How to successfully apply to a start-up incubator?

If applying to an incubator is open to everyone, joining one requires a deeply prepared and thoughtful application.

Dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs, incubators are structures that represent unparalleled opportunities for the startups of today and tomorrow. With their training, their personal follow-up, their networking and many other services, they are very coveted and it is therefore essential to take care of your application to claim a place.

But how can we put all the chances on our side when we apply to an incubator?

  1. Choosing the right time and incubator
  2. Prepare your application well, some tips and common mistakes
  3. Rejection ? Always a step and never an end in itself

Choosing the right time and incubator

Timing often plays a determining role in the different stages of an entrepreneurial project

and, not surprisingly, incubation is no exception to this rule. When we ask ourselves if joining an incubator is wise at a given moment, we first gauge the maturity of the project in order to evaluate the relevance of an incubation. The first step in this journey is to distinguish between incubation and acceleration structures.

“Incubation is a process through which an attitude of encouragement and assistance for nascent enterprises is enhanced within a community.” ****Brooks (1986) ****

The incubator is involved in the start-up phase, when the main task is to define a stable and viable business model . This is a time when project leaders will be coached throughout the first test phases of their startup and when they will put in place the mechanisms that will make their business sustainable.

The accelerator, on the other hand, supports the start-up in boosting its growth and, as its title might suggest, in accelerating its development.

Note that some structures are hybrid and offer formulas with an incubation period followed by an acceleration phase, such as Euralimentaire, an incubation/acceleration structure specializing in innovation in the food industry located in Lille.

Let’s take the idea that a startup is a baby bird, wrapped up warm in its nest. The incubator will play the role of a protective parent, guiding its young, teaching it the right reflexes and basic needs so that it can fly as well as possible later on. The accelerator will push the young bird to jump out of the nest so that it takes flight and becomes a bird.

However, it is possible that as an entrepreneur, we are still at the stage of eclosion and for that there is notably the pre-incubation. This format corresponds to projects for which incubation would be premature. It is based on short programs that diagnose a context, a market and the resources of the project leader in order to offer him the first keys to launch his entrepreneurial adventure.

But if the entrepreneurial timeframe seems to be appropriate for incubation, here are three key criteria for choosing the right incubator :

The location

It is important to find an incubator where you can grow both personally and professionally. If from a personal point of view this is subjective, the market does not lie! The area where the incubator is located is often the place where the startup will test its market for the first time, so you have to be careful to set up in a territory that is in line with your project.

The sector of activity 

Most of the time, incubators are specialized and it is therefore important to pay attention to their specialization so that their resources can be raised to the level of the project.

The needs and expectations around the project

The startup and its project leader(s) have needs and expectations regarding incubation. It is important to be aware of these needs and expectations and to formalize them to ensure that the targeted incubator can meet them. Following this logic, it is also necessary to integrate the idea that the incubator also has needs and expectations that the startup will have to be able to meet in order to be able to integrate the structure, but also to make the incubation adventure as beneficial as possible afterwards.

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How do you react when an incubator meets these criteria?

First of all, never hesitate to contact the structure to make sure that the information you find upstream corresponds to reality. Meeting former and current incubatees is also the best way to understand how the incubator works and to be sure that it is the right one.

How to prepare your application, some tips and mistakes not to make

The incubator seems ideal, now you have to prove that the startup is perfect for it. The application phase for an incubator is usually done in two steps: submitting an application and presenting the project to a selection committee.

The application form

Usually, incubators launch a call for applications, so you have to be careful about the schedule of each structure. To obtain the application files, it is generally sufficient to go to the incubator’s website, download it, and fill in the requested information.

Improvisation rarely has a place in these applications. Incubators are often very clear and specific about what they want applicants to provide. Requests will vary from one incubator to another, but generally a business plan will be requested, including a presentation of the project, the team, forecasts (from 1 to 3 years depending on the incubator), motivations, and administrative information.

The key to a successful application? A synthetic but detailed business plan

The business plan is the document that structures a strategic reflection. Its mission is to serve as a reference for the project leader and for those to whom it is presented. The important thing is to understand that it is not a tool that predicts the future, but an entity that allows to understand the environment in which the project is inserted and according to which strategy it is built.

The business plan is built with the following elements:

  • Un executive summary : This is the summary of the business plan, outlining the key points of the project in two pages maximum.
  • The team : Presenting in detail the skills, experiences, and motivations of the team is crucial. Incubation is certainly a powerful entrepreneurial mechanism, but it is above all a human adventure.
  • The promis : What problem has been identified? How does the project address it? How is the proposed solution differentiating and innovative?
  • The Financial Plan 

You should never forget to take a step back from the information you provide. Over selling your project can be tempting, but let’s face it, a jury of experts will take a dim view of more or less accurate information. It is better to admit possible weaknesses than to erase them with false or manipulated information.

The selection committee

Once the “application” stage has been validated, it is time to prepare to meet a selection committee. The jury is generally made up of the incubator’s managers, but also of experts specialized in business creation at various levels (consulting, marketing, accounting, financing, etc.).

If the targeted incubator is specialized in a particular sector of activity, the jury will certainly include professionals in the field. During this meeting, the objective is to convince the jury of the relevance and feasibility of the project, often in two stages. The first stage consists of a presentation, which will be crystallized in the pitch exercise. The second is a question and answer session between you and the jury.

How to make a successful pitch  ?

Pitching is not an improvisation. It must be prepared, tested, challenged and constantly evolving. Most of the time, it consists in presenting your project/idea orally in 5 minutes. However, this time may vary depending on the incubator. Since the exercise can be tedious and stressful, here are a few tips for preparing :

  • Work on body language : to capture attention, body language is crucial. Staying upright, reducing hesitation, maintaining eye contact and, without falling into caricature, speaking with the hands, is a great help in convincing.
  • Careful presentation : Staying concise and clear in the information shared in a possible slide show will avoid confusing the jury.
  • Calm and natural : Coming without a note is a key factor for success. It gives the jury confidence and allows you to connect with them better.
  • Adapt your speech : Of course it is necessary to convince with your presentation, but it should not be done to persuade clients but people who will accompany the project. You must therefore avoid commercial speeches at all costs.
  • Balance the time spent speaking : It is important to work on the time spent speaking if there are several project leaders. Note that a pitch is often very short, and it can be a good thing to let only one member of the team speak; it is only necessary to ensure that, after the interview, everyone participates.

How to succeed in the interview ?

After the pitch, comes the interview :

  • • Be synthetic : short answers are appropriate during an interview, especially because they will allow the jury to ask various questions and not get frustrated if they cannot get a response to their questioning.
  • Open-mindedness: Developing a project requires giving a lot of oneself, so receiving criticism is never an easy task. The objective is to keep in mind that, beyond challenging the project, the jury is there to test the team’s ability to be supported. If the latter is not able to receive feedback, to be open-minded and to listen, it is a mistake.
  • Non-knowledge is not an enemy: Sometimes it is better to not know and to say so than to imagine an answer. It is normal not to know everything, and if one should not fall into the opposite extreme and into total deception, a “I don’t know, I have to find out” is not a fault.

Refusal? Always a step and never an end

"A failure is a success if you learn something from it" Malcolm Forbes.

The results are in and your project is not among those selected ? The first reflex is really to grasp the idea that the demand is strong and that a refusal does not mean that you are not able to carry out a project, or that it has no value.

The most important thing is to ask the reasons for the refusal. It is necessary not to take a rejection as an end in itself, but as a first form of support. It is necessary to try to hear the reasons for the refusal and to grow around them.

Once you understand what tipped the scales in the wrong direction, the important thing is to step back and rebalance. Was the incubator the most relevant for the project? Was the pitch prepared enough ? Was the value proposition mature enough to consider incubation? In any case, a solution is always possible. We have discussed the subject of pre-incubation, but there are also various competitions, trainings and workshops that allow you to test and evolve your project to possibly consider incubation a little later in your journey.

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