5 Questions to Ask a YC Founder Mentor
1. What makes a strong Y Combinator application?
One of the most common questions YC founder mentors get from startups founders is how they can make their application stronger. By talking with a mentor, you can unlock valuable insights about the application process to help you craft quality responses.
For example, it doesn’t matter what stage your startup is currently at — YC accepts applications from all kinds of startups at all different stages. However, just because you don’t need traction to get into YC doesn’t mean it won’t help your chances. If your business is still very early in its development and doesn’t yet have evidence of traction, make sure you highlight something else about your startup to generate faith in your idea.
It’s also important to keep your application short and sweet. Y Combinator values brevity above almost all else — if you can clearly communicate your startup’s purpose and value in just a sentence or two, you’ll already be one step ahead of the competition. It’s tempting to respond at length when you’re passionate about the company you’re pitching, but remember that the YC partners have thousands of applications to get through and want founders to get straight to the point.
These are just a couple of general tips for nailing your Y Combinator application. YC founder mentors can go over your application with you and provide tailored advice for your situation based on their own successful YC applications and interviews.
2. How can I improve my chance of acceptance into Y Combinator?
Beyond helping you strengthen your application, a Y Combinator founder mentor can also help you improve your chances of acceptance into Y Combinator in general. A mentor who has firsthand knowledge of what Y Combinator is looking for in founders can provide valuable feedback to help you position your startup for success at Y Combinator.
A mentor can review your application to help you hone your responses and improve your chances of impressing the YC partners. They can also use their expertise and knowledge of Y Combinator’s expectations to provide feedback on your startup's team, product, market, traction, image, and more.
It’s not always obvious what you need to do to improve your application. Y Combinator is an extremely selective accelerator program, and sometimes even the best startups don’t get in. If your startup has already been rejected from Y Combinator, a YC startup mentor is the perfect person to review your rejected application and help you develop a plan to improve the next one.
3. What qualities are Y Combinator investors looking for?
Y Combinator investors evaluate the startups they accept with great care — but they scrutinize the founders of those startups even more closely. A mentor with experience at Y Combinator can help you understand which qualities are most important to Y Combinator founders and teach you how to position your own strengths as a founder to maximize your chances of acceptance.
YC investors look beyond the specifics of a founder’s product or market (though they’ll want to hear about those things, too!), and instead focus on the founder’s personal qualities and skills. They know the founder’s merits as an entrepreneur is just as vital to a startup’s odds of success as the quality or originality of the idea. Y Combinator investors want to invest in people who are passionate and persistent. They want to bet on founders who are committed to a vision and willing to put in the hard work required to make it a reality.
A mentor who has been through Y Combinator as a founder already can show you the best ways to demonstrate the qualities YC investors are looking for during the application and interview process. Not only can they provide feedback on your written application, but they can also aid you as you prepare for the interview by helping you practice delivering a confident and compelling impression of yourself and your business.
4. Can you provide tips for pitching to Y Combinator?
As you’re preparing your Y Combinator pitch, a YC founder mentor can offer tips to help you. YC founder mentors have unique insights to share that you can’t get anywhere except from those who have actually been through the program themselves.
For example, your mentor can go over your Y Combinator pitch deck with you and offer advice to help you improve it. A mentor can also provide you with relevant tips in a range of areas, including:
- How to keep your pitch clear and concise
- How to convincingly demonstrate momentum
- How to emphasize your team’s strengths and demonstrate cohesion
5. How can I best prepare for the Y Combinator interview?
If your Y Combinator application is accepted, the next hurdle is the interview. Preparing for your Y Combinator interview can seem daunting, but talking with a mentor who has successfully completed the interview in the past can help you ensure you walk into the interview fully prepared.
One of the surest ways to do well in your YC interview is to give yourself plenty of practice beforehand. While your co-founders make great practice partners and you should absolutely spend time quizzing each other on likely interview questions, a mentor can provide even more valuable, experienced-based feedback. A founder who has already faced the interview and succeeded can provide a knowledgeable perspective and offer specific advice that’s tailored to your situation.
In addition to providing feedback, your mentor can also help you identify your greatest strengths as a founder and help you practice steering the conversation toward those strengths. This might include crafting a narrative that emphasizes your key experiences and skills or preparing for common interview questions with responses that play to your strengths.
Did you know? Airbnb, one of the most famous Y Combinator startups, almost didn’t make it into the program. In 2008, the startup’s founders, Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk, were struggling to keep their venture afloat. They had successfully launched the company just a few months earlier, but now found themselves unable to scale their user base.
Out of desperation, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia (who were also in debt from funding Airbnb) decided to revive an old marketing stunt they had dreamed up and sell novelty boxes of Barack Obama and John McCain-themed cereal. The idea was a hit, and the founders successfully paid off their debt with the profits — but their original idea still appeared dead in the water.
Now scrambling for a new plan, the founders decided to apply to Y Combinator after a conversation with Michael Seibel. At the interview, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham was less than impressed with their idea. Like many people, he didn’t understand the appeal of Airbnb’s then-business model, which relied on hosts renting out single rooms, not entire homes. As the interview concluded, it didn’t look as if Airbnb had much of a shot.
However, as he was exiting the interview, Airbnb founder Joe Gebbia showed Graham a box of Cap’n McCains — one of the limited-edition cereals the Airbnb team had created, which Gebbia had brought along on a whim. Graham was intrigued, so they told him the whole story behind the cereal.
It wasn’t long after that when Chesky, Gebbia, and Blecharczyk got the call offering them a spot in the next Y Combinator batch. As it turned out, they owed their success to the cereal. “If you can convince people to pay forty dollars for a four-dollar box of cereal,” said Graham later, “you can probably convince people to sleep in other people’s airbeds.”