With all of the hype around startup accelerators these days, many early-stage founders wonder whether or not they should apply to programs like 500 Startups , Techstars , AngelPad , Y Combinator , MassChallenge  and all the others popping up. Here is the story of how my company, Privy , got into Dave McClure ’s highly acclaimed 500 Startups, and how we were able to make the most of the program.
Privy was beginning to build a good story and we were about a year into our development. We were starting to see more customers using, and paying, for our product, and we were definitely excited about our progress. But we all knew there was a lot more we could do. We wanted to surround ourselves with mentors and advisers that could help us dig deeper into our customer analytics and accelerate the growth of Privy.
That’s when we decided to go the accelerator route.
It’s no surprise that the top accelerators receive thousands of applications for each class of startups. Our team knew we needed to stand out from the crowd to have any chance of getting in. On a trip to the West Coast to meet with a channel partner, we took a detour to visit a friend who was going through the 500 Startups program.
He invited us to the 500 Startups office and briefly introduced us to Christine Tsai , the partner at 500 Startups who runs the accelerator program. After meeting the companies and hearing about their experiences, we knew we really wanted to join the next batch. Following our meeting with Christine, we were on 500 Startups’ radar, but that was just the beginning.
In our two-minute conversation with Christine, we found out the dates when 500 Startups would decide on its next batch of companies. We marked that week on our calendars and flew home. We had six weeks to figure out how to get accepted into the next startup class at 500 Startups.
One of the major selling points of accelerators is their network of mentors, which are typically posted on the accelerator’s website. We scoured the 500 Startups website and made a list of all the East Coast mentors. My co-founder Jake and I split up the list and found a connection to every mentor on the list. We met with the mentors, pitched them on Privy and spent the time to make each of them an advocate of our company.
We then asked these mentors to send an email to Christine on our behalf the week before 500 Startups was making its final decisions.
Christine immediately got back in touch, conducted a one-on-one interview with us on Skype, and followed up by sending our acceptance email.
Once you are accepted into the program, your startup’s clock is ticking. If you enter one of the more well-known accelerators, the press will most likely cover the announcement of the latest startup class. That means investors, customers and partners will be keeping an eye on you from that moment on.
The progress you make in the next four months is critical.
Just keep in mind that accelerators are meant to surround startups with the resources they need to succeed, not to act as a silver bullet. It’s up to you to hustle your way into the program, but it’s more important that you maintain that intensity all the way through demo day and beyond.
Here are a few takeaways on how we were able to make the most of the program:
Open up the kimono. Being honest and open about your company metrics will help your mentors help you. The more you can open up, the more they can help. After several metrics reviews, we were able to find two clear customer segments, which helped us decide to reshift our focus entirely to just one of those segments.
Understand and map out the mentor network from day one. An accelerator’s mentor list can be massive. Break it down into a smaller, more relevant list of folks who have expertise in your target market or in relevant business models. Meet with this smaller list regularly and tap their network for additional, relevant introductions.
Take advantage of the program’s alumni list. As an example, 500 Startups has an alumni list of hundreds of founders that have been through it all. Don’t be shy about reaching out to them and leaning on their experience in areas when you don’t yet have any.
Prepare for demo day well in advance. We were lucky to get access to the list of demo day attendees well in advance. In the same way that we researched the mentor network, we built a target list of demo day attendees for each of the three nights. We determined who we wanted to connect with beforehand, and we were able to make the most of these nights.
The 500 Startups program opened up an entirely new network for Privy and helped us focus on what was and was not working in our business. But the program, and demo day, was really just the beginning.
We’ve since closed a $1.7 million round of funding and are actively hiring. Now we need to be laser focused on our product and future customer growth.