It’s startup accelerator application time which means I’m now on the other side, reviewing applications and trying to help others get their startups funded by folks like Y Combinator.
The top programs are notoriously hard to get into, not just because of the sheer number of applicants, but because ultimately this is a decision of investment. It’s a point that many fail to realize in their zeal to “apply” like they would a college application. Funding is a matter of a complex array of variables – right team, right idea, right time. You have to believe that those three things align sufficiently to get funded (and succeed, for that matter).
Turns out the best proxy in assessing this is being able to demonstrate tangible traction. Actual results delivered by a great team, based off of a great idea and insight. They may be small numbers but it’s the trajectory and the persistence that shines through.
Said another way, the application is not just about writing tidy and well-written answers.
After talking to numerous, talented, well intentioned startups, here are the 3 major mistakes you might be making:
1) You’re spending more than a couple hours writing the application.
The application should write itself because you know the answers so completely and the results speak for themselves. This should take a couple of hours to write a draft and come back to polish. If you find yourself taking a lot of time to “craft the perfect story” then chances are you’re compensating for not having enough results. If you have the time, go focus on getting even 2-3 weeks worth of more results then sit down to write again.
2) Your answers are filled with more future tense sentences than past tense.
As you’re writing, ask yourself – what tense am I using. Are the answers peppered with “coulds” and “wills”? Or are they grounded in “haves” and “dids”. Again, as an investment decision, as a predictor of your potential, and a proof point of your execution, YC is looking for what you have already accomplished and learned. Not what you could do and conquer. There’s a reason very few questions are about theoretical potential (“How much money could you make”) vs. concrete learnings from experience (“How do you know people need what you’re making” or “How do you make money” or “Who are your competitors?”). Sure you could answer any of these with your best guess of what you expect to happen but nothing is as strong as saying “I know this because I’ve already tried and learned it”.
And again, if you find yourself writing in mostly the future tense, maybe you’re too early. Maybe you need to focus on getting more learning through traction so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get funded this time, it could just be you need to show more results.
These programs are called accelerators for a reason. If you have nothing to accelerate, even if you get funded, it will be a waste. Make sure you’re proven out enough that pouring on some gas in the way of an accelerator will be the right thing for your company. After all, if you’re going to be giving up 7% of equity, make sure it’s going to be sufficiently increasing your chances of survival.
3) Numbers are few and far between.
Nothing communicates results and knowing a space like actual numbers. Contrast these two sentences: “Childcare is a huge market and growing quickly each year with more dual-income homes.” vs. “The $20B occasional childcare market is growing 40% each year, driving largely by the numbers mothers returning to work doubling over the past 2 years.” OR, how about: “Customers love what we’re building and are clamoring to sign up.” vs. “New user signups have grown 18% week-on-week for the past 12 weeks, driven by the new Zebra feature we released in June.
Which company would you fund?
Chances are good that you know what you’re talking about but vague sentences with flowery adjectives naturally suggest vague and ambiguous results.
Every time I get the privilege to review an application I marvel at the incredible problems people are working to solve. But when it comes down to translating that boldness, that persistence, those results onto paper, somehow it gets lost in translation.
Hopefully by considering these points you’ll be in a better place put in the most persuasive application possible.
And if you take only one thing away it’s this: it’s not about the application. It’s about the results.