If you’re running a startup, participating in a startup accelerator can help quickly grow your company. But the best ones—like Y Combinator—are very difficult to get into. So how can you get the benefits of an accelerator without being accepted into their program?
To answer this question, we developed our own strategy to either make it into the world’s most competitive startup accelerator or replicate the results yourself.
To get invited to an interview, you first need to submit an application. The challenge is that most startup accelerators, especially the really successful ones, have thousands of applications to narrow down.
Here’s a little hack that helped us get an interview at Y Combinator: we met YC alumni to gain a better understanding of what criteria matter to getting into YC. You should do the same—find alumni and invite them for lunch, dinner, drinks, or coffee. Share your idea, get their feedback, listen to their experiences, and ask them to endorse you. If you’re lucky, some alumni will send emails to the organizers of the accelerator on your behalf.
Interviews are very short. You often have no more than five minutes to showcase your idea and why you’re going to be a great fit.
The best thing you can do is to show them something you’ve already accomplished: an MVP, users that already signed up, press mentions. Demonstrate that your team works well together and will get a lot of things done.
Once you’ve been accepted into a startup accelerator, there’s usually a big kickoff event. The most important thing that happens here is to show your current status and define your goals for the next few months until demo day.
At YC there are four different stages:
- Building an MVP (first version of the product)
- Getting users, feedback, and traction (validation that people really want what you’re building)
- Demo day (presenting in front of investors and press to raise your seed round and get publicity)
One of the most useful tools we got was advice from our very first office hour with Paul Graham. We sat down with him to explain our startup and how we were already pretty far ahead: we had an MVP, some user growth, and a few investors.
The advice we got was this: focus on one core metric as an indicator of progress. He asked us: "What do you think is the one most important indicator of success for you? Signups, users, traffic, revenue. . . ?"
In our case at that time, it was active user growth: people who actively used our system. He followed with: "Then I want you to focus on getting at least 10% active user growth every single week from now on for the next three months . . . I want you to focus on growth, because it gives you a laser focus on the one core thing that matters."
Now what’s interesting about 10% growth per week is that it’s pretty easy to do in the beginning when you don’t have a lot of users, but gets exponentially more challenging with time. But the big advantage of one core metric is that it gives you clarity. There will always be too many things you could be doing, especially in early startups where there’s an overabundance of ideas but a lack of resources to turn these into reality. It’s important to prioritize.
As a startup, you should do this whether or not you take part in an accelerator. Decide on one core metric and use it to guide all your actions.
On Tuesday nights YC usually invited an amazing speaker to dinner to share their knowledge with the group. They would bring in people like Mark Zuckerberg, Ron Conway, and other uber entrepreneurs and investors.
A big upside of these dinners was not just learning from and chatting with these rockstars, but also networking with fellow founders in your current batch to share progress reports and exchange insights and ideas. Having a support group as well as other startups to benchmark yourself against is invaluable. As an early-stage founder you can encounter "startup isolation." Mingling with founders from other startups is a great way to keep your spirits high and provide some much-needed perspective.
Your startup accelerator time ends with a big demo day. That’s the ultimate deadline for everything you’re working on during these two or three months. This focused timeframe helps you to move at a really fast pace and accomplish much more in a short time.
Demo day is your chance to present your startup to the greatest audience possible. It also creates an instant market for your startup. Without an accelerator, if you want to raise a seed-round, you either need to have incredible traction or have a rockstar team (like having the ex-CTO of Facebook or VP of product from Google).
Chances are that you have neither of these. Your best chance of securing investment then is demo day, because there are investors willing and able to make an investment. Additionally, during demo day the investors compete against each other, shifting the dynamic of seed-round fundraising in your favor.
Sometimes when people join YC they think that they’ve just entered the Promised Land and expect that everyone will simply help them succeed. But that’s not the attitude needed for success at a startup accelerator. You need to be proactive and use all the resources available.
Can’t make it into a startup accelerator? Then just replicate the basic structure of a startup accelerator yourself. You might not be able to get Mark Zuckerberg to stop by for dinner, but you can still find a mentor and peers in your area. You can still set up week-by-week goals.
You could even set up your own demo day, even if you won’t get the same press attendance or big investors. Just setting 100-day goals can be tremendously powerful. Commit to a single goal, move in together with your co-founders and work incredibly hard for 100 days. It won’t guarantee success, but it for sure will accelerate your startup’s progress.
—Steli Efti is the co-founder and CEO of Close.io and ElasticSales and an advisor to several startups and entrepreneurs.
Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.