Techstars is a prime accelerator opportunity for emerging founders, and one that provides its alumni with unique access to an impressive network of over 3,000 startups and 10,000+ founders.
As Techstars has changed over its 10+ year history, naturally, aspiring Techstars founders want to know what the program is looking for in its potential applicants for the upcoming 2023 cohorts.
Christine Hong, Techstars Investment Associate and multi-hyphenate founder, unpacks what traits her team looks for in founders, as well as tips for acing the interview process. Consider this your unofficial guide to applying to Techstars.
1. How Techstars evaluates founding teams
Techstars always says that they’re looking for “team, team, team, market, product, traction,” in that order. That’s because early on, the efficacy of a startup is determined by the team itself.
Especially with the market downturn, only truly resilient teams will be able to forge ahead.
They also check on where your startup is in terms of whether you’re pre-product, you’ve already raised venture money & have some revenue, or in between – Techstars works with startups across all of those categories. They focus the most on ones who want help getting to the next level.
The key is that they’re quite flexible in terms of stage, but a major red flag for them is if you don’t appear to be absolutely mission driven. That indicates a lack of commitment to problem solving down the line, especially when things get hard and startups have to pivot. Startups are a long term game and a mission driven team is what is most important at such an early stage.
2. Four green flags that Techstars optimizes for
Founders with that real hunger to problem solve and forge ahead may not have all of the answers, but they usually have a clear path forward that they’re going to take.
There are four major criteria Techstars searches for in the founders they interview, which are transferable to the founding teams at large:
- Coachability – an important attribute at Techstars. They really push this because it’s key to the program functioning correctly, and if a company is strong but doesn’t work well with a certain program team, they’ll happily refer them to another program.
- Execution – Techstars is looking for people who work hard and smart. Many people don’t want to put in the hours, and if they are, there’s still a lot of value in delegating and prioritizing work.
- Prior History – This can take many forms. In a simpler sense, this could just be previous demonstrations of effective execution. It could also be, do co-founders have a history of sticking together through adversity? Do they trust each other? These are all important behavioral questions that can really distinguish certain founders.
- “Give First” Culture – Techstars prioritizes generosity, and searches for companies that align with that value.
That “Give First” culture is definitely a positive attribute that returns to benefit anyone who joins Techstars. There’s a generosity and friendliness within the network, and they seek to maintain that vibe by searching for like-minded companies.
Christine notes that whenever Techstars alumni reach out to her on LinkedIn, she always responds.
While this skeleton of positive attributes exists, at the end of the day, you shouldn’t be too concerned with the idea of hard and fast prerequisites. Techstars is an accelerator – they're looking to help you get to the next level, and they’ll strengthen any weaker points.
3. Unpacking the application process step-by-step
Techstars has accepted startups that have already raised millions, and ones that only have some ideas hashed out on a piece of paper.
They find that the sweet spot is that the startups have built a product, they’ve got a team, they may have a bit of traction, but they’re still tinkering with product market fit and are looking to keep raising.
That said, Techstars isn’t concerned with how much revenue you’ve raised, they’re interested in where you’re going.
Notably, each Techstars location has a different iteration of the program, so the application process and who should be applying shifts on that basis. Here’s how it works for Techstars NYC:
- Groups first apply on the website before the application deadline. We do our best to review all applications within 4 weeks of applications close and will notify all applications about the state of their application.
- The first round interview is 30 minutes with two different team members back to back for 15 min each.
- The second round will probably be a screening committee with multiple people at Techstars & beyond brought in for their take on the top 20 teams. Some teams like Techstars NYC are also experimenting with an onsite interview whiteboard session.
- Later on in the process, if a startup is dealing with a very niche topic, Techstars will bring in an expert on the subject to do further screening.
Ultimately, the cohort will have 10-12 companies in the batch.
The Techstars NYC program is a generalist program and focuses on companies looking to take advantage of the New York City ecosystem – startups in FinTech, supply chain, health, PropTech, Sustainability, AI/infra, and vertical SaaS should get interested.
4. How to prepare for (and ace) your interview
Pre-interviews, Techstars asks startups to provide a north star metric of trackable monthly growth. The startup can pick whatever metric suits them, like KPI, retention, or revenue.
There are a few areas you can focus on during interview prep to perfect your pitch and sharpen your skills.
In terms of normal interview prep, practice your 30 second pitch and ensure it’s actually 30 seconds long. You should hit the problem you are solving, how you are solving it and any unique insights you have learned along the way.
You should also keep the pitch to 30 seconds because the interviewers will want to ask questions. To prepare for that, make a list of potential questions and practice your answers. Saba Karim, our Director of Global Startup Pipeline, has a great list you can start with here.
Develop that list with investors, founders, friends, and anyone willing to spar with you.
You’ll begin receiving repeat questions, which will create a throughline for topics you should be extra prepared for. Definitely be ready for questions regarding why you applied to Techstars in the first place and how you think the program can work for you.
The best founders approach the entire exercise with brevity – they have their own info down so clearly that they don’t need much time to help you understand what they’re doing.
The flip side of that is rambling and jargon, which indicate a lack of real knowledge about the space