It’s not rocket science. With just a little bit of preparation you should be able to rise above the noise and significantly improve your chances of getting on the shortlist. Portadi was part of the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator Berlin Batch #3 (MSVA Spring 2015). Over 500 companies applied, out of which the Accelerator selected 8 startup teams.
Rule #1: Apply soon
It’s surprising how often startups apply to accelerators the very last day. Microsoft Ventures Accelerator is not any different, a majority of their applications come within the last weeks of the application deadline and perhaps 30% come in the very last day.
For Portadi, the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator was not the first incubator / accelerator we applied to. With practice and over time we got better in our pitch and we also started to understand how the selection process works. And like with many other things in life - timing is everything. If you apply soon, the team reviewing your application will have more time to look into the details of your business. I must point out, however, that based on MSVA rules, when you apply does not affect the probability of you being selected.
Rule #2: Get recommendations
Microsoft Ventures Accelerator uses a service called F6S for their application process. The application has a section where you can ask other people for a recommendation.
Before we applied we didn’t know many people at Microsoft and definitely no Microsoft employees or partners in Germany. So we got to LinkedIn and looked for connections we had in our network. We found some 2nd degree connections at Microsoft Czech, enough to get started. We asked for introductions and quite bluntly pitched Portadi to them. This was a weak bridge but a bridge nonetheless. Over time a few people in developer relations and PR got to know us and when we asked for a recommendation we got it.
For us it was a very good exercise. We built some trust which may come in handy later. Coincidentally we also got a tour of the Accelerator long before the application deadline and had an opportunity to do a practice pitch. If you get any opportunity to pitch, take it f*ing seriously. We prepared pretty hard for it even though it was just 3 minutes long. The feedback from the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator team was really valuable and helped us fine-tune our final application (and possibly influenced our pole position - but we will never know for sure).
Rule #3: Every interaction matters
Each and every interaction with the Accelerator matters. We interacted with the team actually four times. The first time it was the tour.
The second time it was the application. When you apply, make your application crisp. If nothing else, your go-to-market strategy should be polished. Microsoft accepts pre-revenue startups into their program so don’t sweat the sales numbers but have a better story than “Our product is a complete game changer and everybody will buy it.” They heard it before. Your product will most likely suck when you launch and nobody will care. You are in for a long, stressful journey. Founder Derek Andersen summed it up perfectly in just two words: Startup Grind :-)
The third time was a Skype call. In our case, it was a free form interview. They said: “This is your 15 minutes, pitch to us any way you want.” We ended up talking for about 20 minutes. Be ready, have a question or two for the selection committee. You will likely meet the entire team - Marius, Kai, Juli.
The fourth time was an in-person 5-minute pitch and Q&A. You should always send your CEO there but I was in California and couldn’t go so it was up to Tomas. He got into a car at 5 am in the morning, drove to downtown Berlin, walked to the office, pitched for 5 minutes and drove back home. It felt like an endurance test.
The selection committee was 12 or so people. You won’t know who they are until you get there but you can safely assume some of them will be from Microsoft. We developed the narrative, improved the pitch deck and memorized the whole pitch. We got a barrage of questions: Do you know this competitor and that competitor? How are you different than X? How big is the market? Is that really a market? How do you make someone sign up for your service?
Product, market, team
Most people think that by holding off on the submission they gain time to improve the product, get more beta customers, get more traction etc. Truth be told, it does not matter much. You will undoubtedly pivot or make significant adjustments to your product strategy during the accelerator anyway. The accelerator looks for teams, for high energy, for good understanding of the customer, the market. The product matters, but not as much as you think it does. That’s a hard thing to swallow for any product guy.
Other blog posts in the series
Behind the scenes of the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator
Daily life at the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator Berlin
Key learnings from our first month in Berlin
Every company needs a garage. We found ours in Berlin.