Annotated Application

What does a great application look like?  Unfortunately we can’t share a selection of great and poor applications for everyone to review. Instead, below is an annotated version of The Land Accelerator application, explaining why we are asking each question and providing some guidance and samples of how to best answer the questions.

Company Information

1. Business Name

The keyword here is “business.” The Land Accelerator is seeking business solutions to fight land degradation.

If you are a government or nonprofit organization, you are welcome to apply, but the answers should describe a revenue-generating project. If so, please name that project here along with the parent organization’s name.

2/3. Country

Applicants from across Africa are welcome to apply.

4. One line pitch

One of the most useful skills of any entrepreneur is to concisely pitch their business concept. We ask this question early in the application both to understand something about the business before looking at the rest of the answers and to gauge the writing abilities of the applicant.

Great Example: Cropital is a crowdfunding platform that connects anyone to help finance farmers.

Good Example: Zzy is a Kenya based company dealing with the collection and processing of natural resources from arid and semi-arid lands.
(Good, not great because “natural resources” is vague, and because “collection and processing” fails to explain who ultimately buys these “resources.”)

Poor Example: Zoat is an innovative and socially-inclusive agro-processor and trading firm and, hence also supports rural livelihoods.
(Poor, not good because “innovative” fails to explain the invention, “agro-processor and trading” is vague, and “supports rural livelihoods” doesn’t specify what those people do to earn their living.)

5. Website

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 it is 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 have a website yet, tell us that.  We do accept idea-stage applications when the idea is compelling and the team worth investing in.  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.

6. Stage

Applicants range from a solo entrepreneur or two co-founders with little more than a dream, to a startup with a functional prototype in the process of 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
  • Pilot = 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.
  • Growth (pre-revenue) = Customers are using your solution but not yet paying for it.
  • Growth (post-revenue) = 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.

7. Incorporation

Have you created a company yet?  This answer provides us clues, providing context to the answer to the Stage question, 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 The Land Accelerator.

8. 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 1 and 3 years 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 why you haven’t made progress.

9. 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.

10. Revenues (last 12 months)?

Angel investors and venture capitalists today expect “traction”.  The best form of traction is revenue earned from paying customers.  Please aanswer this question with the amount of money (in US dollars) you earned from customers in the most recent 12 months.

Only include revenues from customers, not grants or other money from non-customers. Grants belong in the answer to “Investment to-date”.

Impact

11. How do you restore degraded land?

The Land Accelerator is focused on restoring degraded land. We are expecting answers like forestry, sustainable agriculture, and businesses that sell agricultural products grown on trees. We are not limited to businesses that fit those themes, so if yours doesn’t, choose Other and and give us the details.

Note: We don’t want you to simply repeat your answer to questions 14 or 16 here. We want to understand specifically how your solution restores land that today is in a less than ideal state.

12. How many hectares of land have you restored in the last 12 months?

This question is direct and precise. Please make your answer simple and precise as well, without exaggeration. We’re not going to simply choose the applications with the biggest number in this answer. We are going to compare this value to other answers to weigh whether it makes logical sense, whether it is possible, etc.

For example, we’ve seen answers like 100,000 hectares for a Prototype stage applicant that has raised all of $1,000. Restoring 1 hectare per $0.01 would be lovely, but unlike to be a true answer.

13. What is your environmental impact?

How does your company improve the environment? Are there any externalities? Have you seen any unintended environmental consequences, and if so, how have you dealt with them?

For example, we’ve seen applicants who propose \turning desert into tree-based farmland. We like trees, but the answer to this question should then address the loss of wildlife habitat, any issues of monocropping, etc. that will come with the change of land usage.

Business Summary

14. 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 want you to start your story by explicitly stating the problem you are addressing.

Our favorite problems big and global.  (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 trees are cut down to make charcoal, depleting Africa’s last primary forests.

Example: Climate change has a dire impact on 1 million smallholder farmers in my region in the form of soil erosion and erratic rainfall patterns.

15. Whose Problem? (Who has this problem)

Who has the problem from the above question? Does this person (or group of people) have the ability to pay for the solution or will you be selling your solution to a third party who will then give it to the target audience?

We ask this question to understand what type of customer you are targeting with your solution. The ideal answer is a description of a customer segment or two or three.

Example: Smallholder crop farmers in general, and more specifically subsistence farmers who do not always have a surplus to sell in their local markets.

Example: Nut growers who today are selling to middlemen for 1/10th the global price of the nuts.

Example: People earning $1-$3 per day, who unfortunately can’t afford our solution and thus our target customers are NGOs who work in Western Kenya.

16. Your solution? (How are you solving this problem?)

Finally, after 16 questions we ask you what your company 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 hundreds of startups is that solutions are ephemeral.  As you build your plan (if you are still in the Idea or Pilot 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 and have reviewed tens of thousands of startup profiles over the years.  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.

That said, every so often we discover a novel idea to an old problem, and that gets us excited.

Also note that too often, applicants leave out the details of how the solutions actually works. Do remember that we’ve not seen your business before. We may not have first-hand knowledge of the problem you are solving nor five other solutions. Be as specific as you can in the space allotted. This is the one answer where brevity isn’t appreciated.

17. 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. 

That said, we ask this question to understand how you think the company will earn money. Are customers simply paying you the full price at the time of purchase? Are they buying it pay-go? Are you instead selling the solution to NGOs or governments who then give it to the people who have the problem?

If you are in the Idea or Pilot stage, tell us your best guess. If you are running on grants right now, we still want to know how you think you’ll someday earn revenues from customers.

18. Opportunity? (How many customers are there with this problem?)

The Land Accelerator is looking for companies that can be profitable someday. To understand the likelihood of that goal, we need to understand how many potential customers there are with the problem you told us about and with the ability to pay for the solution you explained earlier.

Great answer: There are 30 million smallholder Ugandans farmers, all of which could use our agroforestry model to boost their crop yields by 50%.

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 Rwanda, the situation is not different providing opportunity for scale up within East Africa.

19. 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.

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.

20. 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.

Team

21. 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.

22. Who? Who from your team will be in Nairobi for the Land Accelerator?

Who are the core members of your team? What do they do? Who else is on the team? Who will be the representative sent to Nairobi?

23. 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. 

24. Goals?

Why are you applying to The Land Accelerator? What do you hope to learn from the program? How can we help you? 

Finally…

25. Did you apply to the Land Accelerator last year?

Yes or no?

26. Does your company have a female founder or co-founder?

Yes or no? This does not factor into our decision. We will use this information for analytical purposes to understand the demographics of entrepreneurship for land use in the long term.

27. Would you like this application to be shared with other accelerators?

We don’t understand why you wouldn’t answer yes, but it’s fine if you do. We’re not going to publish your application; we’ll just share it with other programs that may be looking for companies like yours.

We only have the resources to invite a tiny percentage of our applicants, and want to help all the others find assistance, too.

28. How did you first hear about The Land Accelerator?

This question helps us understand where to spend our time building awareness of The Land Accelerator.  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 VC4a.com” is useful (if it’s true), as is “Facebook” or “Twitter” or “Google” or “A postcard at iHub”.