I have been received a lot of questions about 500 Startups, one of the top accelerators in the world, which our company Alongside was happy to be a part of. I wanted to share not only our story but a short list of tips to help other startup founders. This guide works for any accelerator, and it should be noted that while this worked for Alongside, everyone will have a different story regarding how they were accepted into any accelerator they apply for.

Applying to 500 Startups was not in the cards for us originally; it was a series of events that led us to decide it was the right move for us as a company operating out of Atlantic Canada, a region not exactly on everyone’s radar. I first met Dave McClure, 500 Startups Co-Founder, at the Startup Festival in Montreal. I had seen him speak before and followed his now-infamous “Startup Viagra: How to Pitch a VC” pitch deck when creating ours. I always found his candor and no-BS approach to growing companies refreshing — it was about getting stuff done, and that resonated.

Months later I embarked on my first trip to San Francisco. One of the goals I set was to learn more about 500 to see if it was the right move. The first person I met on that trip was Hansmeet Sethi, who was EIR (Entrepreneur-in-Residence) at 500 and now COO at Neighborly. Based on what we had achieved at that point, Hansmeet suggested we would be a good fit for the program. Days later, I connected with Amanda Parker who graciously gave me a tour of 500 and a desk to work at. I spent three days there, making the most of my time connecting with as many people on the 500 team as I could. I also interviewed other companies who had just finished their batch and all had glowing reviews of how 500 had impacted their businesses. More importantly, ALL of them said they would do it again in a heartbeat. That’s all I needed to reach out to my team and convince them it was the best move for Alongside — 500 Startups was actually the only Valley accelerator we applied for.

Being a seasoned entrepreneur with now greying hair I knew that just following the application guidelines would not work. We are in HR Tech and as much as there are great opportunities in that space it’s also one with a lot of players, and my concern was in regards to standing out. We had traction and had raised money but we were up against the rest of the world.

To summarize the steps I took:

  1. I went to San Francisco prior to the start of their next batch and met as many members of the 500 team as I could, so at the very least they’d know I’m not a jerk.
  2. I went to the 500.co website and found those mentors and EIRs I had connections to (and that would know enough about what we’re up to at Alongside). I reached out and asked them to email the 500 team.
  3. This I don’t recommend doing. We made it to the interview but when I picked a time slot on the app they were using, it added the meeting to my calendar in the Atlantic time zone rather than the Pacific time zone (four hours difference). While I still blame the scheduling application I should have double-checked. The positive outcome from this? It made me more vigilant in all of my scheduling while in other time zones.
  4. Unfortunately 500 had exhausted all of their available slots and were not able to reschedule — I found that out at 4 am on a Thursday night. I’m still not sure why I heard the email come in at 4 am, but at 4:01 I was writing emails that I had planned on sending at 7 am to everyone who had put in a good word for us. I was embarrassed. But more than that, I was disappointed that others had put their reputations on the line for me.
  5. Within that series of emails, text messages, and calls most of the responses I got were along the lines of “Prove them wrong”, “This is not the end”, and “You screwed up.” I almost waved the white flag, but I was so convinced that it was the right move for us that I couldn’t let go. Out of those conversations, John Philip Green asked me what our three main highlights/achievements were, so I sent them to him. Within minutes he reached out to Dave to let him know they should reconsider.
  6. Reconsider they did, I’m still grateful to this day. Marvin Liao, who was leading the batch, took a flyer on us. We became a last-minute addition to that batch; I was ecstatic that we made it in and was determined to make the most of out of it.

That was our story, but like I said, everyone has a different one. Now that you know ours here are a few tips to help with your own application process:

  • RESEARCH: Not all accelerators are created equal. Find out what stage companies they like to focus on and their area of expertise, then decide if it’s the right fit for you. Many people apply too early or to accelerators that are not the best strategic fit for them.
  • STAND OUT: Go out of your way to make sure you connect with people involved in the accelerator. When it comes to your company’s growth and chances for success if you only play by the rules you will lose.
  • HAVE TRACTION: Nowadays revenue is the only real metric for traction, most others fall into what are called “vanity” metrics. If you don’t have revenue you better have a great story on why your company will be successful, so…
  • HAVE A GREAT STORY: You’re competing with thousands of other applicants, why should it be you? Tell that great story around your business and, more importantly, around you as the founders. Tell the story that shows why you have what it takes.
  • BE CONFIDENT, BUT DON’T BE ARROGANT: It doesn’t matter how much success you’ve had in the past or with your current startup. Accelerators want to work with people who are coachable, if you’re not going to take advice then why be there?
  • FOCUS ON YOUR WEAKNESSES: Not everyone has the same needs or are at the same point in the life cycle of a business. It’s important for accelerators to know what areas they can help you with. Is it your pitch? Revenue growth? Raising funds? If your weaknesses line up with their areas of expertise it will increase the likelihood of wanting to work with you.

If you are one of the lucky few to get in, then work your butts off, and have fun. It’s a once-in-lifetime opportunity to be surrounded by the brightest and most driven people in the world — take the time to connect with them.

If you don’t get in, all does not end on that day. Find out the reasons why and work on improving those areas of your business. If you come back with real progress it will actually make for a better story, and say a lot about your character.

Hope this helps.

Learn more about Alongside, Yves Boudreau’s New Brunswick-based HR Tech startup, at Alongside.com.

Written by Yves Boudreau