How to Survive a Selection Committee: The Most Common Questions Revealed

It’s been a hectic few months for our Microsoft Ventures accelerator teams. We went through a selection process at each accelerator to identify the new startup batches that would be joining our programs around the world. Discovery is one part of the process, and you can read about it in this insightful post written by our U.S. Startup Programs Lead, Sonal Mane. The other part of the process is the selection committee, which helps us find the right entrepreneurs for our accelerators—and it can be a rather intimidating process.

The selection process is carried out a bit differently at each location, but they all take at least a couple of months to complete. Collectively, we receive about 8000 applications every year and only choose about 2% of those for our 7 accelerators. In some locations, we use behavioral experts to assess the team quality and endurance, and in others we use local investors to participate in the process. The final selection day format varies from location to location as well, for example, ranging from a 3 minute pitch in Tel Aviv to a 45 minute group meeting in Seattle. However, the purpose of this day is always the same: to identify which startups have a unique solution to a big enough problem and whether the right team is in place to take on the challenge.

So what actually happen when the startups meet the selection committee?

Not unlike pitching to VCs, entrepreneurs are asked to present their startup and share their vision. We focus on 4 core qualifiers to determine which startups will make the cut:

  • Team (balance and experience)
  • Idea and vision
  • Coachability (will they be open to being mentored)
  • Fundability

How to Survive a Selection Committee: The Most Common Questions Revealed

The selection committee consists of Microsoft employees with startup experience, investors, and outside industry experts. We listen to each pitch and ask several questions. By the end of selection day, we decide together which companies made the cut. I’ve participated in 3 selection committees in the last 3 weeks and I noticed a few questions being asked repeatedly, regardless of location.

Here are the questions that came up several times and can be expected:

  1. Tell us about your team (how did you meet? how long have your worked together? etc.)
  2. Have you talked to potential customers to validate the problem you want to solve?
  3. When you started your customer development process, did you talk to local users or global ones?
  4. What is the size of the market you are targeting?
  5. Do you know your competitor(s)?
  6. What is your go-to-market strategy?
  7. Why have you decided to join the accelerator?
  8. How will you help other startups in the accelerator?

However, most of these questions can be bypassed if startups include this information in their pitch. In fact, the most impressive pitches we saw were the ones that left us with very few questions because they anticipated our questions and smartly answered them before we had to ask. As these startups were going through their pitches, I was mentally noting questions to ask, but then they would address them in their pitch—as if they were reading my mind.

We still had some follow-up questions, but we already had a clear understanding of who they were and what they were doing. As a quick piece of advice, the worst question you can get after pitching is: “so what do you do?” If you got asked this question, it’s time to rethink your entire pitch.

Apart from the actual pitch, you also want to pay attention to your team’s group dynamics. You want to be perceived as a close-knit group and not as a collection of individuals. Stand together, support one another (but don’t interrupt), smile and listen as your team members are speaking. Sitting in the corner looking bored or playing with your phone is not a good sign for us.

How to Survive a Selection Committee: The Most Common Questions Revealed

At the end of the day, we don’t expect startups to give the perfect pitch or have a perfect product. Entrepreneurs are joining our accelerators so we can help them with these very challenges; but we do want to see that they are willing to make the effort and that they have what it takes to succeed. It may sound obvious to say “prepare your pitch,”  but some startups simply do not take the time to  prepare for the selection committee—and it shows.  And at the very least, make sure your pitch includes  your “who,” “why” and “how.” If you need a starting  point, there are plenty of guides and templates you  can follow, like this one from Guy Kawasaki.