What you should get out of your accelerator interview

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A lot of startups I know are going through interviews right now. I know the feeling well - I distinctly remember my own prep for Techstars, and the difficulty, the hours, the grilling by my mentors Tom Chikoore, Taylor McLemore, and Josh Emert, and the eventual relief when the interview was over.

It was hell to go through the interviews, but it was an important step for my startup and my development. What it helped me discover was that there were more holes in my business than I had thought, and what are some ideas to help solve those holes.

This was also an interesting process for my own entrepreneurial development, as it helped me concentrate my answers, demonstrate to my team my ability to handle investor questions, and firmed my resolve to make this startup. Though my startup didn't make Techstars and was fundamentally flawed, this interview process really did make it worthwhile as a learning process.

So my advice to founders during this is: focus on the process. Take it as an opportunity to quicken the pace of business progress to make the application deadline, to understand more about your business than you previously thought, and learn and grow. Don't focus on the outcome - because getting into Techstars/500/YC really isn't the point. Making a successful business is the point.

Yes - you ask - but how do I REALLY optimize the interview to Techstars/500/YC. So here goes.

Each accelerator program has their own criteria and processes in which they make their decisions, so most importantly ask accelerator alumni on the process. Don't ask Techstars/YC/500 people people and don't ask mentors. The best feedback come from the alumni who can give no BS feedback.

For feedback on the YC/500/Techstars process, here are comments from alumni:

For 500, from Raymond Yip, founder at Shopline:

The 500 startups Interview:

  • If you can make it in person, I recommend doing it because face to face is always better regardless. It is about the people after all.
  • Otherwise Skype is okay too. Since we’re in Asia, going there was not quite feasible. Don’t expect it to be a lengthy meeting. It’s very in-and-out.
  • No BS. We got on the Skype call and went at it right away. I asked if I should introduce our selves first, immediately one of the partners, said no, no time. 15 minutes exactly.
  • You do your elevator pitch then they would ask you some questions about market, how would you distribute and how you’re different.
  • Talking about traction helps, probably more than anything else actually
  • Although I have a feeling it’s really about how you answer and the was you interact. By that time they probably have a good idea what you’re doing anyway.
  • Much of it has to do with whether or not they feel you can fit the culture at 500 especially working along side 30-40 other teams
  • There is a hard stop They get back to you very quickly maybe a week. Literally, two weeks later we were on a plane to SF.

More information from his Medium post.

For YC, from Thomas Pun:

  • concise wordings
  • no marketing bs
  • sell the vision
  • but more about why the team is THE team to do this
  • it's ok to tell the partners you don't have the answer they ask you - don't waste time sugar coating or talk around it
  • partners may have parallel conversations with the team. Make sure you stop them if you were asked about an area you are familiar with - it is also a good way to impress the partners

More information from his Medium post, which talks more generally about what investors look for, but hey YC is an investor.

If I were to give some advice as a Techstars applicant, I would recommend:

  • Expect questions from all sorts of angles - team, business, even your past. That's cool - roll with it.
  • Be painfully transparent what your challenges are - and how to address them
  • Expect tactics like these in the article. When I was an interviewer I would quicken the pace, ask more pointed questions, etc. - things to throw the interviewee off. Don't get thrown off.
  • Know your business inside and out
  • Showcase your team. TEAM.

Good luck and good learnings. From Raymond, Thomas, and me.