Five reasons why your startup was rejected from an accelerator

I’ve been running a startup accelerator program since 2012. The program has had six cohorts come through the three-month program at the University of Sydney and across our partner universities. To date, I’ve seen more than 200 startup applications of varying quality and sat through countless interviews.


While each accelerator program is different (for example, we don’t take equity in their businesses) the same issues arise for program managers in other seed accelerators in Australia, Europe and in the USA.


I also believe these common mistakes apply to other situations where startups are pitching to investors or grant competitions.




I’m assuming you’re an early-stage startup with a developed business idea, early prototype and maybe some early customers. Most of you will be first-time entrepreneurs, in so much that this is your first business. The interviews for our accelerator happen with two mentors that have experience in starting, exiting and investing in startups.


My top five reasons for rejecting a startup


1. Getting all your friends to join your startup.


One of the classic mistakes I’ve noticed first-time entrepreneurs make is the ‘calling-all-friends’ syndrome. Basically, getting all your mates to help out with your startup versus recruiting a couple of team members that add real value in that beginning stage. Like an engineer or designer, industry expert or even seasoned entrepreneur advisor who wants to see you succeed (and maybe invest down the line).


2. Pitching in an interview, the wrong way


You arrive for the finalists’ interview thinking you’re going to pull off some sort of Steve Jobs-esque pitch. Wrong. These interviews have limited time and you don’t have a pre-prepared AV setup, swinging your laptop screen around doesn’t cut it. Make it a conversation unless otherwise instructed and give out any summary materials at the end of the interview.


3. Faking an answer


Talking too much when you don’t the know the answer –  just say “I don’t know” or “that’s something I need help with”. This is an accelerator program, not an ‘accomplished business program’. Entrepreneurs who ramble with little apparent substance ring alarm bells to mentors and investors.


4. Waiting for the accelerator program to begin.


We’re on the hunt for go-getting entrepreneurs, not people that need to be incentivised to do any work. This is even more of an issue in a university context. Show us that you’ve already taken the first step and initiative. Conduct customer discovery and build your first prototype or get potential customers.


5. Not going for the moonshot.


You might have heard the analogies: being a vitamin not a painkiller; being 10x better; or moonshot projects. The point here is asking if you’re going for an incremental improvement versus truly aiming to creating something that will drastically improve people’s lives. Obviously we don’t expect early startups to launch with a complete product (the point of the MVP) but selling people on the end-goal is how you’ll recruit the best to join and invest in your team.


Extra tips


• Avoid elaborate product demonstrations. We’ve actually had startups perform science experiments in front of us before!


• Don’t use another company’s promotional video to allude to your startup. Yes, this has happened. More than once.


• If you’re applying online and they ask you to submit a pitch deck  –  don’t submit your 40 page business plan. Condense your business plan to a 1-pager, make sure it’s easy to read, design it up, and upload that.


• Do not use a Hotmail contact email. This ain’t the 90s.


James Alexander is the program manager and co-founder of INCUBATE, the startup accelerator program for the University of Sydney. James is a passionate technology and startup advocate. This article originally appeared on Medium.


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