A couple of months ago, I wrote about our first week in the 500startups accelerator program. With the program now officially (?) over, I wanted to share my experience with it and help interested founders understand whether it would be a good fit for them.
Why should you apply to 500startups?
When we first started the program, we weren't sure exactly what to expect out of it. How hands on will the program be? what value will they give us and how can we make the most out of it? I think Parker Thompson, one of the partners at 500s, summed it up very nicely here on Quora.
In my opinion, don't expect too much help with your product outside of advice. This could change depending on the stage of your startup - we were further along than most of the batch companies, by virtue of having existed longer - so there weren't as many low hanging fruits to take care of.
You and your team should know your problem domain best - don't expect someone's advice over an hour long mentoring session to compete with the months (years?) of domain experience you have with your market. Unless it's about a topic you're unfamiliar with, it's unlikely you'll get much more than validation or additional doubts about your existing approach.
We did get direct help in very specific points, such as some Facebook ads / adwords implementation help from the resident growth hacker, Mathew, or the Email marketing talk by Patrick McKenzie. All of the advice came in the form of talks (held weekly at the 500startups offices) or through 1-on-1 mentoring sessions - Don't expect 500startups to do any hands-on work or hand holding for you.
The best thing 500startups did for us, however, was giving us access to their network. With several hundred mentors, founders and investors that span practically all markets and verticals, there's bound to be a few dozens that are very relevant to your business.
Making things happen in the SV (and in most places) is all about the network you have. 500startups gives you access to a huge network and brand, which allows you to start building your own network to help grow your business. For us especially, having migrated from Israel with almost zero previous presence in the valley, this had a huge impact. Going forward, the network we built will be the foundation for our business development, recruiting, distribution and fund-raising efforts - all vital needs for startups.
Another big part of that network is the other batch companies. Unlike some of the other accelerators, 500startups provides a huge co-working space where everyone works from (not required, but highly recommended). Being in daily interaction and forming relationships with other founders and companies in varying stages provides an amazing experience that would be hard to replicate in any other setting.
The second biggest hands on help through the program, was with raising our round. With limited fund raising success previously, we did a much better job with raising during the program thanks mainly to the network effects I mentioned earlier, and the help of the venture partners and mentors at the accelerator. Their input and introductions have been invaluable. In all likelihood, we wouldn't have been able to raise our round without 500startups (or at least do it as effectively and fast as we did).
How to apply to 500startups and are you a good fit?
If you're still interested at this point, I have a few tips and suggestions to help you get into the program.
As an accelerator alumni, I now get the privilege of reviewing some of the potential candidates for the next batch, and there a few common mistakes that keep popping up. To increase the chances of getting accepted, you should take the following points into consideration:
Have a product and some minimal traction
There are quite a few submission with only an idea. Your definition of early-stage most likely differs from VCs, but nowadays you need a product and some traction / usage to get funded - including by an accelerator. The only exceptions are for founders with very strong background / resume. Those requirements have been trending upwards as the 500startups program matures, so the more you wait the higher the bar is going to be.
Another way to look at it is this - as I've mentioned above, the biggest value 500startups will give you is with building a network and raising funds. In my opinion, your startup should be ready to raise a seed round to make the most out of the program. If you think you will be there in half a year, you should wait and try to apply then - the benefits will be so much greater.
Have a clear value proposition
If I can't understand what your startup does from reading the product description on AngelList, something is wrong. Drop the buzzwords and adjectives that obfuscate the core of your product. Run it by some people who don't know what you do, and ask them if they got it.
Hopefully, the basic idea of your startup is not so complicated that it needs it, but here is a very good copywriting article over on Kissmetrics to get you started.
Fill out all the profile sections
(This refers to the AngelList submission process) A lot of submissions have blanks in multiple areas - such as traction or team video. Whenever a piece is missing from the puzzle, I'm wondering what is the founder hiding? (I'm hoping they're not just being lazy). If you don't show traction, I'm going to assume the worst (i.e, none) - even if it's small, it's more than zero, so put it in there.
If there's no video, I'm going to assume you're a weirdo, or that you couldn't spare 15 minutes to shoot yourself talking to a webcam. On the other hand, some founders submit extremely long videos, even though the maximum suggested time is 2 minutes (might've changed since we applied). As one of the other application reviewers told me, it's hard to keep focus after 1.5-2 minutes into the video of someone doing a selfie. Say clearly what you do and why you have a potential to be awesome (or maybe why you are awesome already!), and leave the small details to the interview.
You're competing against some amazing companies looking to make it big. Help yourself by best showcasing your business and your team.
Talk about your competition
Don't assume the people reviewing your application are oblivious about your market. If you have competition, they would like to know what you do that differentiates you, and more importantly - that you have deep market knowledge. If you don't mention any of your competitors or you think you don't have any - you are either clueless about your market or your market is very small. Unless you're inventing a new market (which is a tough sale by itself), all big markets now have several players attacking it from different (and sometimes the same) directions.
Talk to people from the 500startups network
If you have access to someone in the 500startups network - one of the mentors, partners or founders - that are relevant to your market / problem domain, try and reach out and see if you can strike a chord with them. This can help you in two ways - one, you can get relevant feedback on your business and understand better what you need to successfully apply, and second - you could get an insider vouching for you on the application review process. Not a must, but just another thing that could give you an edge. You can find a list of both mentors and startups on the 500startups website, conveniently filterable by market and location.
Go and apply now
I can't thank 500startups enough for the opportunity and experience they gave us by accepting us to their accelerator program and making us a part of their network. If you think you have what it takes, we're hoping to see you there. Go and apply online now through AngelList!
If you have any questions about the application process or the accelerator program, leave it below and I'd be glad to answer it.
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