Startup accelerators and business incubators are hard to get in, but for a good reason. If you are among the lucky few whose applications are approved, you are most likely going to get access to experienced business mentors, a community of entrepreneurs, private events and workshops, in addition to a slew of perks and discounts for products and services that could help you grow your venture. In the case of incubators, you might get free or subsidized access to office, warehouse spaces, and, depending on the type of incubator, laboratories. Accelerators on the other hand provide seed funding and services aimed at de-risking the investment in your company for future, and hopefully, larger investors.
It is no surprise that getting accepted into one of these programs is highly competitive. Nowadays, applicants come from all corners of the world, and attending multiple accelerator and incubator programs at once, or in a quick succession, is not unheard of. Some entrepreneurs go on a veritable accelerator spree in an attempt to capitalize their startups. They might start with an accelerator or incubator program that provides general startup support services and then move on to more specialized accelerators (for example, health-care, cryptocurrency, etc.) until they get to a point where an investor or a group of investors could write them a check for over a million dollars, which typically gets a startup on the radar screen of venture capitalists (VCs) and corporations looking for acquisition targets.
You don't necessarily have to participate in an accelerator and incubator program to get to this point, but they can certainly put you on the fast track. So how can you increase your chance of acceptance?
1. Be serious about your application
Investors and managers of entrepreneurship support centers are looking for entrepreneurs who are serious about their ventures. I cannot tell you how many times I have received applications plagued by spelling mistakes, missing sentences, lack of organization, and one-word answers to complex questions on the application form. In many cases, I even wonder, before sending the rejection email, why did these folks even bother submitting the application? Usually, less than 10% of all applications make it to the final stages of the selection process. Even if your technology or service is better than many others, not polishing the application can cost you a lot, so be serious about it.
2. Build your startup assets
Applying for acceleration or incubation is the perfect opportunity to nail down your vision/mission statement and polish your pitch deck and executive summary. You might be asked to provide a link to your 1 or 3-minute video pitch too. Reviewers will also look into your profiles on majors startup platforms such as F6S, Gust, AngelList, Crunchbase, as well as your website. Think of all of the above as assets for your startup. Once you build them, you can reuse them for different program applications and funding opportunities. You might be running a startup, but don't miss the opportunity to make a good first impression. Build a slide deck and landing page that look nice. Show the program managers and any reviewers that in addition to a great business idea, you also pay close attention to details. Investors like to boast about the cool companies they have backed and they typically list them on their own websites under the "Portfolio" heading. Other investors frequent these pages to look for startups to invest in too. By creating content and assets of high quality you will make it easy for professionals in the industry to share your website's URL, slide deck, and executive summary, with one another.
Even if you do get rejected from your dream accelerator/incubator program, this is definitely not the end. Keep in touch with the program managers. Send them occasional updates about major milestones that you have achieved. Tell them about events and opportunities that might be of interest to them and their clients. Also, recommend their program to others. The people building these programs rely heavily on word of mouth and your support could be very valuable to them. Of course, this doesn't mean that they will accept you the next time you apply, but it will certainly help you build a relationship that could open many doors for you.
In summary, approach the application process as a serious project, put in the time and effort, build great assets that your startup can reuse over and over again, and expand your network by building strong relationships with the incubator and accelerator managers. These three steps could help you stand out from the crowd and get that vital support and capital that could take your venture to the next level.