Founders Program season 9: useful tips for a successful application

Applications for Founders Program’s next season are open. As a member of our selection board, Stéphane Ibos, Co-Founder and CEO of Maestrano and Keypup, wanted to give you some useful tips before you apply.

So you’re thinking about applying to the STATION F Founders Program? Great idea, and congratulations on this initiative. The Founders Program is a fantastic way to bring your startup to the next level. When selected, you will discover a motivating, vibrant environment that will no doubt stimulate you and your team and help you a great deal on your path to success!

Of course, there is a little hurdle to overcome: being selected. We see lots of applications – most of them solid, appealing and supported by great people! It makes our judging even more difficult as places are limited and only the best will get a seat.

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I have had the privilege of being a jury member since the very creation of STATION F and I have therefore seen and evaluated numerous applications. Some really swiped me off my feet. Literally. Others have left me frustrated and underwhelmed. Most were somewhere in the middle.

I propose to share with you my views on what makes a great application, some pitfalls easy to avoid and some overall tips so that you get a bit more insights into how judges are considering your application.

You are judged by humans, not by bots

And this has a bit of importance. First, you should know that all judges are volunteers. We are not employed or paid by STATION F. So why do we dedicate some of our time to this exercise?

Because all of us have been one day where you are at today. All your judges are entrepreneurs that have had the chance to have some good runs. But we also all remember the hardship of the beginnings, where you are an unknown quantity trying to turn the World upside down. So even if we don’t know you, well… actually we do! Or at least the entrepreneur part of you. We know most of your pains, because we have experienced them. We know some of your fears because we have shared them. We know your drive, your passion, your dedication, because we have the same.

But you need to show us all of that. You need to show us how human you are. Because down the road, you will have good times and bad times. Unfortunately, a lot of bad times. And it’s your capacity as leaders to overcome these bad times that will determine your success. You have feelings, doubts and fears. There is no point in hiding them – you are a human being like the rest of us. What you need to show us is how you turn these into positive forces. That in its own is a powerful achievement, and one that will help you greatly throughout your journey.

As mentioned, your judges are human beings too. We too get excited, upset, enthusiastic, frustrated. So try to not rub us off the wrong way. No doubt it’s never your intention, but it’s actually quite easy to do. “How?” would you ask? Well, here is an example that I have encountered in an application.

Form question: “How does your company make money?”
Answer: “Software as a Service.”

That one time really got me white-hot angry. It’s only because I am rigged with ethics that I read the rest of the application – which was equally disastrous by the way.
It took me half a second to see that the product was Software as a Service. That’s not the question. The question is what do you plan to make money? What is your pricing model? What are your sources of revenue? Etc.

These candidates could not bother writing more. Their time seemed too valuable to bother. And it may be so. But then, they were probably not surprised that I deemed my time equally valuable and gave them a total score of 0.66 out of 2. Some of my general feedback included: “Most sections have been filled in with 2 or 3 words and there is an overall feel of ‘too good to bother’ attitude.”.

We respect you immensely. For your courage and audacity as founders. We dedicate time to help you – even indirectly – reach success. In turn we do expect a minimum of respect back. Take this seriously. Show us you want it. And you’ll see that we can be your best advocates!

Showcase yourself in the video interview

What a dreadful exercise! One that I am sure many of you will not like that much. And I can totally understand and empathize. However – it’s also a critical part of your application. As tedious an exercise it is, that’s the moment where we get to know you more as a person – and a team of people as the case may be.

You have to know that there is no right or wrong answer in this part of your application. There are no perfect answers or answers we expect. The questions are designed to allow you to show us who you are. What you are made of.

So, show us. Make your personality shine. Any type of personality can be a total winner in the startup world. Shy ones, loud ones, funny ones, sad ones – there is room for everyone! We just need to understand yours, so that we can apprehend your business, vision and plans better in light of who you are.

Few tips for this part of the process:

Articulate. Let me re-phrase this: Ar-ti-cu-late. Chances are you are not a native English-speaker. And chances are neither are your judges. Combine this with a digital format and you get a perfect situation where understanding you can be difficult. So, take your time to articulate. Speak slowly. Make yourself understood.

Avoid noisy backgrounds. I know, it sounds obvious – but you would be surprised of some video interviews I have seen where the background noises were so high, I couldn’t understand a word. That is called a missed opportunity. And it is totally avoidable.

Do not repeat the answers to the written questions. We can read. Take this opportunity to bring new elements to the table. Provide more details if you feel the need. Showcase different aspects of you, your business, your team. Again – take the opportunity to give us more. For once, more is… more!

Time your answers. Being cut-off in the middle of your sentence is not a good look. It shows that you cannot focus your thinking properly and concisely enough – and it’s one of the essential traits of an entrepreneur. On that topic, short is always good. If you are done with an answer before the timer lapses, great! Move on! There is no point in filling the space for no added value.

The written form – to be or not to be… taken seriously!

The written part of your application is no more no less than a disguised business plan. Look around online, and you’ll see that the questions form an abridged version of a business plan.

So, here’s my first advice: go out there and look at what business plans are for, what they include and what they try to demonstrate. Because it’s more or less what we are looking for in your answers.

Chances are you are the founders. Show us your passion. You want to eat the World? Fantastic! Show us how you’ll do just that! If you are bored doing your application (video included) then your application will be boring. And we will also be bored. And chances are you will not have a good result. Boredom is death. You are very much alive, and so is your startup – so shine!

At the same time, show us you are a grounded, capable business leader. One of the key traits of characters of great founders is that they are capable of critical analysis. About their business, the market, their progress, their teams and themselves.

Critical analysis goes both ways: good and bad. You can – and should – highlight what you have done and are doing well. But you should also recognise the areas of under-performance where improvements are required. And how you intent to go about it. Show objectivity.

Also, show us you know your stuff. As a founder and leader of your startup you should know deeply your market, your customers and your business. Which key metrics matter to you? Why do they matter? How are you tracking against them? What’s your vision? How are you going to implement it? What are your next steps?

You’re the captain. Show us the ship is under control. Even if many storms lie ahead –that’s totally a part of the Startup game!

Some specific tips on the written application

Here I’m going to share with you tips on some particular items of your written application. Most of my tips stem from experiences I’ve had with previous applications.

Clear, detailed, to-the-point answers are a winner
Forget verbose answers. 10 lines to tell you have alpha users is really excessive. On the other hand, provide enough background and details so that we can understand exactly what you are talking about.

I’ve had an answer once (and only once thanks heaven!) on the revenue questions that was as follows:
Question: How much revenue did you make in 2019?
Answer: 1 (Sic.)
Question: How much revenue will you make in 2020?
Answer: 2 (Sic. Again)

Well… How can I put it… Really? I mean REALLY? There are so many wrong things with an answer of the sort that I don’t know where to start. It is utterly nonsensical. No unit, no explanation, no sense. Avoid doing this. At all costs. Provide background. Make it snappy, short, precise, but useful.

Team presentation: synergy is key
When presenting you and your team, do your best to highlight synergies, especially between founders.
Of course, it’s essential for you to present your personal backgrounds. That’s a given.

But don’t let us do the work to connect the dots. Explain why you are a killer team – which goes beyond your respective areas of expertise. Tell us how your characters are complementary, compatible, opposite, challenging.

Again – there is no perfect answer. Two strong-minded people can spend their time arguing – even fighting – but it may actually be a good thing as it generates debates and challenges, which can be super-productive.

So, tell us why 1+1>2. That is absolutely critical throughout the life of your startup, and particularly in the early stage.

Part-time founders: please explain
I must confess I am always a bit puzzled when I see that one – or many – founder is working part-time on the startup.

I may be a bit old fashion, but I consider that if an idea is so important to me, and I have such a passion to bring it to the World (which should be the case if you are anything serious about your startup), then I would (and I have, and I am still) spend all the time I can working on it. Not because I have to (well, in real life actually you have to), but because I want to.

Having part-time founders really send a mixed-message, of type “we don’t quite believe enough in our idea, so we’ve kept side-jobs to provide, but hey – you never know, it could work.”.
Well – if you don’t believe enough in your own startup to dedicate yourself fully to its success, why should we believe in it ourselves?

Of course, there are personal circumstances that make it impossible for some founders to be involved full-time until a certain point. That can be perfectly understandable. But in that case, tell us. Explain.
Do not just state: “3 co-founders, 2 part-time, 1 full time” without explanation. Because you will automatically fall in the first category of my point. Provide us with a valid explanation… And if you can’t find one, well… should you really be applying at all?

Ban some words… really, please do.
I am always startled when I read something like: “We’ll reach 5k€ MRR in 12 months easy.” Well – If it’s that easy, why aren’t you doing it today?

Serious entrepreneurs will know that creating a startup is everything but easy. So please, do yourself (and us) a favour and ban the following words (list non exhaustive of course):
Easy – Trivial – Simple – Quickly – Rapidly – Huge.

Funding strategy. Watch the keyword!
And the keyword is: STRATEGY. If we simply wanted to know about what funding you have had in the past, or which one you intent to have in the future, we would have asked: “Funding”.

Adding the word Strategy is no mistake. We want you to talk about it. Numbers are not a strategy. They are merely objectives. A strategy includes at least: When? How? How Much? Who? It should also include the Key Metrics you are monitoring to value your business and prove its performance in order to successfully raise money.

Equally, if you do not plan to raise any money, it’s perfectly fine. But do explain to us why not and how you intend to keep the lights up.

We want to know your overall thinking and plan about fundraising. Not just numbers without context.

Progress made and plan for the next 6 months: not your grocery shopping list
Yes, you read well. I don’t really want to read your groceries list.
What I mean is that giving us an un-sorted list of activities is boring, random and frankly, useless.

You operate a business. Meaning – even in the early days – you have a certain structure, or at least areas of activities: Tech – Product – Marketing – Sales – Team (HR).
So please, instead of giving us a random list, classify your elements. Show us that you have done x, y and z in marketing, a, b, c, d in product development etc.

A random list gives a feeling of your ship being steered randomly. A list sorted with areas of focus provides a feeling of control and rationalism. Which one would you prefer?

Obvious competitive advantage: cheaper, better, faster doesn’t exist
Or maybe it does, but we don’t really care.

Except in very rare cases – and please, allow me to stress the “very rare” part of this sentence – being “cheaper”, “flexible”, “beautiful” are not competitive advantages. Or at least certainly not sufficient to make it big.

They might be a part of your overall offer. Even of your marketing. They might play a key role in your future growth and success. But there has to be something else.

What we want to see here is your Unique Differentiator. Unique. Anyone can be faster or cheaper. So, when telling us about it, think of your users: why will they love you and what you do. That’s what we want to know.

Market knowledge: facts and research, not assumptions
What we are trying to see here is two-folds: first we genuinely want to know more about your market and its particularities – because we may simply not be familiar with it. Second, we want to see that you as founders know it as well as you should.

When asked to tell who your customers are, don’t just give us “Senior people and people in retirement house” because it makes no sense. You virtually just described a third of the World population, so about 2.5 billion people! Hardly a refined market knowledge!

Tell us how you segment your customers. Show us you have done some work in terms of KYC (Know Your Customer). Describe the Key Personas and explain to us why they matter and why they are relevant.

When it comes to your competition, please don’t just make a list of names. We are not all-knowing, so chances are we will have no idea who they are and what they do.
Extend the effort to describe in one sentence what each of them does, what their key selling proposition is and how they differ from you or you differ from them. We’re not the ones that should do this work. You are.

That’s all folks!

That’s about it from me. I hope you’ll find some useful tips in all of that. Ultimately remember that what we are trying to evaluate first and foremost is why you and your team are more deserving of taking that seat rather than others. Good is not enough, and sadly, same happens in the real world.
You have passion. Conviction. Courage. You believe in your product and your startup. You are motivated, grounded, focused. You have a plan. And it’s all great, because you should have all of that.

But your competitors (and your competitors in getting accepted in the Founders Program) also have all of that.

So, what makes you so special that you are an obvious choice? That’s what we want to know and see.

Good luck to you all!