not quite three years since joining Dreamit. I’ve had the pleasure to read some really excellent applications that crisply and concisely showcased what made that startup shine.
And then there were those other applications. Applications so bad that I threw up a little in my mouth. Applications so awful that I still have nightmares. Admittedly, that last part is an exaggeration but they were bad enough that I am writing this essay in the hopes that you will read it and not make these mistakes.
Consider this a self-defense essay. 🙂
We respect enthusiasm but we treasure brevity.
After the first few hundred applications, every word on the page is like Velcro across our eyeballs (which, btw, is why you should never wait until the last minute to apply to a popular accelerator program). So when we come across an entrepreneur who cannot resist using 20 words when 10 would suffice, it’s painful, really painful. We start skimming, skipping, and then bailing on the application altogether. We once received an application that ran 22 pages – of text, no graphics! One reviewer flat out refused to read it. Needless to say, that startup didn’t get an interview.
But it’s not just us being prima donnas. If this was the startup’s application, can you imagine how painful their investor pitch will be? Or their sales pitch?! It’s communications 101: listener attention spans are severely limited. Knowing what to stress and what not to say is crucial.
Thanks to this applicant, we now have a character limit on all application questions. But just because you have a 400 word limit does not mean you need to use at least 390 of them. If you can answer a question in 50 words, that’s awesome. You will have our respect… and gratitude.
(a.k.a. “The Repeater”)
Dude, we heard you the first time.
Sometimes repetition drives length. An applicant will cover the same material and cite the same facts in response to multiple questions. As sleep deprived as we are, I guarantee that we did not forget your answer to the question immediately above. For instance, we ask what makes your solution special and, in another question, ask you to specifically drill down into your competition and how you are better. You don’t need to list your competition in both places. If you find yourself saying the same thing twice, stop, think about the questions, and put that material in the one place where it fits best.
Tip: take 2 minutes to read over the entire application before answering any questions. You can even copy the questions into a Word file and work on them offline.
As much as we loath long-winded answers, I’ll take a long response that actually answers the question over a short one that doesn’t.
Sometimes I wonder what question the applicant thought he was answering. Check out these examples:
Q: What is your solution? What’s unique about your solution?
A: My mission is to right the wrong, which is just putting United States back on the ideology that built our country…
Q: Tell us about your customers/users …
A: We are using a combination of all the most successful solutions around the world
Tip: After writing you answer, re-read the question and ask yourself, “Is there anything in what I wrote that is not actually answering that question?”
(a.k.a. “The Hand Waver”)
We can’t evaluate an application without specifics. We want hard data and metrics – we want proof. What we don’t want is this:
Q: How big is the problem / how much “pain” does it cause?
A: Huge problem causing lots of pain for customers
Q: How big is your market?
A: Huge / Billions
Tip: If you can answer the question with actual, relevant numbers, do it.
The flip side to the hand wavers are the compulsive footnoters who provide every statistic available or lengthy background information. We review enough applications that we have a working knowledge of the key issues in most industries and know the basic numbers by heart.
This is especially true when you are applying to a specialized program. For instance, if you are applying to Dreamit’s Edtech program and we ask you about the problem, I don’t need you to explain the failings of our K-12 school system in detail and you don’t need to footnote basic statistics like the number of students in K-12 grade in the US. Just say, “We are improving retention for the 20M university students in the US.”
If something is obvious, we don’t need it explained to us. But anything more detailed, surprising, or controversial should be sourced. For instance, one applicant claimed that 8 year olds consumed over 8 hours of digital media per day. My gut response was “no way” and there was no footnote pointing me to his source. I Googled that claim and didn’t find anything. Even if he could support the claim, his credibility was shot.
Tip: if a quick Google search confirms your claim within the top 5 results – sometimes even within the descriptive snippets shown on the search results page itself – it’s obvious enough not to source or explain in detail.
(a.k.a. The “You find it”)
Can’t I just send you my pitch deck? It’s all in there.
I get that question from time to time and it’s a fair question. The entrepreneur has put a lot of time into crafting his deck and making it look pretty. Why fill out an application if the data are in the deck?
In many cases, the data are not all there. Our application questions represent the minimum amount of info we need to feel comfortable inviting a startup to the next stage of the process. I would guestimate that well over 80% of the investor decks we see are missing the answer to at least one of our questions. These aren’t bad decks. Many are likely very effective in getting the startup a meeting with potential investors. They just don’t have all the info we want to see.
The other answer is a bit more subtle. As I mentioned, every Dreamit reviewer sees hundreds of applications over the course of a few short weeks. Even if a deck is ‘complete’, each deck would still present the information in its own way and in its own order. We would have to hunt through the deck to find where the answer to a specific question is while mentally checking off the boxes to make sure all the bases were covered. That adds time and mental load to a process that already consumes massive amounts of both of these scarce resources.
Tip: don’t respond to an application question with “Please see my deck/website/video (link here).”
(a.k.a. The “Face Palm”)
I will forgive you the occasional typo but the whoppers will cost you.
Dreamit allows applicants to link to optional video. It can be the 90 second product overview video from your website, a product demo, whatever you feel will advance your application.
I especially like the short clips taken on your cell phone, where you just talk to us and tell us why you are so passionate about the problem you are solving and why you are excited about the opportunity to be a part of the Dreamit community. I urge you to take advantage of the video. If nothing else, it gives us a sense of who you are as a person and what it might be like to work with you.
But for God’s sake, if you are applying to Dreamit, the first words out of your mouth on that video should not be “Hello Techstars!” (Yes, true story)
We get that you are likely applying to other top accelerators – it’s the smart thing to do – and we get that the applications are time consuming and that you’d like to reuse material from one application to another. But if you muck up that badly on your application, you will eventually slip up on sales or investor pitches. Attention to detail matters.
Tip: We can see filenames too. We know what “YC_vid” means. 🙂
Accelerator Application Best Practices:
- Read the entire application before starting to answer the questions
- Copy the questions to Word and compose your answers offline.
- Don’t make us look outside the application.
- Review your answers to make sure that you are actually answering the question…
- … with actual data and metrics …
- … citing sources where needed …
- … but without wasting time on the obvious (to us) …
- … nor repeating yourself.
- Then edit down your answers to make them as concise as possible.
- Sleep on it and then review your entire application with all attached material from start to finish to make sure it flows and that you haven’t missed anything big.