The Few and Far Between
You’ll hear a lot of people say that it’s harder to get into an accelerator than it is an Ivy League school. When I was at Techstars, I remember David Cohen bringing this up over and over again.
And it continues to be the case. Last year alone, there were 52,761 applications received for a spot at a GAN Accelerator. Just over 9,130 of those applications received some sort of interview, but only a fortunate 1,727 were actually accepted and went through a program.
That’s an acceptance rate of only 3.3%.
And if you’re looking for proof that that’s lower than an Ivy League school, Harvard’s overall acceptance rate into their 2017 class was 5.8%.
Needless to say, it’s very, very hard to get into an accelerator.
Improving Your Chances
There are a few ways you can increase your chances of being admitted. And, after asking each GAN Accelerator where they find the most qualified startups for their programs, here’s what they said (in order of how effective each tactic is):
1) A mentor at the accelerator knows and recommends you.
It’s fairly easy to find an accelerator’s mentors because they’re typically somewhere on the accelerator’s website. But if you can’t find them there, try searching for the accelerator’s name on LinkedIn, and you’ll likely see that many mentors have listed themselves there. When you reach out, say something like, “I’m interested in going through [name of accelerator] and know you’re a mentor there. Would you be free for a coffee where I can pick your brain on our startup and get your take on whether you think we could be a fit for the accelerator?”
When you do connect, realize that mentors do what they do for a reason—because they love to help. But I think the standard insight, “Ask for advice and you’ll get money, but ask for money and you’ll get advice” comes into play here. Instead of asking about how to get into the accelerator, simply ask for advice and watch how much the mentor will be willing to help you.
2) A startup who went through the accelerator knows and recommends you.
If you’re in a smaller town, you probably know a startup who went through your local accelerator. Today, it’s the second-most useful way that accelerators find qualified startups for their program. So, go find a startup that’s graduated from the accelerator you want to join and do the same thing that you would do with a mentor—ask them for their advice on how to get accepted. If you don’t know anyone personally at a startup that’s gone through a local program, you can almost always find an accelerator’s portfolio on their website. Once you spot alumni that you feel could be relevant and willing to talk, do a quick Google search to see if they’ll be at any upcoming local events and then go to that event and introduce yourself. Even if it doesn’t lead to an introduction to the accelerator, you’ll at least have met a fellow founder in your town. And, knowing more founders means increased community and support. Just be sure to always make these relationships mutual—offer them connections and insights as much as they’re offering them to you and you’ll make friends in the process.
3) You meet the accelerator’s Managing Director (MD) at a local event.
Fifty-seven percent of startups going through an accelerator live within 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the accelerator. This means that local MDs are investing in local startups so they’re constantly hosting and showing up at events to get to know you, a startup that’s looking to potentially apply. But many startups think they need to show up at just one event and call it a day. Not true. It’s important to show up at a few events AND—at the end of each one—go up and ask one question of the MD. That way, the MD knows who you are and begins to trust you. They see you not as a startup who just wants something from them, but that you have a desire to build a relationship and pick their brain on something that was discussed or brought up at the event.
4) You engaged the accelerator MD on social media.
An accelerator MD is constantly putting stuff out on social media to generate excitement for their program. The best thing you can do as a startup interested in going through their program is to comment on that. The MD won’t forget who you are and will love the back-and-forth. Then, follow it up by attending an event (see point #3) to show that you’re a real human.
5) You met an investor associated with the accelerator, and they decide to recommend you.
This one can be the hardest to navigate because most accelerators don’t publicly share who their investors are. But if you’re engaging in your local startup scene enough, you’ll begin to know who the local investors are. Once you’re able to introduce yourself in person or online to an investor, you can begin asking them for advice about your startup (see a theme here?). What you’ll soon find out is most investors are associated in one way or another with the local accelerator because it tends to be a great source of deal flow for them. So here’s the deal: Ask them for some advice, but at the end of your conversation, say something like, “I’m looking to get into [name of accelerator]. Do you have any connections over there?” And then watch what happens. They’ll generally respond that they do, in fact, have connections and are happy to introduce you to them. When an accelerator sees that a recommendation is coming from a trusted investor, it makes you look amazing.