Ask Techstars: Common Mistakes to Avoid When Applying to an Accelerator

We recently held AMA sessions about applying to an accelerator program. To help answer questions, we had Lesa Mitchell, managing director for Techstars Kansas City, and Jenny Fielding, managing director for Techstars IoT in New York City. 

What are common mistakes to avoid when applying to an accelerator?

Jenny: If you send an incomplete application, meaning you don’t put a video of your product and of the founders, that’s going to be really hard for us. You have to understand that we get thousands and thousands of applications, so the first thing we do is look at the founder video. If you don’t put that in, that’s really tough for us. Similarly, the product video is very helpful.

Another common mistake is being very verbose and writing paragraphs and paragraphs. This is not a college essay, this is all about being concise and making your point. I encourage you to think it through. If you tend to be long-winded, then have someone edit it.

Another mistake is the question in the application where it asks if you could list a few competitors, and people say ‘none.’ That always gives me pause, because I’m pretty sure that there are people in the space that you are working in. They may be thinking about it differently, but you need to know your market.

Another thing I would say is that you can wait for the night before, but the thing I would encourage you to do is try to make contact with people that are running these programs before you apply. If you just send in an application, you’ve never been to any of our events and you’ve never had any contact with us, and you send it in the night before, sometimes that’s not the best approach.

Although we look at and read every single application, my strong advice is get to know us before and apply early. That way, as we read them we can get back to you and schedule something or contact you if we see something missing.

Lesa: There is no such thing as being too simple when describing what you’re doing. You want to do it in a way that investors and customers can understand. Keep it as simple as possible in terms of trying to help us understand the problems that you’re solving with your company.

You can watch the answer here and also replay the full Q&A.  

Techstars helps entrepreneurs succeed. Interested in joining the worldwide entrepreneur network? Learn how. Applications close April 9. 








Ask Techstars: How Important is Traction?

We recently held AMA sessions about applying to an accelerator program. To help answer questions, we had Jenny Fielding, managing director of Techstars IoT in New York City, and Ted Serbinski, managing director for Techstars Mobility in Detroit. We often get asked about how startups can talk about traction when applying for an accelerator program. We asked Jenny and Ted to weigh in with their advice. 

How important is traction when selecting a startup?

Jenny: We want to see passionate founders that are working on a life mission, and probably that they haven’t founded the company two days ago. We really want to see some data points. There isn’t one metric in terms of traction, it’s just that you have been executing whatever you said you were going to be executing. If you were going to get a website up, you were going to get some utility or transaction in that, and you did all those things. Then you’ve moved onto the next stage, you’ve gained some early customers. All of these things are considered traction. There really isn’t one answer to the traction question. It’s really that you’re moving on in the journey, and that you’re not just talking about it. Watch the answer here.

Ted: There’s definitely no one size fits all to traction. One of my best performing companies came into the program with very little traction, but it was clear that they could build something, and they demonstrated that. I’ve also seen companies with lots of traction and real revenue struggle, too. So the traction doesn’t mean good or bad, but at this point it’s a data point to give more understanding around that company.

We’re looking for companies that can execute and really build something that can create value. In the 90-day period of Techstars, you don’t create diamonds without a lot of pressure.

If you put a lot of pressure on these companies and they can’t execute or build anything, and they can’t get traction, they’re going to have a hard time outside of the program. If this is pre-program with a lot less pressure and they still can’t execute, there’s going to be a lot more pressure in the program. One size does not fit all, but traction does help us understand if the team can execute at large. Watch the answer here.

Techstars helps entrepreneurs succeed. Interested in joining the worldwide entrepreneur network? Apply now to our programs around the world. 








Ask Techstars: How to Stand Out On Your Application

We recently held an AMA session to answer questions on applying to an accelerator program. To help answer questions, we had Lesa Mitchell, the managing director for Techstars Kansas City, and Ted Serbinski, managing director for Techstars Mobility in Detroit.

What is the one thing you can do to stand out during the application process, outside of user and revenue growth?

Ted: The biggest things I look for in applications are the team video and the product video. We limit those videos to just a minute because one, it’s impossible to look at all the applications if we have to watch more than a minute.

But, two, more importantly, it focuses the team on highlighting the most important things about that team or about that product that they’re working on. If you can’t crisply explain what you’re working on or why you’re working on it in a minute, it’s going to be really hard to do that during Techstars.

Focus on that one minute to say “this is the best thing about our team,” and highlight “this is one thing about our product.” That concise factor really makes it interesting to see what it is about that team, how do they think about themselves in a minute, and how do they think about their product in a minute. It doesn’t need to be high production value. If anything, how you produce the video can say a lot about what you’re like as a team.

One of the best videos from one of my previous companies was actually filmed in a coffee shop. The reason it was so good was because they waited until the last minute to film it, so that it gave us a sense of their deadline and their ability to get things done. But it also gave us a sense of their personality, where they even admitted “hey, we’re doing this in a coffee shop, and we don’t have money to put it into production, but we’re really passionate about what we’re doing.” Using whatever means to get those videos done says a lot about you and your company.

Lesa: Having an insight and understanding about the founders and the problems that they have is most important. I really want to know that founders are scrappy. Taking an easy way in is never going to work as an entrepreneur. Scrappiness could include finding other people that have been through Techstars and finding an opportunity to talk with them. Get them to make a comment about you, or even mention that you’ve talked to them.

Techstars is going to be what you make of it, and how hard you work when you’re in the program. We only get you for a short period of time, so a piece of what you have to figure out through the process is whether or not a founder and their team are all in. That’s pretty hard to discern, so anything that you can help us to understand your “all in-ness” is super helpful.

Ted: One thing to add that is important – complete your entire profile. You don’t need pages and pages per question. A sentence or two, or a tweet-like response, can be sufficient. But I’m always surprised at the companies that take the time to do a video or a team video but don’t take the 30 seconds it takes to fill out the rest of it. Just taking the time to fill it out completely can say a lot about your own personality as a founder.

You can watch the answer here and also replay the full Q&A.  

Techstars helps entrepreneurs succeed. Interested in joining the worldwide entrepreneur network? Learn how.








Global Startup Weekend Highlights: Boulder, Colorado

We recently held Global Startup Weekend (GSW) to connect entrepreneurs, organizing teams, and startup communities around the world from November 11th – 20th. During the weekend, attendees received access to exclusive resources to help prep for success at Startup Weekend and make connections to mentors and other startup teams. After GSW, we asked founders from the local winning teams to tell us about their experiences. Read below to get a behind-the-scenes look into the weekend and their journey to winning.

What is the name of the company you formed at Startup Weekend Boulder?

The name was originally “Alexa Teacher” the night of the pitch. We changed it to “Alexa Learn” because we wanted to capture the idea that what we accomplished at Startup Weekend was just the gateway to more possibilities of learning from your in-home AI.

What was it like forming a team and starting on all of the work?

I walked around listening in to all the teams as they formed, trying to get a sense of what I had to offer the team and what I could potentially learn from the members. The “Alexa Teacher” team had four developers.

When I asked Evan (who pitched) more about what they wanted to build, he said he wasn’t totally sure, but that he had flown to Boulder from Seattle with the goal of learning more about building Alexa skills.

I asked him some questions about how he would infuse a pedagogical approach into the build-out, and with whom he would do validation. I realized I could help the team in those areas. I was excited to learn more about developing Alexa skills myself.

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Any other memorable moments from the weekend?

Yes. We spent Saturday morning ideating on the possible pain points in-home AI could solve when it comes to “learning,” and then we grouped those ideas into themes.

Off the top of my head, the main themes that came up were procrastination, lack of immersion or adaptable algorithms for world language learning, and social and emotional challenges resulting to a lack of growth-mindset.

We settled on how Alexa could potentially solve the pain point for lack of an “immersion” experience for learning a second language, and spent most of the day interviewing students on campus with regards to language learning.

By late afternoon we ended up completely pivoting after speaking to a father (one of the mentors) who was having trouble helping his son learn to read on his own.

We felt we had a unique solution that would solve his more acute pain point, and started over late Saturday afternoon.

Did you take advantage of the exclusive GSW resources before or during the weekend?

Absolutely! I watched Zach Nies’ video on empathy interviewing. My main resource was the fortunate fact that my team was very skilled and this wasn’t their first startup rodeo.

So the weekend is over – what’s next!?

We are still working on next steps. Since the weekend has ended, we have begun rethinking our Business Model Canvas a little bit. I personally have continued interviewing and speaking with colleagues I regard as experts in language learning and literacy.

I also recently participated in Telluride’s Startup Weekend where we took second place with another Alexa-inspired learning idea.

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Any tips for others about to head to Startup Weekend?

Go to learn. Let that be the underlying expectation that guides your experience.

Be present and participate for the entirety of the weekend.

Write a reflection about what you learned the Monday afterwards.

Stay connected to the community. Volunteer. Get colleagues and friends to participate in the next event.

If you were to do it again, anything you would do differently?

Nothing, honestly. Every time I participate in a Startup Weekend, I’m going to show up with an open minded willingness to apply new knowledge on the spot and the readiness to work with any and everyone. Ready to learn.

Global Startup Weekend was an opportunity for entrepreneurs, like these founders, to begin begin building their innovative ideas. Startup Weekend events continue to happen year-round, around the world, find one near you!








Global Startup Weekend Highlights: Washington, D.C.

We recently held Global Startup Weekend (GSW) to connect entrepreneurs, organizing teams, and startup communities around the world from November 11th – 20th. During the weekend, attendees received access to exclusive resources to help prep for success at Startup Weekend and make connections to mentors and other startup teams. After GSW, we asked founders from the local winning teams to tell us about their experiences. We recently talked with Stefanie Karp, participant of Startup Weekend in Washington, D.C. where her team won first place. Read below to get a behind-the-scenes look into the weekend and their journey to winning.

What is the name of the company you formed at Startup Weekend D.C.?

“Unbound Art” is the name of our company. We came up with the name on Saturday around midnight in a flurry of text messages among our team. We had spent the afternoon brainstorming some pretty awful ideas.

What did you expect going into the weekend?  

Mainly, I wanted to learn about the lean startup methodology after it had come up in conversations with two different potential employers. I come from a background of traditional strategic planning with 5-year plans, so this is a radical departure, going out and testing a “half-baked” idea with consumers right off the bat.

I did have a business idea that I had been developing with a friend for 6 months, but until the GSW, that idea only existed in our evening talks while power-walking the streets of our neighborhood.

So your idea is pitched and chosen – what was it like forming a team?

My idea was the last one chosen, I think number eleven out of approximately forty ideas. The recruiting was really tough, as the first few people who interviewed me about my idea decided to pass on working with me.

I started feeling really insecure, thinking I wouldn’t find a team. Luckily, Alyson, a developer, put her name on my sheet immediately when voting began, and then mysteriously left (it turned out later she was sick). So I had only this one “ghost team member,” and people were asking me if she was real!

Then, just before the recruiting ended, Tom, Raj, and Dustin (all General Business types) decided to join the project, and I was super grateful. In retrospect, a team of five, while small, is really ideal. Decision-making was really fast, and we were the epitome of “agile.”

Raj Karyampudi, Tom Randolph, Dustin McDonald, Stefanie Karp, Patricia Geli, Alyson Wright

How did you feel about your idea and new company over the weekend?

Truthfully, we were always on the brink of thinking “no way is this going to work,” as we were eliminating customer segments instead of validating them.

One of the coaches pointed out that there is value to knowing who is NOT your target. We then started focusing more on the artists themselves, and the value proposition to them.  An artist friend of mine joined our team half-way through Saturday and that helped propel us forward as he became our “archetype.”  It helped so much to bring in outside people and their viewpoints along the way.

So the weekend is over – what’s next!?

The team got together via conference call the night after our win; we talked about what each of us wanted out of the startup weekend, and about our expectations going forward. I’m happily surprised that all members are committed to continuing developing the project, and we have a work plan for our next stage of customer validation.

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Any tips for others about to head to Startup Weekend?

Definitely study up on the lean startup methodology, so that the concepts are readily available to you. The framework, like the business model canvas tool, really works! It provides focus when you get stuck.

Any other comments?

Your team is ultimately the key to success, not the idea.

Global Startup Weekend was an opportunity for entrepreneurs, like these founders, to begin begin building their innovative ideas. Startup Weekend events continue to happen year-round, around the world, find one near you!








Editions Month Spotlight: Startup Weekend Women

Editions Month is an initiative to highlight and introduce different audiences and industries to the innovation that happens at Startup Weekend. These special events bring together entrepreneurs and industry experts for all kinds of new projects, teamwork, and community building.
 
One of the most popular editions of Startup Weekend we see is Women’s Edition. Startup Weekend Women events seek to flip the ratio from traditional events. They encourage more participation from women and highlight female entrepreneurs all weekend – from the coaches to the judges.
 
Why are these events so critical to building strong startup communities? Because to grow diversity in technology entrepreneurship worldwide, showcasing the talents of women in entrepreneurship is a first step. Organizations around the world are seeking to do this is many helpful ways. The Techstars Foundation recently announced the first round of grantees, you can learn more here about these great organizations that are working to increase diversity and inclusiveness in entrepreneurship.
 
Check out the Women’s Editions happening during Editions Month!

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

León, Mexico

Albuquerque, USA

 

To help build a diverse and strong startup community in your city, sign up to organize Startup Weekend Women!








Editions Month Industry Highlight: Smart Cities

Everything is getting smarter. The tools we use at work, the products we use every day, so why not make the places we live smarter, too? Smart Cities are an urban development vision where cities are connected through information and communication technology, seeking to improve quality of life through these technologies. Imagine your community using technologies such as sensors, real-time monitoring systems, and data to reduce traffic congestion, fight crime, or improving the delivery of city services. This is what the smart city movement happening around the world is looking to do.
 
 
In 2015, The White House announced a Smart Cities Initiative to invest over $160 million in federal research to help 20+ cities tackle local challenges and improve services. This is just one example of governments around the world looking to improve where we live with smart technologies.
 
 
But it’s not just governments innovating cities. The Techstars Mobility accelerator program is focused on startups that are building technologies for the efficient movement of people, goods, and services across all modes of transportation. These technologies can help tackle the traffic and public transit problems growing cities are facing.
 
 
Startup Weekend events around the world are also thinking about Smart Cities during Editions Month 2016. Entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to dig deep into the topic and come up with solutions, products and services that aim to improve this industry in their hometowns. Check out the events using startups to make smarter cities!
 
 
Columbus, USA
 
Jaraguá do Sul, Brazil
 
 
Interested in innovating within a certain industry? Check out other events happening during Startup Weekend Editions Month!

 








Editions Month Spotlight: When Kids Takeover Startup Weekend

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When you were a kid, what was the closest you got to learning about business and starting a company? Having a lemonade stand, playing Monopoly, mowing lawns? As fun as that was, many of us didn’t have opportunities to be immersed in the real world experience of it. Nowadays, kids have events like Startup Weekend Youth where they can learn firsthand about building a business in just a few days. I wish this type of event was around when I was a kid!

At these events, attendees (usually middle schoolers through high schoolers) get to experience the energy and learnings that come with building an idea with a team. Of course, some things are changed to make it easier for the family schedule and to maintain their focus, but the core content stays the same. They pitch ideas, form teams with (mostly) strangers, and dive into a weekend of hard work. They’re working towards the same thing as adults do at this type of event – impressing the judges on Sunday evening in three categories: Business Model, Customer Validation, and Execution & Design.

I’ve experienced my fair share of Startup Weekend events from being an Organizer and Facilitator, but I have to say my favorite ones are the Youth events. The activity, eagerness, and excitement is steadfast and inspiring. It’s incredible to see the attendees go from pitching their ideas in front of peers (first time for most), to answering tough questions from the judges!

These opportunities are empowering for all the kids involved. Check out the Youth events happening around the world during Startup Weekend Editions Month:

Campeche, Mexico

Tirana, Albania

Recife, Brazil

Accra, Ghana

If there’s an event near you, sign your children up! They may resist giving up their weekend at first, but afterwards you won’t stop hearing about their new skills and the fun they had.

Or, talk to your school about holding one. We’ve seen two events in Seattle held by schools recently and it’s a great way for students and the local community to interact outside the classrooms and learn about entrepreneurship.








Global Startup Battle 2015: The Infographic

See how you impacted the world as part of Global Startup Battle 2015!

In November 2015, the Startup Weekend community came together and rallied to host over 200 events in just two weeks during Global Startup Battle!

That’s a lot of events, but it’s more than just numbers. Because of local Organizers, Facilitators, and Community Leaders, the opportunity to experience entrepreneurship was given to thousands of people. Aspiring entrepreneurs in places like Bejaia (Algeria), Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Bratislava (Slovakia), and others had their shot at a Startup Weekend. Innovation took place around the world and countries showcased their startup communities – shout out to Iran for holding the 2nd most events during GSB!

Whether you organized, facilitated, attended, judged, coached, mentored, or moved bottles of water and served pizza as part of GSB, we hope you left with new knowledge, friends, companies, goals, or all of the above. We thank you for being an integral part of our global ecosystem for entrepreneurs.

Now, to the numbers and results!

 

GSB 2015, infographic






Diversity: Start The Conversation

Diversity in the startup industry is a widely discussed topic lately, and rightfully so. At CES 2016, we dove deep into the topic and discussed the tough questions. Is it more than a pipeline issue? Who should be leading the conversation? What’s the end goal? We talked with leaders from Pandora, Instacart, Jopwell, and the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) about the current landscape and solutions for companies and individuals alike to spark change.

Takeaways from this conversation revealed it’s more than what’s lying at the surface. When you think about diversity and creating a more dynamic company, you consider the basics like recruiting diverse candidates, offering company trainings around diversity, and gathering data.

But then there are the things that can truly help drive change: sharing that data, considering diverse candidates when making referrals, tying diversity goals to bonuses, improving retention and advancement, creating a culture beyond ping-pong tables, and thinking about diversity for what it really is – it’s not just gender — it’s ethnicity, it’s age, it’s background.

The easiest way to start? Talk about it. Have the conversation.

“It’s not a women’s issue, it’s not a diversity issue – it’s an everybody issue. We have to own it. The places we work & live are what we make them.”
– Brad McLain, National Center for Women & Information Technology

Listen to the full session below.

Moderator: Nicole Glaros – Chief Product Officer, Techstars
Panelists: Brad McLain – Research Scientist, National Center for Women in Information Technology
Porter Brasswell – CEO, Jopwell
Anita Stokes – Senior Manager, University Recruiting, Pandora
Matthew Caldwell – VP of People, Instacart
Jenny Fielding – Managing Director, Techstars

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Are you seeking to make an impact in diversity in tech entrepreneurship? Grant applications for the Techstars Foundation are now open. Non-profit and for profit organizations worldwide, seeking to make a scalable impact on diversity, are eligible to apply. Learn more and apply.