5 Tips for Nailing YC Application Questions
Y Combinator is one of the most prestigious startup accelerators in the world. A startup accelerator is an organization that takes an ownership stake (also known as equity) in an early-stage company in exchange for funding, mentorship, resources, and networking opportunities. Getting accepted into Y Combinator is a major accomplishment and a pivotal moment for founders who want to turn their business ideas into successful companies.
Apart from a sizable capital infusion, Y Combinator also provides many other resources for YC founders to utilize. In fact, many YC partners and YC alumni alike consider the mentorship experience to be even more valuable than the money.
However, getting accepted into YC isn't easy. You'll be competing with hundreds of other startup founders for a coveted spot — only around 2% of which will be offered one. To help give you the best chance possible, here are five of the best tips to remember while you're filling out your online application.
1. Keep It Simple and Concise
Partners at YC have literally thousands upon thousands of applications to get through. Assume the person reading your Y Combinator application has already read a million and one other applications today and has very limited energy and attention to spare. It's your job to make it as simple as possible for them to "get" what you're doing.
Long-winded answers to YC application questions will probably do more harm than good. Facts should be your number one priority. Try to convey as much impact as possible in as few words as possible, and provide (meaningful) numbers and figures wherever you can. This isn't the time or place to regale the reviewer with your entire life's story as an entrepreneur.
All your responses should get straight to the heart of your company within just one or two sentences. If the YC evaluator has read more than a couple of sentences and still doesn't understand what your company does, they’re most likely going to move right along to the next application. Being anything less than crystal clear about the purpose of your company is one of the fastest ways to get your application filtered out very early in the YC application process.
You should also avoid using generic, jargon-filled phrases that look impressive at first glance but don’t actually say anything specific about your company, like: “we’re a fintech company dedicated to revolutionizing the electronic payment industry.” Countless startups could truthfully describe themselves with the same sentence — YC reviewers want to be able to grasp exactly what your company does as quickly as possible.
Paul Graham (one of Y Combinator’s co-founders) describes a useful trick for explaining your startup effectively: “Explain it as a variant of something the audience already knows. It’s like Wikipedia, but within an organization. It’s like an answering service, but for email. It’s eBay for jobs.”
2. Show that Your Product Works
If you’ve launched your product already, it’s important to demonstrate traction. Many different metrics can serve as evidence of traction — it could be your number of subscribers, your monthly recurring revenue, or anything that shows that real interest in your product exists right now.
However, consider that some YC applicants in any given batch are still in the pre-launch stage. It’s not always realistic to expect even the most promising of infant startups to be able to produce evidence of traction, and Y Combinator knows this. Nevertheless, if you haven’t launched yet, you need evidence that you can actually build your product at some point. Your YC reviewers will want to know how quickly you can execute on your startup ideas and how long it will be before you can start showing results.
Michael Seibel (co-founder of Twitch and a YC partner) explains that what YC partners really want to know is “what have you accomplished in the time you’ve been working on your startup? If the main part of your business is a website and you are still in beta after two years, that is not impressive. But if you are building a rocket and have final drawings of the core engine after 6 months, that could be a big deal!”
3. Acknowledge Hard Truths
It’s tempting to try to downplay the less-than-ideal aspects of your startup. After all, building a company is hard work, and it’s natural to want to highlight your wins so far. However, it’s important to give your startup a more truthful appraisal on your application — as an entrepreneur, honesty (even when it’s hard) is going to be one of your most important qualities.
Don’t try to spin your responses to fit what you think the reviewers want to see on the application. YC evaluators typically have wide-ranging domain expertise, and you’re extremely unlikely to fool them.
If a certain area of your business is not seeing the growth you want or a certain metric looks worrying, then you need to be totally upfront about that. The best thing you can do in a scenario like this is address the weakness head-on and instill confidence that you’re capable of overcoming it. The worst thing you can do is try to hide it and pretend like your company is doing perfectly on all fronts when it’s actually not.
4. Be Clear About Your Big Ambitions
Quantifying your business’s size and impact at this early stage can be very difficult for many startups. Figures and estimates can work to generate a vague image, but this is unlikely to result in a clear enough picture to grab the reviewer’s attention. It’s much better to focus on your ambitions instead. What are your long-term goals for your company? What do you expect its impact on the market to look like in five, ten, or twenty years?
YC knows your startup isn’t a smash success yet — that’s why you’re seeking assistance, after all. Instead of struggling to articulate the limited scope of your business in its current state, show the reviewers what kind of end result they’re betting on by articulating how you’re going to take them there. They want to hear about the scale of your ambition just as much (if not more than) the current size of your impact.
Though big ambition is a must, the idea your startup is based on doesn’t necessarily need to be enormous or complicated — just extremely relevant. “Build something people want” is the best advice you’ll get straight from Y Combinator themselves. Often, the best way to do this is to address a narrow pain point in a broad market. If you can show the reviewers that you’ve solved a narrow pain point in a large and/or fast growing market, then you’re in a tremendous position.
5. Talk About the Competition
Having competitors doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your business idea — it just means you need to have a plan to beat the competition. You might think that directing attention away from the competition will make your startup appear more attractive to the YC evaluator, but the truth is that mentioning your competitors can actually help your chances.
YC reviewers already know that virtually every new startup has competitors. Rather than try to sidestep the elephant in the room, show the reviewers that you’re confident your business can exist in the same space as your competitors and be just fine.Your goal shouldn’t be to convince them that your competition doesn’t exist (because you won’t), but to convince them that there’s plenty of room in the market for your business in spite of the competition.
You can also use what you believe your competitors are doing wrong to highlight what your company is doing right. If you have some kind of unique angle on your market, you should absolutely communicate that competitive edge on your YC application.
Don’t be afraid to think differently than the rest of your industry. One of your startup’s greatest strengths is that you have far more flexibility at this stage than any of your competitors who have already entered the market. If you see an opportunity to take the industry in a new, better direction, your competitors may not be able to adapt quickly enough to survive the shift. If you envision this type of disruptive potential for your startup, that’s exactly the kind of advantage YC wants to hear about.
“Not everyone who applies gets into Y Combinator” is a major understatement. Only a small fraction of the thousands of founders who apply for each new YC batch get the news they’re hoping for at the end of the YC application process. For many of them who do, it’s their second, third, or tenth attempt. It’s common for founders to apply over and over again — honing their application further each time — before they’re finally accepted.
Like all forms of rejection, failing to be accepted into YC doesn’t feel good. However, it doesn’t mean you should give up. After all, you get two chances every year to apply (there’s a summer batch and a winter batch), and you’d be far from the only founder who’s been rejected by YC at first only to be welcomed into a later cohort.
Above all, always remember that YC evaluators make mistakes too. Y Combinator has passed on some companies that went on to become incredible success stories. Even if you don’t get into the program at all, it doesn’t mean your startup isn’t going to be successful, and you shouldn’t let the answer you get from YC keep you from building the company you want to build.
YC alum Zain Shah offers this advice for those thinking of applying: “Make sure your business would do well with or without YC, and [make sure] it shows on your application.” YC is an accelerator, not your final goal — it’s a valuable way to access resources and opportunities that will help speed up your company’s journey, but whether that journey ends in success or failure is still ultimately up to you.