5 Tips for a Successful Y Combinator Application

Y Combinator7 min read
5 Ways to Improve Your Y Combinator Application

Being accepted by Y Combinator is a big deal—well, at least most of us think so. There are a lot of excellent reasons for a tech startup to apply to Y Combinator, as the 10,000 applicants per batch could tell you.

Of these 10,000 applicants, only about 2% are accepted. Y Combinator acceptance is highly competitive for a reason—aside from the financial investment that Y Combinator offers accepted startups, which is now pretty substantial at $500k with the new Y Combinator deal, it’s also a prime networking opportunity. Some Y Combinator alumni say that the connections they made and the social credibility they gained through YC were even more valuable to them than the money. 

Even if your startup isn’t among the 2%, you’ll still get something out of the Y Combinator application process. The application itself forces you to ask yourself a lot of hard questions about your startup that you may not have considered before. 

Whether you’re applying for the first time or giving it another shot, here are five tips you should keep in mind:

1. Just about anyone can apply

Don’t be afraid to apply because you think your business isn’t ready. Y Combinator accepts all kinds of tech startups at all stages of progress. The only major restrictions are that your startup must exist (or plan to exist) in the technology space, and you must be a founder or co-founder, meaning you must have at least 10% equity in the business. As long as these two requirements are met, you are most likely eligible to apply.

It’s a common misconception that Y Combinator only invests in software. In reality, you can apply to Y Combinator even if you aren’t a software developer. Tech startups of any kind are considered, and some of the most successful Y Combinator alumni don’t work in software development. For example, Lurica Health got their start with Y Combinator, and now they’re doing incredible work with infectious disease test kits.

Unlike most VCs, who usually won’t meet with you without an introduction, Y Combinator gives every application equal consideration, even if you don’t have any connections. In fact, even if you do have connections, they probably won’t help you get in because Y Combinator was originally created to provide an opportunity for funding to people with great ideas but no network.

2. You don’t need traction to sell your idea

Another myth is that your startup needs to have traction already to be accepted by Y Combinator. You can actually apply before your business has any traction at all, and many people submit applications for ideas that are still very early in their development. Other companies are already profitable when they apply. It doesn't really matter what stage of the journey your startup is in. Dropbox was accepted into Y Combinator without a full team and before raising a seed round, and the founder’s application is also a great Y Combinator application example.

However, having traction is still an advantage. Just because Y Combinator will consider your application without it doesn't mean they will ignore it entirely. Traction proves to investors that your idea has realistic potential to be profitable, so without traction to leverage, you’ll need to give them another reason to believe in your idea. Maybe you have an exceptional team or an especially unique solution to a problem no one else has solved.

3. Keep it brief

Do you want your application to stand out? Try making it shorter. This might sound counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to improve the quality and clarity of your application is to condense your answers into as few words as possible. In other words: get straight to the point. Brevity is crucial because it shows that your vision is clear enough to be expressed with a simple and decisive explanation.

For the sake of clarity, you should avoid jargon. It doesn’t make you look more knowledgeable about your field—it only dilutes your ideas. Every startup wants to revolutionize, transform, and create solutions. The person reviewing your application will have already read those buzzwords on a dozen other applications before they reach yours. Use your application to describe specifically, in plain language, what your company is going to make and why consumers will want it.

Your highest priority should be to communicate what your company does so clearly that it can be understood by anyone in just a few seconds. This is certainly not because the person reviewing your YC application needs a dumbed-down explanation, but rather because they have hundreds of applications to look at and very little time to spend on yours. You might have a thousand reasons why your idea is going to succeed, but your application is not the place to share every last one of them. That would only obscure the well-defined winning idea that the YC reviewer is looking for.

4. Talk about your weaknesses

Yes, more counterintuitive advice—but it rings true nonetheless. If you want to reassure the reviewer that the holes in your plan are nothing to worry about, be the first to bring them up. Avoiding problems because you think your YC reviewer won’t notice them (they will) gives the impression that you are either not aware of your startup’s flaws or that you’ve failed to take them seriously enough. 

Y Combinator cares less about whether or not your product is already successful, and more about whether or not you and your team are the kinds of people who can take a good idea and make it successful. Don’t downplay your weaknesses to try to make your idea look better—use them as an opportunity to show off the fact that you’ve carefully considered the obstacles and that you are well-equipped to overcome them.

5. Your answers are more important than your presentation

If you are invited for an interview, you will only be given about 10 minutes to talk about your startup. This means the interview is not so much a presentation as it is a conversation with the interviewers. They’re not going to be interested in hearing about every detail and metric, they just want to get a clear picture of what your idea is and how it works. 

The majority of the interview will probably consist of the interviewers asking you a few basic questions about your startup—questions like: “how do you plan to get customers?” or “what do you see as the next step for your company?” These are simple questions that every startup founder has thought about. However, it’s one thing to have considered the questions, and quite another to be able to concisely answer them off-the-cuff. If you want to impress the interviewers, show up with well-planned and well-rehearsed answers to any of the questions you think they might ask.

Bonus tip: If you don't get in, keep applying!

Remembering these five tips can improve your odds of success, but don’t be discouraged if your application is rejected. It doesn’t mean your idea is bad or your company is doomed to fail. In fact, about half of YC applicants are rejected on their first try. There is nothing stopping you from submitting another application for the next cycle. Consider it an opportunity to prove to YC how much you’ve improved since your last try. 

If you are applying to Y Combinator (or re-applying), make sure you are familiar with the Y Combinator application deadline. If your application is late, YC will still accept it, but you may have to wait longer than usual to hear back. Exact dates vary from year to year. Typically, applications are due in the spring if you are applying for the summer batch or in the summer if you are applying for the winter batch. Applications for the upcoming Summer 2022 cycle are due on March 24th.

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