Applying to Incubators Takes More Than a Great Idea

18 Apr

As the month of March trudges on, we are getting closer each day to spring and eventually summer when numerous startup incubators hold their camps for early-stage companies. Many incubators are still taking submissions, including TechStars Boulder, but in case of Y Combinator, the deadline has since come and gone. Theoryville is a startup that has already been asked to interview for a spot with Y Combinator, so if you are still looking to apply for one of this summer’s incubators, you may want to heed its founder’s advice.

Trevor Burnham, co-founder of Theoryville, a startup looking to ease the process of sharing data and documents between professors and scientists, recently blogged about how his company managed to snag a highly-coveted in-person interview for Y Combinator. Burnham reveals that through the process of applying to several incubators, he and his partners realized some early mistakes they had made.

One important lesson they learned through their first set of interviews is that they hadn’t talked to anyone but themselves about the idea. After all, if you’re trying to create a service that will change the way scientists and college professors share information, shouldn’t you talk to them about what their needs are? Investors and organizations want to see more than a great idea; they want to know you’ve thought it out and have identified a specific audience that has needs. For Burnham and his team, after being shown the door a few times, they turned around and spoke with their “users,” even though they didn’t have a product to show.

“We started asking for input from every potential user we knew and sending cold e-​​mails by the dozen to [University of Michigan professors] to ask them to talk with us about their software needs,” writes Burnham on his blog. “Based on the feedback we were getting, our understanding of the market completely changed.”

If there is one thing startups can learn from the perilous launch of Google Buzz, its that getting feedback from users is a good thing to before launching; or in the case of Theoryville, before looking for funding or acceptance to an incubator. Burnham and his partners assumed that they needed a working demo before they could get any useful customer feedback, but in reality, there is much to be learned about your audience before you start building.

In fact, it makes a whole lot more sense to speak with the people you want to see using your product before you waste time, resources, and perhaps money on building an early prototype that they will snub their noses at. It’s a lot like making sure the plot of land you have chosen to build your house on is a solid and stable foundation. That is not to say, however, that building a demo does not lend itself to learning valuable lessons about your product.

“[Building a demo] led us to grapple with some design decisions that weren’t apparent when we were just using white boards and static mockups,” says Burnham. “That, in turn, gave us a more specific notion of what our product’s advantages are.”

So they checked the foundation before building, but when their house was done they realized that too many windows were facing west and catching the hot late-afternoon sun – a regrettable error and a lesson learned (especially for home builders where I’m from). Despite some changes that needed to be made, Burnahm says “it gave us some momentum, which we’re using to build a much-​​improved demo now.” So the best way to make early progress, it seems, would be to get that first rough draft out the door and begin iterating over and over on it; move some windows around until the latest version is a better, more mature version of your product.

It also seems like it helped that they had applied to earlier incubators before applying to Y Combinator. They also participated in TechStars For A Day in Boulder, where they not only learned a lot from the mentors but were able to network with potential users of their service in the area. Attending these events and applying to other incubators worked like spring training before a preliminary interview with Y Combinator via Skype, and it couldn’t have looked bad on their application either.


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