What does a great application look like? Unfortunately we can’t just share a selection of great and poor applications for everyone to review, as that would not be fair to those applicants. Instead, below is an annotated version of the Fledge application, explaining why each question is asked, and providing some guidance and samples of how to best answer the question:
1. One line pitch
One of the most useful skills of any entrepreneur is to concisely pitch the business concept, including within a single sentence. We work on this skill for two months at Fledge. We don’t expect the 1-liner in the application to be great, but we ask this question first to both understand something about the business before looking at the rest of the answers, as well as to gauge the writing abilities of the applicant.
Great Example: Cropital is a crowdfunding platform that connects anyone to help finance farmers.
(This is clear, concise and tells us enough to understand both the problem and solution).
Good Example: Sustainable constructive system consisting of plastic spheres made from plastic waste, used to lighten concrete and remediate contamination.
(This is not sufficiently clear. “Constructive system” is not a common term. How big are these plastic spheres? Any and all plastic waste, sorted or unsorted, pre-consumer or post-consumer?)
Poor Example: Zgoat is an innovative and socially-inclusive goat sector agro processor and trading firm and, hence also supporting rural livelihoods.
(This is not as clear. How is it innovative? What makes it socially-inclusive? What type of agro-processing? Trading? All rural livelihoods? This 1-liner creates far more questions than provides answers).
Every company needs a website, either to market to customers or (if you sell through a retail or other channel) to show off your company to investors. What we are hoping to see is a modern, compelling, well-designed website.
Given how easy it is to create a website today, the look-and-feel of the website tells us how serious you are about your company. If the site looks like its from the 90’s, we start to wonder about the quality of the team and odds of success of the company.
If you don’t yet have a website, that is fine, tell us that. We do accept idea-stage applications when the idea is compelling and the team worth investing. DO NOT include a link to a page that is blank, is parked, is a 404 error, or is irrelevant to the business described in the application. That will only hurt your odds of receiving an invitation.
Applicants range from a solopreneur or two co-founders with little more than a dream, to a startup with a prototype gathering market research, to a company with some early customers, all the way to operational companies with hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenues.
- Idea = The idea is still in your head or at most in a PowerPoint
- Prototype = You’ve built something, and have showed it to potential customers. If a potential customer is using it, but has not paid for it, then it is still a prototype.
- Revenues = You’ve sold something to someone that is related in some way to the idea outlined in the application. If you’ve sold something unrelated, that does not count.
Have you created a company yet? This answer provides us clues, backing up the answer to Stage, explaining a bit about where you do business, confirming whether you are running a for-profit or nonprofit, and letting us know what type of legal help you might need at Fledge.
5. Start date?
In reality, startups don’t have firm start dates. This answer gives us a rough idea of how long you’ve been working on this idea.
Some dates are less than three months before the application deadline, and with those, we know the idea is fresh and likely malleable.
Most dates are between 9 and 18 months before the deadline, in the sweet spot where entrepreneurs are learning how difficult it is to turn ideas into companies.
Some ideas are many years old, in which case we start to wonder about the lack of progress.
6. Investment to-date?
The description of this question online says: How much money has been invested to-date, including your own cash, friends & family, grants, prizes, and any other cash. This isn’t a question only about investors (if any), it is asking about the total amount of money raised to get the company where it is today, inclusive of the founders’ savings spent so far.
The purpose of this question is to help us balance the progress made to-date vs. the amount of resources spent to-date, which is discussed in the commentary on the next answer.
7. Revenues (last 12 months)?
Angel investors and venture capitalists today expect “traction”. The best form of traction is revenues from paying customer. Fledge is an investor, and while we will make early investments into startups when they have no revenues, the answer to this question helps us understand the odds of the company finding funding after graduation.
In addition, the ratio of Investment to-date and Revenues (last 12 months) provides us a key indicator about the progress and popularity of the applicant.
Some answers look like $125,000 invested and $0 in revenues.
More often are answers like $35,000 invested and $2,500 in revenues.
A few answers are $5,000 invested and $45,000 in revenues. And a rarer few, $7,000 invested and $200,000 in revenues.
If all you knew about a company were those two numbers, which would you pick? Luckily we ask other questions, as these answers don’t tell us everything we need to know, but add in the age of the company and its an interesting ratio to understand before digging into what the company actually does.
8. The Problem? (What problem are you solving)
Too often we see startup pitches that start with the technology. E.g. “An app that…” or “A platform that…”. Customers don’t care about the technology. Customer seek solutions to problems in their lives. We thus want you to start your story explicitly stating the problem you are addressing.
Our favorite problems are big, global problems. (See the UN’s 17 Sustainability Goals.) As such, you can answer this question with a single sentence, or even a sentence fragment:
Example: Everyday, millions of tons of plastics are either buried or incinerated all around the world generating water and soil pollution as well as air contamination.
Example: Millions of Filipino farmers live in debt, without access to affordable capital to grow their production.
Example: Environmental pollution.
Example: Climate change.
9. Whose Problem? (Who has this problem)
We’re not looking for a repeat of your problem statement here, we are instead looking for a description of your target customer. Who has the problem? Who wants this problem solved? Most importantly, who will pay for that solution?
10. An important problem? (Why is this an important problem to those people, or to the world?)
Fledge is the conscious company accelerator. We exist to help mission-driven startups that solve the important problems of the world. We ask this to help you describe your mission, in case it wasn’t obvious from the problem statement.
If it is obvious, then cite which UN Sustainable Development Goal you are addressing. At least which top-level goals if not which sub-goals.
11. Your solution? (How are you solving this problem?)
Finally, 11 questions later we ask you what your companies actually does. The reason we wait this long is that the solution isn’t as important as you think. What we know from working with dozens of startups is that solutions are ephemeral. As you build your plan (if you are still in the Idea or Prototype phase) and build your company (if you are in the Revenues phase) you’ll more often than not discover that your solution is flawed, and hopefully you’ll catch that error and fix it before you run out of money and resources.
So yes, we do want to know what ideas you have about a solution, but this isn’t the most important answer in the application.
Do also note that we receive hundreds of applications per session, have received thousands of applications to-date and have reviewed tens of thousands of startup profiles online. We have thus likely already seen a company with the same solution as yours, if not a company solving the problem with a solution we like better.
12. Business model? (How do customers pay you to solve their problem?)
Like the solution, we know that the current business model is likely not the business model that will make the company profitable. After reviewing tens of thousands of business plans, we know how revenues are usually generated from Plan B or Plan C, not Plan A. As part of the program, we push the fledglings to look at alternative business models, to build a Plans B, C, D, etc.
Your answer should be brief, clear, and concise. E.g. “Customers pay us for X” or “Customers subscribe to our service” or “We use a PayGo model” or or “We sell on Amazon and through our e-commerce website” or sometimes “Customers can’t afford our solution thus we find NGOs to buy it from us who then give it to the people in need.” If you don’t know yet how you’ll get paid, then tell us that.
13. Opportunity? (How many customers are there with this problem?)
Fledge invests in every fledgling and thus we need to worry about whether we’ll ever get repaid. We invest using an uncommon model, revenue-based equity, and with that what we care about is whether the business can earn millions in revenues; we don’t worry about exits or unicorns. Plus we want to see all of our fledglings to be profitable, and thus we also want to know that the company has room to scale up nationally, if not internationally.
Great answer: There are 36 Million Filipinos working in agriculture sector. South East Asia together with other agricultural developing countries has millions and even billions of farmers who are experiencing the problem we’re addressing.
Great answer: According to the 2009 population census, 7.8 million Kenyan households use charcoal and/or firewood. The most recent national charcoal survey estimates that charcoal consumption amounts to approximately 1.6 million tonnes per year, generating over $360 million in annual revenues in Kenya. In the neighboring Uganda, Tanzania and Uganda, the situation is not different providing opportunity for scale up within East Africa.
14. Competition? (Who else is solving this problem?)
There is always competition. Always. At a minimum, the competition is the status quo, with the customers not caring enough about the problem to pay for a solution. Sometimes the competition is a solution built by the customers. Very often, your competition has applied to Fledge in the past (or even in the same session), and you’ve not heard of them, as they are another startup.
In this answer, tell us what you know. Tell us about similar companies from other countries solving the same problem as you are. Competition in different geographies is a plus, not a minus. Sharing those competitors shows us that you’ve researched your business idea, and it shows us that your business might be viable, as others made it far enough along to be known by you.
In reality, having some competition is good. Competition helps create awareness of the problem. Direct competition makes your company more efficient. In moderation. Too much competition, and we’ll start worrying about sustainable competitive advantages, and there really is no good answer to that for startups.
15. Why? (Why is this the problem you are spending your life solving?)
If you ask experienced investors their criteria for investing, they answer: team, team, team, team, team, and idea. In reality it is more complicated than that, but team is in fact the most important factor. This is the one question that helps us understand the background of the founder(s). Tell us why you care, in a way that makes us care too.
16. What? (What help do you need from Fledge?)
By this point we usually can answer this question ourselves. However, your answer let’s us understand what you know you don’t know.
Our about page explains what Fledge does, so your answer need not just parrot that back to us. Instead, give this a bit of thought and tell us the top three things your company needs to succeed. The Fledge mentor network is big enough to do amazing things when asked. So ask.
The application asks for two videos. One on the product and another on the team. These are not required, but are highly recommended to include.
The product video these days is usually quite polished, produced from some online tool, or from the Adobe Creative suite of tools, or it is a video from a television interview, or a video from a business plan competition or even another Demo Day from another incubator or accelerator. If you don’t have such a video and can’t create one, then explaining the product in a minute or two using a webcam or phone is fine. Back we Fledge first started, nearly all the videos were that simple.
The team video should be recorded from a webcam or phone. (Do please note that movies and TV are still wider than tall, so if you use a phone, turn it sideways.) This video is our first chance to meet the team, and hear the passion and enthusiasm directly. Please include the whole team, even if that means everyone shooting their own video and someone editing it together.
Each video should be no more than three minute long. Ideally shorter. We simply don’t have time to watch 400 videos that are 5 minutes each.
18. How many employees/team members do you have?
How many are full-time? How many are part-time?
After all the other questions, we still can’t tell at this point the size of the team, nor how much time the team is spending on the company. We are ideally looking for founders who are “all in”, working 100% on their startups. We understand that is not always possible. This answer helps explain those facts.
19. Why you? (asked of each team member)
This question lets us better understand what each team member does, and lets them sell us on the fit between the idea and the team. We’re looking for a team that can turn their idea into a successful company. This is your opportunity to sell us that you are that right team.
18. How did you first hear about Fledge?
This question helps us understand where to spend our time building awareness of Fledge. The most common answer is, “a friend told me”. That may be true, but doesn’t answer the question in a way that helps us. Neither does “social media” or “online”, two other popular answers.
If you can remember the details, please let us know. “An article on Forbes.com” is useful (if it’s true), as is “Facebook” or “Twitter” or “Google” or “A postcard at Impact Hub Seattle”.