What Accelerators Look For

As I’ve mentioned before, getting into an accelerator is hard, and getting into a GAN Accelerator is even harder.

Last week, after giving a keynote at RiseUp Summit in Cairo, a few founders approached me to ask how they could increase their chances.

I only had a few minutes to chat with those founders, so I couldn’t answer as fully as I would have liked. But I also know that there are so many more of you trying to do the right things to earn a coveted spot at a program. So, I thought I’d write a blog on the topic. If I’d had more time to fully respond to the CEOs that approached me at RiseUp, here’s what I would have said, and it’s all based on GAN’s industry-wide data, coming straight from the source—the accelerators you’re trying to get into.

What You Need to Know

To Stand Out, Do Something More Than Just Apply
Based on our 2018 numbers, every accelerator receives, on average, 641 applications for every cohort. That’s a lot of startups to look through. So, getting noticed isn’t easy. Only 20% of startups who actually apply ever even get an interview. That means that, of the 641 who apply, only a lucky 127 get to actually speak with someone at the accelerator.

There’s this story from a few years ago about J.K. Rowling and one of her more recent books, The Cuckoo’s Calling. She launched the book under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. Rowling wanted to test how important her name was to the book, wondering whether her writing talent alone might secure her an additional win. Even though pitching her story under a man’s name would have made her somewhere around eight times more likely to be picked up and paid nearly double once she had been (which is why she’s always opted for “J.K.” instead of “Joanne” for all these years anyway), the book was still initially passed over by multiple publishers. Why? Because, while it was a great book, nothing helped it stand out from the pack. Even after finding a publisher, the book initially only sold 1,500 copies until the British newspaper, The Sunday Times, exposed that the real Robert Galbraith was, in fact, J.K. Rowling. Once outed, the book became an immediate a bestseller.

What does all of this tell us (other than how uneven the playing field still is)? That your talent alone won’t necessarily get you noticed. Unless you have a prior, proven track record, you have to do something more in order to stand out.

But what does that mean exactly?

A Lot Depends on the Type of Company You Have
The good news is that most accelerators don’t care if you’re selling directly to businesses or to consumers. The data show that almost all accelerators will accept you, regardless of either model.

What they do care about is how you deploy your products. Here’s what I mean:

  • 82% of accelerators are looking for startups that are selling software or SaaS products.
  • About two-thirds of all accelerators will consider you if your product has something to do with mobile or IoT-connected devices.
  • And, only about half of accelerators will consider you if you’re selling a consumer product or physical device.

Why is this? Accelerators want to work with companies whose business models can change (and scale) quickly. It’s really easy to change the tech or code behind software, SaaS, mobile, or IoT devices. It’s a lot harder for an accelerator to impact your company over the course of the 16 weeks you’re in-program if you end up needing to completely change the consumer product you’re trying to sell.

Industry is Only Important in a Some Cases
It seems obvious, but you have to have a business idea that accelerators are considering. If you’re selling a new kind of dog food but every accelerator you’re considering is looking for companies focused on the blockchain, you’re never even going to get an interview.

Still, forty-one percent of accelerators tell us that they’re vertical agnostic. That means that many programs frankly don’t care what industry you’re in. If you have one of the best ideas—especially if you fit the definitions I just mentioned above (you’re in software, SaaS, mobile)—they’re interested in it.

But, of the accelerators that do focus on specific industries, 38% tell us they’re looking for companies that consider themselves “data or analytic” businesses, 29% look for artificial intelligence startups, and 23% are interested in virtual/augmented reality or financial services startups (both tied for third most-sought-after vertical).

Then, around 15% of the time, accelerators crave startups focused on one of the following:

  • Agriculture
  • Communications/telecom
  • eCommerce
  • Education
  • Energy
  • Entertainment/media/sports
  • Gaming
  • Healthcare
  • Or, transportation and travel

This isn’t to say that you won’t get a spot in an accelerator if you’re focused on real estate, but it’s good to know what accelerators say they’ll consider so you can try to find out as quickly as possible (from the actual accelerator) what they typically accept before even applying.

It Helps to Be Local
In our most recent data report, the large majority of startups came from within 100 miles (160km) of the accelerator’s office. Twenty-nine percent came from over 100 miles (160km) away but still from within the country where the accelerator operates. And only 14% of startups joined an accelerator if they were from outside of the accelerator’s home country.

And there seems to be a reason for that…

Here’s How They’re Finding You

Accelerators might receive the highest quantity of applicants from places like F6S or AngelList, but it’s not where they’re most often finding the startups they ultimately accept. In other words, quality applicants often come from other sources. What might those sources be?

As is the case in most circumstances, relationships matter when it comes to applying to an accelerator.

More than any other method, accelerators accept startups that were referred to them directly by a mentor that’s connected to the accelerator. Last week, I wrote about how mentors are so important to the programming and support offered during an accelerator, but they also potentially play an even larger role—figuring out which startups actually join an accelerator in the first place.

The next best relationship referrals? Alumni and accelerator staff themselves. When a startup that’s already been through a program tips staff off to another great company that they know personally, it can go a long way to getting that company in the door. But if you don’t already know someone at the program you’re applying to, your best plan of action is to change that. Go to startup events, introduce yourself and your team to managing staff or investors involved with the program, or engage consistently with accelerators via their social media—just make sure you’re not only there to promote your work; become genuinely interested and invested in the people behind the scenes and what they’re up to, and there’s a good chance they’ll become genuinely interested in you.

Remember that J.K. Rowling story above? She submitted her initial manuscript to a dozen publishers, most of whom declined her work. Why? Because it’s risky to take on a “no-name person,” even when they have a decent idea. It’s a lot safer to work with someone who has some prior experience, who is known by people in the community, and who has a good track record.

So, do the work of building relationships. The people you invest in might not only become your greatest advocates; they might also be the people reviewing your application.