Meet the Team

Six Ways to Improve Your Highway1 Application

Highway1 met over 350 interested companies in the course of our Fall 2016 application cycle. We’d like to share some pro tips from our team for those companies who didn’t make it into our finalist pool. We hope you’ll reapply for future Highway1 classes (note that many of our alumni were selected on their second or third application attempt!). Here are some questions to ask yourself that’ll help you prepare your application for the next cycle as you look to make progress in the coming months.

1. Do I have a prototype?
Hardware takes a long time. Most of our companies will combine hardware and software in their final products, and we always recommend starting on the hardware prototype first. Until you’ve taken your napkin sketch and built it into a working prototype through many rounds of iteration, it’s difficult to understand your vision, much less explain it to others.

At Highway1, we require applicants to show us a working prototype at the time they apply. It doesn’t have to be pretty or polished (we love foam core and duct tape), but needs to demonstrate some or all of the functions the final product will have, and the feature set should be informed by real feedback. While we’re happy to look at 3D printed enclosures and dev boards, teams who are typically admitted to Highway1 have gone through a few spins of their prototype and have moved beyond this stage.

2. Who are my customers?
Spending time speaking to people — discovering their needs and priorities — will help you get to a more insightful and impactful design. It’s the only way to develop a product and mitigate uncertainties and risks. It’s critical to integrate the feedback you receive into your prototype iterations. While it might be hard to stomach, get used to the idea that you’ll be changing some of your product’s features or add-ons; you might even pivot from your initial idea completely. This is a normal part of product development!

“We are our own customers” is not the right approach — confirmation bias is an easy pit to fall into. Talk to people outside your team and immediate friends and family; give others your prototype unsupervised to yield even more unbiased information. Make prototypes to test assumptions, not validate them.

“I can’t give the prototype to people because it’s not finished yet” is another common statement. We believe it’s paramount to get user input in every step of development; otherwise you may arrive at a prototype that’s “finished,” but isn’t something anyone wants to use, let alone pay money for. Show people your product early and often. It’s best and easiest to make more prototypes at lower resolutions than to spend time and energy making something highly refined that might very well be off the mark.

At Highway1, we like to see applicants who put the user front-of-mind. The more people who’ve tested your prototype, the better. If you can talk about the impact user feedback has had in your development or about any unsupervised trials, even better!

3. What’s my target market?
When you’re building the next big thing, it’s easy to think that your target market is “everyone”. Even if you do think your product appeals to a wide range of demographics, at this early stage you should ask yourself, “Who needs this the most?” and focus your efforts on those people. They’ll be your market entry point, and you need a deep and nuanced understanding of that demographic.

At Highway1, we like to see applicants who have given some thought to their market entry point. You don’t need a PowerPoint presentation or fancy chart to communicate your market entry strategy; a simple, well-written paragraph can sometimes be better. Whatever medium you choose, make sure to demonstrate you’ve done your research.

4. What can I learn from my competitors?
Once you’ve narrowed down your market, look at your competitors in the space. Who are you directly or indirectly competing with? Give them some credit! Try to truly understand their products, why they’ve been successful (or not), and what value they’re providing to customers. Then reflect on what you’re doing differently, how defensible your position is, and why customers would choose you if they could. “There’s no one doing what we do” doesn’t take into account customer stickiness with existing solutions, even if they are sub-par.

There’s also a lot to learn from a teardown of your competitors’ products. What radio are they using? What’s their estimated bill of materials? Knowing these details can inform your product decisions and will give you an edge when talking about them.

At Highway1, we appreciate it when applicants truly understand the strengths and weaknesses of their competition. Showing that you have incorporated your learnings into prototype development lends credence to your ability to stand as leader in your chosen industry.

5. Who’s on my team?
You need a well-rounded team to divide and conquer the various disciplines involved in creating a company and bringing a product to market. Dedication and passion are wonderful and necessary to creating a startup, but they don’t replace man- or woman-hours in the day. Build a team you trust to get the job done.

At Highway1, we require at least two full-time team members with the appropriate division of skills; three or more full-time team members are highly recommended. We see innumerable applications where the company only has one full-time member, or only one person who’d be present in San Francisco for the program. We’re an accelerator in the truest sense of the word: we expect teams in our program to make more than 16 weeks’ progress during their time with us. We offer not only a very robust curriculum with access to mentor office hours in countless areas of expertise, but the Highway1 staff themselves are extremely hands-on in their dedication to product and business development. You get the most out of the program if your whole team is here every day.

6. Do we have external validation?
We’ve talked about user validation, but it’s also important to build your community. Start now compiling a mailing list of those who have said they’ll buy your product and arrange some unsupervised trials of your product. A good indication of validation is if early testers don’t want to give the prototype back to you at the end of their allotted time!

Investor validation is also important. Sometimes Highway1 does make the first investment in a bootstrapped startup, but knowing the company has the ability to raise funds from friends & family and/or angel investors goes a long way towards building credibility in the team and your ability to persevere.

At Highway1, we see a lot of companies who think running a crowdfunding campaign demonstrates traction. Be very cautious approaching crowdfunding too early, as you’ll be making promises to your backers/customers about price points and timelines that you may not be able to fulfill, promises that could very well cause endless angst down the road (as well as loss of credibility with future investors). A more proven approach is to use alpha or beta units to garner traction amongst your customer base.

Okay, good luck!
You’ve made it this far, so keep going! We look forward to hearing from you in our next round of applications!

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Highway1, a division of PCH, is the premier hardware startup accelerator, located in San Francisco. We look for great hardware startups, with an exciting business idea and a compelling prototype. We help you design products that deliver real value to customers, that are delightful to use and that can be manufactured at scale.
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