Interviewing With an Accelerator: A few Do’s and Don’ts

We’ve narrowed our shortlist of applicants to StartupYard from over 100, to under 30 during the past few weeks, and next week, we will be meeting with our finalists via Skype. For those of you who may be interviewing with us, or another accelerator in the future, we’re going to share a few salient tips for doing well in this type of meeting.

 

Keep it Simple and Build Positive Momentum

We’re not on your side in this process. We’re not against you, and we’re not rooting for you to fail, but you’re not part of the accelerator yet, so we aren’t rooting for you to be accepted either. A big part of what you’ll work on at StartupYard, as with many other accelerators, are your presentation skills and your pitch. We don’t expect you to give us a full blown pitch, but you should prepare and practice one before meeting with us. You do this because preparing a pitch forces you to make very clear all of the best arguments in favor of your idea.

You aren’t giving a full-on presentation, and you shouldn’t have any visual aids. But you should have a set of clear, concise arguments practiced, or even memorized. These will help you to build confidence and positive momentum as you relax and start to answer our questions. Having practiced your responses to a few probable early questions will take the pressure off. Since you can probably predict what the first few questions will be about- this should also be easy for you to prepare for.

If you do this well, your chances of having a good interview will increase dramatically. Startups often fail in the interviews because of lack of preparation, or lack of engagement with the questions we ask. However, if you start off steady, you will probably find the questions easier to answer, the atmosphere more friendly, and the meeting much less adversarial. Observing interviews in the past, I have noted that they have a tendency to *become* adversarial, with the interviewers interrogating the startup founder and showing frustration with the answers, but only when that founder appears unprepared, or has not been clear and concise in her summation of what she is doing.

 

Clear Answers to Clear Questions

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The above is not to say that you can prepare all of your answers in advance. You can’t. While the first few questions will probably be easier and more predictable, you have to quickly shift to listening, and honing in on the questions that the evaluators will ask. These questions will increase in complexity as the interview continues. So keep this in mind: answer the exact question that is being asked. My father was a lawyer, and he used to tell me this about cross-examination: “Ask someone a direct question, and they will give you a general answer. Ask for general information, and the answer will be specific.”

For example, a general question like: “How do you feel about superhero movies?” Will often get this sort of answer: “I like the ones from Marvel, especially Ironman. Those ones are the funniest.” Whereas a specific question like: “Do you like the Nolan Batman movies?” Might well get an answer like this: “Well… I’m not so much interested in superhero movies to be honest- I prefer romantic comedies.”

The reason is simply that direct questions, yes or no questions, or simply interrogatives, tend to make people nervous. People don’t want to be pinned down to a specific position all the time, and they don’t want to be caught contradicting themselves or their other beliefs. So they avoid saying yes or no, or directly answering the question. On the other hand, when asked a general question, they tend to give specific examples in order to avoid being seen as a “type of person,” or associating themselves too closely with the question. When someone asks you whether you like superhero movies, you may interpret the question as asking whether you are a comic-book fan. So you pre-empt the question by answering a different one entirely.

But in interviews, this kind of slipperiness can be deadly. If you spend too much of your mental energy trying to not appear to be a certain type of person, or trying to figure out what the interviewer wants to hear, you can easily miss the question entirely, and never answer it. We notice when this happens, and having to ask a question twice, or even three times to get a satisfactory answer is tiresome, and will not make the panel warm to you.

 

Take a seat. Shut the Door. Don't be nervous.

Take a seat. Shut the door. Don’t be nervous.

Know and Talk about Your Competition

This is not a political campaign. A lot of startup founders refer to their competition as “the competition,” or “the other guys,” or “certain other companies,” as if mentioning them by name or showing that you know anything about them makes you seem weak or inferior. Don’t do this. It can seem arrogant, and it also makes you look foolishly overconfident. As we say at StartupYard: “If you don’t have competition, you don’t have a market.” Every product competes with a customer’s attention with other products. You need to show that you understand that, in order to convince us that you can make a product and get people to pay attention to it.

By doing thorough research on your competition, and talking about your competition intelligently, and with a balanced approach, you can show your evaluators that you have insights into how to compete in your market. Remember: you have competition. Even if there is no other product in your niche or category, there is a product or even a way of doing things that competes with your product, and your way of doing things. What do your potential customers do now, because your product isn’t available? Whatever it is- that is your competition. Even if you are the only company doing what your company does, that does not mean you don’t have competitors. Many startups confuse their unique value proposition with their market: they think that because nobody does things the way they do, that means they don’t have any real competitors. This is folly, and our panel knows it. Be ready to site statistics and numbers about your competitors, and to provide insights into how your unique value propositions will be able to take a part of that market for yourself.

I’ll give you a good example. Mergim Cahani, founder of Gjirafa, and part of the 2014 cohort at StartupYard, listed his primary competition as Google. That’s something few startup founders have the guts to do- but which a huge number of them should be doing. It happened that Gjirafa really was trying to compete directly with Google in search, but Cahani’s arguments about why Gjirafa could do a better job than Google in his market, based on his knowledge of what Google *was* doing, convinced the evaluators that he had a good chance to compete.

Imagine interviewing with StartupYard, and presenting a search product that looks very much like Seznam or Google do, in terms of its core product. You would look like an enormous fool if you didn’t demonstrate a clear understanding of what your competition was, and what challenges that presented. That being said, there is nothing wrong with having strong competition. Strong competition is a sign of a vibrant marketplace- if the company you’re competing against is doing well, it’s partly because the market for their products is strong. Few products can totally dominate any vertical- so you have to embrace your competition, and show where your place is in the same market. The answer: “we don’t have any competitors,” is not one that will be believed, and not one that scores you any points with evaluators.

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Say “I Don’t Know”

There should be questions from the evaluators that you don’t have the answers to. That’s fine. You can admit that you don’t know something, particularly if it is a question about something over which you have little control. You can control how much you know about your competition, and you can control how much money you plan to spend, and on what, when you are accepted. But you can’t control the growth of a certain market, or the actions of competitors in the future, so rather than making uneducated guesses, you should tell the evaluators when you don’t know something.

Will Uber begin operating in your market in 2015 or 2016? You may not know. Will your pricing scheme be effective when you launch your payed product? Will your government permit you to execute part of your plan? You may hope so, but you can’t be sure. You should be able to make educated guesses, and make it clear that they are guesses, but when you really don’t have a way of knowing the answer to a specific question, the evaluators will respect the fact that you don’t know yet. In fact, they may ask you questions with the intention of gauging how connected with reality you really are. Saying that you know something, when you have no way of knowing, will not create confidence, it will lose you our trust.

 

Do Your Research On Us

Our mentor page is publically accessible. Read it, and get to know our team and our mentors. Read this blog- we’re very open about the way we do things. Some of them will be your evaluators (though we won’t tell you in advance who they will be). Understanding what we know, what our experience is, and what kinds of teams we have accelerated in the past, will give you a natural advantage when talking to us about your future at StartupYard. On the other hand, not knowing who we are, and showing that you really don’t understand what we do, is a big red flag to us about how seriously you take this opportunity.

 

Be Clear on The Problem You’re Solving

This is really central to the interview. In fact, this is among the most common failure points for interviewees at StartupYard, so pay attention to it.

The problem you’re solving can be seen as the pain that your target user is experiencing, and that your product or service will take away. If your product makes a process more efficient, then it may solve a financial pain, or the pain of wasted time, or of boredom. If your product gives people access to information, or facilitates communication, then you may be solving issues of time and money, or you may be alleviating the pain of missed opportunities, or of poor efficiency and competitiveness.

All products can be viewed in this way- and it is an important framing device for talking about your company and your market. And more importantly, focusing on the problem and the pain on the market lends your product more urgency and purpose.
Here’s another good example from last year. Vaclav Formanek, founder of Educasoft, maker of MyPrepApp and Hrave, the test preparation platforms, did very well in his interview with StartupYard. Part of the reason is that his grasp of the problem he was solving was very clear. He could have said: “MyPrepApp helps people to learn and study for tests.” Then the problem would be something like: “people need help preparing for tests.” There’s not much urgency in that framing of the product. It raises more questions than it answers. But instead he said something like this: “MyPrepApp is for students who don’t have the necessary motivation to study on their own- it encourages them to study by making the process competitive and fun.”

Right there, he framed the problem in terms of pain: the students lack motivation, and this will give them the motivation they need. That tells us what kinds of people his products are for, and it makes it obvious how his product will appeal to those people, and solve their problems at the same time. That’s a winning strategy for an interview. You can talk for 10 minutes about how wonderful and lovely your product is, but if it doesn’t solve a problem and fix a pain that can be described, then we won’t be convinced that it’s a product people will want to buy. We may like your product, and agree that it’s lovely and interesting, but we won’t see it as a business idea. Lots of lovely and interesting products never made money. But products that solve real problems often do.