How to Get Into a Top Tech Accelerator in 2024

Yes, you need a good idea. You also need to show the accelerator that you have the goods to turn the idea into reality.

Written by James Evans
Published on Feb. 09, 2024
How to Get Into a Top Tech Accelerator in 2024
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As a Y Combinator graduate, a lot of early founders come to me asking for advice on accelerator applications. Whether it is Y Combinator, Techstars, OnDeck, ERA or anywhere else, they always formulate their ask the same way: “Do you think this idea is good enough?”

2 Essentials for Every Accelerator Application

  1. A literal application. It describes yourself, your idea, your business, etc.
  2. A meta-application. Your answers prove that you’re someone likely to succeed as a founder.

In the process of getting both rejected and accepted by accelerators, I’ve realized that “Is the idea good enough?” is totally the wrong question. 

Before diving into the “why,” we need to dispel a giant myth about accelerator applications. Many founders believe accelerators require you to prove your idea, like a pitch competition. But accelerators back founders, not ideas. Here’s what founders should focus on.

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Demonstrate Credible Obsession

A good founder has thought so much about their idea that they’re obsessed with it. This manifests as knowing more about their specific area than the person reading the application. I remember hearing this advice when we were preparing for our YC interview. 

The worst thing that can happen is for you to be asked a question about your idea that you’ve never thought about. You don’t necessarily need to know the answer, but you should have thought about it.

How do you prove this in an application? Drop non-obvious knowledge. In ours, we talked about how we had built a prototype of our product (a natural language search interface) and had seen a cool second-order effect (we had much better insight into our users’ intents and goals through the search logs).

Prove That You’re Curious

Scout Mindset is a book by Julia Galef that describes two types of mindsets:

  • The Soldier Mindset: Defending your beliefs and ignoring disconfirming evidence and trying to prove yourself right
  • The Scout Mindset: You seek truth. You form hypotheses and aggressively seek to disprove them, adapting your understanding of the world with the input you gather.

I’ve seen successful founders who exhibit both mindsets. Sometimes, you need a soldier to doggedly pursue a vision of what the world or an industry could be like, even if no one believes them and there’s lots of evidence to the contrary. 

But more often than not, good founders are scouts — they demonstrate curiosity and an interest in the truth. They constantly update their understanding of their market and the depth of their product market fit with new signals — what features are being used, what pain points are resonating in customer calls, when’s coming up in support requests, what competitors are doing, etc. If your positioning doesn’t attract customers, do you insist users just don’t get it? Or do you accept reality and revamp your positioning?

How do you demonstrate scoutness in an application? Talk about something you believed about your space/market that you now no longer believe, and how you disproved the conclusion. Very few people do this in their first draft because they believe the application is supposed to make them look smart (“I had an idea and I was right”) not dumb (“I had an idea and was wrong”).


Flaunt Progress, Not Credentials

Many founders come from impressive backgrounds: Ivy League, consulting, management banking, MAANG…the list goes on.

I’m not saying these credentials don’t matter. (I’m actually kind of agnostic myself, but many investors still use these signals.) What doesn’t matter is hyping up these credentials in your application.

Good founders focus on concrete, near-term results, user feedback, active customers, etc.

Even if you think your progress is paltry, talking about it in your application shows you’re focused on moving fast and making concrete progress, not trying to wow the application reader with your credentials.

If you don’t have progress on the idea you’re applying with, list other entrepreneurial/building things you’ve done and what concrete achievements you made with those, for instance, your work with previous companies or with open source projects.

By showing you have built or sold things before, you will be ahead of most people’s resumes.

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Does the Idea Not Matter at All?

My hot take is that the meta-application is more important than the idea. Accelerators see thousands of startups every year and they know how quickly ideas, strategies and users change. The only thing consistent: The founder.

Yes, ideas do matter: You won’t get into Y Combinator selling inflatable dart boards. But your application should illustrate your thought process. Here are a few factors that I’ve seen help in accelerator applications when it comes to the idea.

A Big enough market

Some people take the advice “build something you want” too literally. They build a tool for a tiny slice of a market and want to stay there. But accelerators don’t fund businesses with an obvious revenue ceiling. That doesn’t mean your MVP needs to have billion-dollar potential, but you should know how you could get there (and that you want to get there!).

A clear angle

Many accelerator applications go like this: “I’m really smart, I studied this problem for a while, <insert market> is broken, I’m going to build a better solution.” This isn’t an idea. Ideally, you already have a product in mind. If not, you should at least know what specific problems with the market need solving urgently and have some ideas about how you’re going to fix them.

Yes, ideas do matter: You won’t get into Y Combinator selling inflatable dart boards.

As the tech landscape constantly evolves, accelerators recognize the malleability of ideas and strategies. The one constant they look for is the tenacity and adaptability of the founder. While a compelling idea is undoubtedly essential, the meta-application, with its emphasis on founder qualities and strategic thinking, emerges as the linchpin in the accelerator application process. 

So, when you embark on this journey, remember it’s not just about having a good idea, but about being the kind of founder who can turn that idea into a reality.

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