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Managing Interviews and Pipeline

Now the fun really begins. You get to start meeting the companies in your pipeline. As we’ve mentioned, a healthy pipeline may have to conduct around 200 interviews. That can be a daunting task for any team, especially a small and potentially brand new accelerator team. So, how do you survive such a guantlant? Here’s my survival tips so don’t end up living on a video meetings for the foreseeable future.

To start, all these interviews need to be incredibly short and to the point. We’re talking 15 minutes. They need to be short and jam-packed with as many questions as possible. This is a challenge both for the founder and the interviewer. Let’s face it, in startup land both parties like to talk a lot and often have to explain things in great detail. Unfortunately, there’s just no time for that here and the 15-minute deadline helps to avoid either party ranting for too long.

If a founder asks to use a slide deck just tell them “No”. The reason for this is that there’s no time for long presentations, and founders often ramble when using slides. This means there will be little time at the end of the presentation for questions and answers, which is the real important part of an accelerator interview. In my experience, yes – you will get a lot of grumbling from founders over this. They use the slides as a crutch and as such can be too dependent on them. That’s also a bad signal. Great founders can speak naturally about their company and enjoy answering your direct questions without hesitation or frantically gasping for air.

For efficiency’s sake I recommend starting every interview saying this:

Thanks for joining us. Today we just have 15 minutes to talk and we have a lot of questions. So please try to keep all answers short so we can get through them. To get us started please give us your quick elevator pitch in under one minute.

This helps to set the proper expectations with the founder and remind everyone of our time limitations. A great accelerator interview has a lot of back and forth discussion. It shouldn’t be a recap of the startup’s entire history. It’s more important to know where they are today, what drives them and to find out if they are truly ready for acceleration.

I’ve included a set of sample interview questions below, but it’s a good idea to create your own list and iterate upon them as you get more experienced with interviews. I would also recommend saving the last 2 or 3 minutes to give them a chance to ask you questions. After conducting well over a thousand of these interviews I’ve also figured out this is a good signal about the founders’ intent and experience level.

Smart founders ask:

Tell me about your mentor network, do you have anyone who is a good match for us?

Do you offer any follow-on investment?

Can you share some examples of companies you’ve invested in, relevant to us?

Dumb founders ask:

Do you provide housing for us? (They haven’t even got in yet and if they are worried about where to stay, it’s a bad sign)

Are your investment terms negotiable? (Again, they are not in yet and think they can bargain? LOL)

No, I can’t think of any. (Smart founders ask questions.)

SURVIVAL PRO TIP   For conducting quick and efficient video interviews I recommend using Whereby (https://whereby.com). There’s no login and downloads for guests and it works in most major browsers. It really helps to avoid losing the first few minutes of any meeting when everyone is trying to login and fix their sound settings.

Sample Interview Questions

Tell us about the founders’ backgrounds?

How big is the opportunity you’re working on?

What do you know about this space that others don’t?

How do you market your product/service today?

How do you make money?

What’s your biggest challenge today?

What’s your current burn rate?

Why do you want to do this business for the next 5-10 years?

Any questions for us?

Selection Process

Now, it’s time to pick your companies. Hopefully, you’ve managed to build a large and diverse pipeline to choose from. A very healthy pipeline might have around 1000 companies but this might be significantly smaller for newer programs or programs that serve a very specific niche. Benchmark programs like 500 Startups received around 3000 applications each batch. Whereas Y Combinator can receive 7500 or more applications.

Regardless of the size of your pipeline, your next step is to determine the top 20% that will receive interviews. That means if your deal flow pipeline is around 1000 companies you might be doing some  200 interviews. That’s a lot of interviews, so you want to properly qualify them before scheduling the time.

In a startup accelerator pipeline I would start with the following deal stages:

  • Lead (Your outbound and scouted companies)
  • Applied (Anyone who came through your application form)

When it’s time to start screening the companies down to interviews I would then use deal stages like the following:

  • Not a match (To screen out companies you should not be spending any time on)
  • Weak Candidate (For companies that are relevant to your program but you’re just not super excited about the opportunity)
  • Too early (A good match for your program but they are too early stage. Putting them here makes it easy to follow up with them for later batches)
  • Strong Candidate (Super strong company you’re just not ready to interview yet. Use this stage to get a second opinion, and do more research on the company or industry they operate in)
  • To be interviewed (They are checking most of your boxes and in the top 20% of your application pool)