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6 Things I’ve Learned From My First Startup Selection

StartupYard closed applications for our 2015 accelerator round on Dec. 15. Now we’ve cracked open those applications, and we’ve started making our preliminary selections. The teams that pass this round will be invited to interview with us via skype, and some of those companies will be invited to meet with us here, in person, at Node5 in Prague.

Though I’ve been with the accelerator team since late 2013, this is my first time as a participant in the early selection process. So I’ve seen teams during their skype interviews, but I haven’t seen all of our applicants from previous rounds. The experience has been… revealing. In a few points, here’s why:

1. Keep It Simple, Stupid

At the end of the day, we take a close look at over 100 applications. To get through the very first round, it’s basically important that an applicant prove that they can operate a keyboard, and are familiar with the English language. a solid chunk of applications don’t pass that level of muster, but that’s to be expected in any open call. We got one application from a hair salon in Latvia… which was interesting, but a little beyond our current scope.

No, the incomplete applications are a nuisance, but not a major hastle. The really vexing part of the application process is encountering walls of text that read something like this:

We are developing a B2C SaaS for monitoring optimum system throughput in a CYS2 standard 3rd generation YTS transistor for use on an inline, 3-tiered, dual-gauge system management terminal via fully integrated latest generation user feedback monitors.

The feeling you’re experiencing is similar to my own, when reading a few of our applications to myself. We don’t expect applicants to write as if they’re talking to their own grandmothers, but we do expect that they can explain their products to reasonably educated, reasonably techy people like me. And yet quite a few of the messages back and forth amongst the team in the past few weeks have been of the “what does X company do?” variety. Some we were never able to figure out.


2. We Can Tell If You Care

We know you’re not a publicist or a copywriter. We don’t want publicists and copywriters (except as mentors of course). But what we do want is people who care desperately about their products, and are enthusiastic about moving them forward. On the whole, our applications aren’t all that hard. And if it’s obvious you don’t care, don’t bother to answer every question fully and accurately, include a video when asked, and spellcheck your application, then that’s a fairly good sign that we don’t want to work with you. Who would?

3. We Can Tell Who is Keen

On the other hand, in a sea of applications, a little effort goes a long way. There were teams who produced cool introductory videos, and worked hard to look good, but the applications we ended up liking the most were the ones where the founders seemed enthusiastic. That’s it. Really simply stuff: they smiled in their videos, they showed that they were thinking about the questions, and they took the time to answer carefully and honestly.

Personally, I respond well to an applicant who writes as if he or she is laying the groundwork for meeting me. The person who is trying actively to convince me to take the next step and invite them for an interview, is the person who gets invited. We even felt that way about several of the teams whose applications were frankly weaker than the others: they seemed to care, and so we care about them- at least enough to look at them during the next round.

4. If You’re A Me-Too Product, Be Honest About Yourself

“Me-too,” products are not absolute kryptonite to us. On one hand, me-too companies tend to be overconfident about just how much they can differentiate themselves against strong competition. But on the other hand,  if you’re a startup that thinks it has no competition, you’re almost certainly wrong, and you’re definitely lazy. Which is why we ask companies who they see as their competition. That helps us to understand how the companies see themselves. Your product is a delivery service. Is it competition for Uber, or Taskrabbit? If not, why not? And there is nothing wrong with being competition for big companies. Sometimes small-scale solutions really are better, and sometimes there’s a corner of your market that the big companies ignore.

But “me-too” products tend to talk about the size of the market they’re in, as if that justifies their business model being essentially the same as a dominant competitor. But the competitor they’re facing had to fight for the market they control, and if your weapons for that fight are the same as theirs, then they’ll win. Usually, they’ll win without even noticing you were there. Often, there’s a grain of a good business in the ideas that try to differentiate a me-too product from the competition. What a lot of founders have a hard time dealing with, is that these small differentiating factors have to become the basis for their business. And they really, really have to work. You can be “twitter for X” or “Uber for X,” but that X has to be something that you can do really well, and that the competition, by dint of its size or its lack of focus, can’t do for some reason. That’s where me-too products really get bogged down, and it’s why we’re wary of talking with them. 

5. Small Products Think They Have to Be Big

As a corollary to the “me-too” issue, a few applicants obviously thought that they would impress us with big ideas. We like big ideas, don’t get me wrong, but big ideas are dangerous. Big ideas, for a seed-stage startup, are dependent on a million little details. If you’re thinking about being the world leader by next year, you aren’t necessarily thinking about making the best decisions for your business this week.

And most great big ideas start as small ideas that the person cultivates from personal, in-depth experience. The examples of this are endless, and counterexamples are nearly impossible to find. So a focus and clarity of vision on the details and the small-scale aspects of a startup are important signs to me that it has a chance at bigger successes later.


6. Getting a P.H.D. In Nameology

A good recent episode of the startup podcast Startup, from Gimlet Media goes deeply into the vagaries and fears and  recriminations that go into a choosing a name. I can’t pretend to be an expert in this department. Several of the companies we accelerated last year had long struggles in choosing a name, and there were disagreements up to the moment that the final decisions needed to be made. I didn’t always win. Others came with a name, and it stuck. Something about it just worked.

I can only say this: it’s harder than you think, and your first instinct is probably wrong. If my experience is any indication, you need to go through a few names before you settle on the one that’s really going to work. And as you start to build up your brand identity and your company culture around the name, you’ll see how important a name can be. So choosing the right one shouldn’t be a 5 minute discussion. Take some time with it.