Serial entrepreneur Charles Stack and Silicon Valley tech startup vet Jennifer Neundorfer are the team behind the new Cleveland-based accelerator FlashStarts. The accelerator —whose home base is a 5000-square-foot space in Playhouse Square — is providing funding, mentoring and advising to 11 teams, which were chosen from a pool of 85 applicants. Naturally, Stack and Neundorfer had their work cut out for them when deciding who to admit to the inaugural summer program. However, in the pair’s eyes, the following eight application tips give startups a fighting chance at landing a coveted spot in any accelerator program.
- Focus on why your idea is unique. Stack calls “intriguing” ideas or businesses that catch his attention “an eyebrow-arching concept.” What this entails is very simple, involving a combination of novelty—”something I haven’t heard before,” he says—and growth potential.
- Convey that you are able to follow through on said idea. Hand in hand with point No. 1, Stack looks for teams with the drive and ability to make their potential blockbuster concept a reality. “We’re dealing with a fairly young group of entrepreneurs, so there’s not a lot of, ‘Well, they did it in the past; they can do it again,'” he says. You can have the best idea in the world, but it means nothing if you aren’t able to execute.
- Make it clear that you are coachable. It’s a waste of an accelerator’s time—and your time—if you aren’t willing to listen to (and act on) advice, especially if it might improve your chances of a successful execution. “[Have] strong opinions, but [make sure they are] loosely held,” Neundorfer says. “Be open, whether it’s our feedback or market feedback. That’s a key component of any accelerator program, and teams that really benefit from an accelerator program are able to strike that balance.”
- Don’t be afraid of showing your weaknesses. Every startup has room for improvement—and accelerators know that. But be sure to have an idea of how to tackle these gaps in skills. “If it’s a team that knows they have a gap on the technical side, that’s okay,” Neundorfer says. “It shows a high degree of self-awareness to be able to name—and then be able to have some sort of action plan to close—that gap. It also shows that you know what is required to get your business off the ground.”
- Do your due diligence. Know what you’re getting into—and what you can expect—with a given accelerator before applying. “It’s fairly easy to do,” Stack says. “You just need to look at their past portfolio companies and if you don’t look like any of them, probably applying is a waste of time.” And, if you are operating in the medical device space, don’t apply for a tech-based program focused on software. “[Know] their areas of focus and either the details of their program or the ways that they add value as an accelerator,” Neundorfer says.
- Know why you are applying. An accelerator is an intense experience with little room (or time) for hesitation. Having a concrete idea of goals and things you want to achieve “can stand out in an application—and then also go a little bit further to determining which team has the most success in an accelerator,” Neundorfer says.
- Be persistent. Submitting the required application materials is only the beginning of the process. Companies shouldn’t be afraid to check in and update accelerators with new milestones or accomplishments, especially if they might help their cause. “Some level of both polite follow-up and aggressive follow-through is actually appreciated,” Stack says. “Just because you did an application doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also follow up and say, ‘Did you get my application? I’m available at this time to discuss it.'”
- Don’t procrastinate. This might seem obvious, but besides ensuring that your application is the best it can be, getting your materials in early can give you a distinct advantage. For example, FlashStarts started responding to companies and giving feedback right after opening the application process in January—even though they accepted entries through early May. “Even when we were out at some events right before the applications closed, people were saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to apply’—and, by that point, many of the decisions had been made,” Neundorfer says.