What startups need to know before applying to an incubator

Over the last decade or so, incubators have played an increasingly central role in the development and launch of startups in Silicon Valley and beyond. While the services that each individual incubator – sometimes known as an accelerator – offers to its startups varies, the general purpose of these organizations is to provide resources and services that can accelerate the growth of a startup beyond what that fledgling business would be able to do on its own.

As TechCrunch explained, most incubators take a 2-10 percent stake in your company in exchange for coaching and mentorship, networking with other startup founders, the eventual process of branding your business and privileged access to investors. Any startup can apply to join these incubators, but it’s not easy. The application process is absolutely brutal – a separate TechCrunch report found that the elite incubator Y-Combinator receives one application every minute, while

Working with an incubator is no guarantee of success, but it does significantly increase your chances of getting your startup from an idea to an investor-backed growth-stage business.
another incubator, AngelPad, has admission standards that are significantly more demanding than Harvard Business School.

Successful admission can be a complete game-changer for a startup looking to find its way in an increasingly crowded Valley.

In most cases, it’s worth throwing your hat in the ring and applying for an incubator, but you don’t just want to fill out an application, send it in and hope for the best. There’s a lot riding on your application, so you’ll want to prepare for it as best as you can before you send it to the incubator of your choice. Here are a few things you should know and do as you prepare to apply to an incubator:

Know everything you can about the incubator
Every incubator is unique, so you want to do a substantial amount of research before you apply. It’s not like applying to a regular job, where you send out the same resume and cover letter for dozens of positions. The incubator wants to know why you’re right for it, and you want to make sure it’s right for you as well.

With so many applicants, most incubators have the right to be extremely exacting in their standards and picky about who they work with. After all, their business’ success depends on yours, so they need to be assured that you’re not going to lose them money. Know what every incubator is looking for in a founder/startup. There are numerous videos and articles out there from incubator leaders like Paul Graham, Dave McClure and others. There’s no excuse for not knowing what these leaders and their incubators like and dislike.

An article in Entrepreneur recommended that you look at the totality of the incubator’s offerings before you decide if you’re going to apply for it. For starters, you want to look beyond the capital that they offer. Money is important, but incubators offer so much more than that. Specifically, you should look at the mentorship afforded to you, the opportunities you’ll get in the incubator’s physical location (if they make you relocate) and the curriculum that you’ll be sent through.

If you really want an insider look into what it’s like to work with a certain incubator, consult with some of its alumni. They will be able to tell you exactly what you can expect during your relationship with the incubator as well as give you potential tips for applying.

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Have the prerequisites in place before you apply
While every incubator has been known to take a chance every now and again, you’ll stand the greatest chance of getting into the one of your choice if you have everything they’re looking for in an early-stage startup already. TechCrunch explained that you’ll maximize your chances of acceptance if you have a great team of engineers, great product designs, a stellar management team and existing customers. Incubators love when all of the ingredients are in place – all they need to do then is provide the icing on the cake.

Something important to note: Entrepreneur stated that a strong team can make up for any shortcomings in your business idea. Ideas can be refined and honed to make them better. A team with awful chemistry or ill-defined roles is almost impossible to fix without a substantial overhaul. Many incubators require in-person or video interviews. If you and your team show up and clearly don’t work well together, the interviewer is going to run for the hills.

Get a warm introduction if possible
Warm introductions – when two parties are introduced by someone who is familiar with both of them – are everything in business. If you don’t know anyone who can introduce you to someone at the incubator, you’re going to be just another application in the massive pile (which might as well be a black hole, given how many startups apply to these incubators each day).

Use LinkedIn and scour your network for mutual connections between you and someone at an incubator. Explain what you’re working on and how you’d love an introduction to someone who can at least hear you out. You need every way possible to stand out, and showing that you’re well connected enough to get a warm introduction is a great way to start.

Polish your pitch to perfection
Before you even apply, you need to know what you want to say and how you want to say it. Whoever is involved in the pitch needs to be well rehearsed in the key points you’ll bring up: Technical details, the business model, projections for future growth, etc. But the interviewer wants you to go beyond just talking about these things. Ultimately, they want to know that you’re someone who can execute. This means that you have to show off your track record of getting things done, as well as clear action steps for how you’ll continue to follow through on your plans. Incubators don’t invest based on talk – they want to see action.

Do you have any experiences with applying to an incubator?

Murray Goldstein

Murray Goldstein

Murray Goldstein serves as the Executive Director of SMB Segment Marketing for Cox’s business services division.He has primary responsibility for small-to-midsize business-to-business acquisition, lifecycle and digital marketing for Cox Communications.As part of this role, Goldstein oversees marketing strategy across industry-leading, business-grade voice, data and video technology solutions.
Murray Goldstein