Getting Your 2019 Application Right: Common Mistakes We See

We know applications can be daunting – so many questions and such small word allowances! We truly want your venture to shine for our selection team and over the years have learned what makes an application stand out. Below you can find the biggest mistakes we usually see and some tips and tricks to ace our application (or really any other venture support program!)

MISTAKE #1 – DON’T CONFUSE MARKET SIZE WITH YOUR SUCCESS.

Stating a large market size or the gravity of the social issue doesn’t mean that your venture is poised to gain a slice of the market share pie. More importantly, market size is not synonymous with demand.

  • The Application Question:  “What proof do you have that your customers are willing to buy your product or service?”
  • The wrong answer: “Thirty-eight percent of US jobs will be automated in the next 10 years – that represents millions of workers seeking new skills and job placements.”
  • The fix: “In our first 3 years we trained 300 people whose job histories match the profile of workers who will most-likely face automation in the next 10 years.  Of those we trained, 70% found new employment in a higher-skill, higher-pay position within a year of graduating our program. If we can continue to grow at this rate over the next year, we will net $2M in recurring revenue”.

No one can argue with real numbers.  If your product or service isn’t live yet, positive testimonials from customer interviews, pre-registered users, or results from product focus groups can also hint at potential demand.  If you haven’t interacted with potential users or customers, put the accelerator application on pause and in the words of Steve Blank, “Get out of the office.”

MISTAKE #2 – BELIEVING YOU DON’T HAVE COMPETITORS

Even if you are the first to market with your innovation, the status quo is your biggest and most threatening competitor.  Not to mention, in many cases the status quo is a tolerable state of being and available fixes are not worth the cost.

  • The Application Question:  “Who are your main competitors, and what makes you different and unique from them?”
  • The wrong answer: “Currently no one is providing rural, affordable wifi and/or broadband. Our technology is unmatched and we are hitting the market even before the big internet companies.”
  • The fix:  “Bigger internet companies have found the cost associated with rural infrastructure to be too burdensome, leaving large potential markets untapped. While they are likely to attempt regulatory pressure against new companies entering these markets, we believe our unique tech that outperforms existing satellite-based internet and proven resulting lower implementation costs can help us win contracts in rural communities.”

First mover or not, you must demonstrate awareness of the other solutions to the problem (or why they haven’t been adopted). Even better, show that you understand how your target customer currently manages or deals with this problem, and why your solution is better.

MISTAKE #3 – CONFUSING A LACK OF SEED FUNDING AS A CHALLENGE VERSUS A SYMPTOM

Funding is not your biggest challenge.  All of the reasons why you haven’t received funding are your biggest challenges.  And that’s okay – you’re a startup!

  • The Application Question: What is your venture’s biggest challenge?
  • The wrong answer: “Our biggest challenge is financial runway.  We’ve had a hard time connecting with the right investors. With a little bit of seed capital, we would be able to successfully scale our venture.”
  • One possible fix:  “One of our biggest challenges right now is identifying the right channel(s) for expansion.  Our first few years of success leveraged strong local relationships and personal networks, however, we know that method of gaining capital and contracts doesn’t work as we expand. We need a few connections in new markets and a little runway to try new, cost-effective approaches to gaining new markets”

Other great responses to this question include sharing the feedback you’ve received from funders and where you’re struggling to incorporate that feedback.  Accelerators can’t make investors write checks, but we can provide the tools and resources to test your business model, hone your pitch, and put the right scaling mechanisms in place in order to turn your venture into a shiny investment object.

Mistake #4 – Conflating the paying customer and the end-user

In social enterprise, two-sided markets in which the paying customer and end-user exchange two distinct product or services with the venture are common. Google had this challenge as well with the launch of their free search product. Everyday internet browsers – homework help seekers, online shoppers, recipe hunters, etc – have much different needs and desires than business owners trying to get their business to be seen in a crowded internet. While certainly not impossible, a two-sided market requires that you achieve product-market-fit not only with your customers but also your end-users.  At an early stage, it’s likely you’re further along with one than the other. 

  • The Application Question: “What problem are you solving for your paying customer, and how do you know it’s a problem?”
  • The wrong answer: “As former teachers, we know educators across the US, especially those who teach in low-income areas, are over-worked and under-resourced. Our free classroom management platform returns on average 5 hours a week back to the teacher, allowing them to dedicate more time to their students.”
  • The fix: “At present, our platform is free for educators and we are seeking 15-20 new teachers join the platform each week.  However, we know from talking with 10 administrators that school districts and progressive principals are concerned about educator turnover and would like to better understand the impact of new interventions and pilots to improve student performance.  In the next version of our technology, we believe we can license a customized data solution district-wide that would provide the same benefit to educators, but allow administrators to predict when a teacher may be experiencing burnout or quickly pivot if a classroom intervention isn’t having the desired effect.  We plan to test this hypothesis in the form of a discounted pilot program for the next school year.”

More tips and tricks:

  • Be humble!  I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur who said their first business plan was the right business plan.  In your application, find an opportunity to highlight instances where you demonstrated an ability to respond to feedback.  
  • Can you play nice with others – For many impact accelerators, and ours in particular, peer feedback and collaboration are important program elements, in addition to coaching from industry leaders and mentors. What do you have to learn from others, and what learning can you share in return?
  • PLEASE be succinct.  Fluff has a place, but it’s not in your accelerator application.  Keep your open-ended answers to the point. This allows reviewers to find the important information quickly.

We hope this helps you put forth a great application. Applications for the 2019 Future of Work Accelerator are due September 5th @ 8 pm EST.