Position Yourself for Success: How to Apply to an Accelerator Program


Do you have an idea you think might make it big? Or a product with market potential that just needs a little boost? A small business with a proven track record that's ready to reach a wider audience? If you've been following our recent blog series, "After Startup Weekend," you know that one of the things that can hold startup companies back is the lack of access to resources for growth. One of the best ways to access those resources, and much more, is to participate in an accelerator program such as SparkLabKC.

We'll be accepting applications later this year for our Class of 2016 — and it's never to early to start planning for a strong application. After all, you might have a revolutionary idea, but if your application doesn't put your best foot forward, the odds of landing a spot in a competitive accelerator program are slim. With three years of experience hand-picking companies for our program, we've learned what to look for in a strong applicant. So if you're considering applying, whether to SparkLabKC or another accelerator program, check out our advice on positioning yourself for success.

Do Your Research: Is It a Good Fit?

Not only is it up to you to submit a strong application, but it's also important that you do the research into which program will be best for you. When you're searching for that special program to partner up with, there are several things that you'll want to keep in mind. Yes, seed capital is important in getting your business up and running, but access to the right resources and mentor pool for your unique company is invaluable.

Most accelerator programs provide office space, free wifi, and a coffee maker at minimum. While space and connectivity are important, these aren't factors that will make or break your experience. The real differentiating factor is the people involved — the founders, mentors, sponsors, and collaborators with whom you will be working to grow your business. So find out who is really involved in each program — not just big name speakers who will give an hour or two of their time, but the people who will be part of your day to day experience. Find out what their strengths are, where their experience lies, and whether they can contribute to your growth.

Make sure the program you apply to is a good fit for your desired market. Some accelerators specialize in medical technology while others focus on B2B product and services. There are accelerators for any number of other market niches. Find a program that either fits your specialization or embraces diversity as a benefit to all companies involved. In addition, look for a program that fosters a strong group dynamic within its classes. From the beginning of your experience all the way to Demo Day, collaboration with your colleagues will provide access to a wide range of experiences and skill sets that contribute to everyone's growth and success.

An Application to Succeed

Once you've decided which accelerator you want to pursue, it's time to submit the strongest application possible. In one of our previous blogs, we addressed some of the ways that you can execute a successful application in detail. Among them:

  • Show us how your idea solves a REAL PROBLEM in the market (not just your problem).

Whether you've done extensive market validation or not, accelerator programs want to know that your idea will sell — and that means it must fulfill a need in the market that people are willing to pay for. Make sure your product or service solves a real problem for a lot of people. Be specific about the market you are targeting, but universal in the benefits of your solution.

  • Highlight your team and their strengths.

As we mentioned above, collaboration is a highlight of the accelerator process, so let us know that you're working with a dedicated team whose members have something to offer. We know just how challenging the process of launching a business can be, and we want to see that you have a strong support system to help you through.

  • Demonstrate your coachability and enthusiasm for learning.

I'm consistently surprised by companies who express their desire to be a part of our accelerator program, but then seem unwilling to consider feedback during our interview process. Nothing sends up red flags faster than defensiveness, closed-mindedness, or the refusal to consider other points of view. After all, if you can't listen, you can't learn!

Common Problems to Avoid

Our experience selecting companies for the SparkLabKC accelerator has helped us identify both the dos and don'ts of positioning your company for an offer. For example, many applicants get caught up building their personal image rather than the image of their business. Of course we want to know that you're intelligent and capable, but highlighting yourself at the cost of your company won't get you far. Show us who you are through the lens of what you want to do, not the other way around.

A post on Mashable shares some other common mistakes that startup companies make in their applications to accelerator programs, and we agree with their assessment. They are:

  1. Building for Yourself Instead of a Market
  2. Lack of Any Market Validation
  3. One-Sided Competitive Analysis
  4. Ignoring Your Weaknesses

Basically, being specific, clear-headed, and honest are the best ways to avoid these common issues in an application. We understand that no business idea is perfect from the very beginning. It's your job to show us what it could be and how you're planning to pursue that. Remember to reflect on why you want to join the program in the first place.

Applying to an accelerator program is a major step that can be hugely beneficial in moving your business forward. Your application is the first impression that you will make on the selection committee, so put your best foot forward. Good luck!

What are your tips for startups applying to an accelerator program? Share them with us @SparkLabKC!