We were part of the YC S13 batch, as Toutpost. I’m writing this mostly to preserve my own memories of the experience. I do make an attempt to provide useful advice for new applicants, some of which has not been said before.
In mid February 2013, while doing my morning scan of Hacker News, I noticed this post: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5190338. We were just getting our startup going at the Capital Factory in Austin, TX and were extremely early in the fundraising process. Extremely early as in I had not actually spoken to a single investor yet. One of my best friends (hi Tim) and I had frequently mused about “doing Y Combinator” one day. It was always sort of half in-jest, as we had just sold our company to Zynga and were doing fairly well financially. Never the less, something about this post spurred me into action and I decided to apply. My co-founders agreed that it was worth doing, and I was off to the races.
I started by reading and watching as much as possible to prepare for the application. I strongly recommend that anyone considering applying start in the same fashion. Some of the resources I remember are:
Before I met Paul Graham (pg) I thought he had to be acting the way he was acting because he was being video taped. No, that’s actually pg. That’s how he acts. It’s simultaneously endearing and scary as hell. You sort of have the feeling that he might tell you that you’re completely screwed at any minute, but it won’t be in an overtly mean way. It’ll be casually amused. Like you know, what you’re doing is completely screwed up, but the good news is we’re almost done talking and then you can go fix it.
Y Combinator makes a strong attempt to give you all of the information you need to successfully apply. I read all of this information multiple times.
I then started a google document
labeled “YC Application version 1.” I copied in the actual application
questions. For my first pass I started the way I always do when writing (and am
currently in the process of doing). I write bullet points that I want to cover
and then I indent a level and flush out those bullet points. I sometimes go to
the third or fourth level. I start writing full sentences when I’m at a certain
depth, roughly 3 deep. I then go back and start replacing the second level
bullet points with the paragraph that is now the third level bullet points. I
did that for each question until they were all answered. It took roughly an
hour and a half.
I sent this first pass
application to my cofounders to read and comment on, I also sent it to some of
my most trusted advisors (hi Ian).
I took some of their feedback, but did not change it a lot at this stage. It
was twice as long as they recommended at this point.
We recorded the application video
next. My cofounders and I gathered in a
conference room at the Capital Factory and took about four takes. It took four
takes because the first three takes were too long. We planned out what we were
going to say, to the level of when each founder was going to talk and what they
were going to talk about. We spent about 2 hours on the whole thing.
I have since received feedback from pg that our video was “very highly produced.” It was not meant as a compliment. In retrospect I don’t know what I would change. Our initial idea was fairly broken so if we didn’t script it I don’t know how I could have explained it. Actually, what I would change is I would have a better business idea. I hope that helps.
We let the application sit for about 3 weeks after recording the video. Partially this was because I wasn’t satisfied with the application yet, but felt like I didn’t know how to add any more value to it. Partially it was because I was trying to convince strangers to write me large checks and that is a full time job.
time we had an interesting debate about timing the application. The application instructions have this funny
line “Groups that submit early have a significant advantage because we have
more time to read their applications.” I had this intense debate with my
partners and alumni friends about whether or not to follow this advice. Some
were STRONGLY against following this advice, especially the alumni. Ultimately
I decided to take the application at face value and comply. I did not know then
but debating whether or not to take advice from YC at face value would turn out
to be a recurring exercise.
I came back to the application after a three-week interlude and sat down with two alumni. One of them spent literally hours on my application (love you Jason). He deconstructed it and gave me very frank feedback every step along the way. He must have told me I wouldn’t get in a hundred times. Then it eventually became “you might get an interview.” I didn’t know it then but Jason was correct. We got in because I was able to move the needle during the interview.
I spent much less time with the other alumni but he seemed to think we were much more likely to get in from the beginning. He thought that we had the DNA that YC looks for. In retrospect I think he saw our engineering-heavy team and our work ethic. He made the interesting statement that he thinks pg is primarily screening for ability to fundraise after demo day. I believed that at the time. I no longer believe that to be the case. I think pg is screening for what he says he’s screening for.
We submitted the application about five weeks early. Then we forgot about it and kept working on our business, which is the only reasonable thing to do.
Eventually there came the day in which we were supposed to find out whether we were rejected or were going to receive an invitation to interview. YC does a great job of NOT leaving entrepreneurs to twist in the wind. They tell you if they don’t like you, they tell you why. This was another one of the subtle indicators to me that Y Combinator is indeed special.
I finally received an e-mail at 8:03 pm. I know
this because I was in dance class with my wife as soon as class ended I walked
over and checked my phone, then let out a scream of excitement. The dance instructor
was not particularly excited for me, but that’s okay.
The e-mail was from Kirsty Nathoo
and essentially said “Your application looks promising and we'd like to meet
you in person.” It was followed by instructions on how to book a slot for an
interview. I signed up for an interview slot on the spot.
We chose an interview slot as
near to the beginning of the process as possible. I used some complex
rationalization for this micro-optimization, but in retrospect I doubt it was
meaningful. I would just pick a spot and not obsess over it.
After getting the interview spot
I networked as hard as possible for a few weeks. I met with a ton of alumni. I
seriously recommend that everyone who gets an interview do this. I was mostly
able to meet them via introductions from friends and investors. Alumni turn out
to be generally eager to give back to YC and help out other founders. This was
one of the earliest signs to me that there really was something special about
YC. They universally told me that they were incredibly happy they went through
the program. One of them actually said, “After coming out of YC the most
interesting thing about you will be that you went to YC.” I suppose there is
some truth there, as I’m now writing about it.
The night before
My cofounders and I each arranged to stay with friends in the city while we were there for our interviews. Not being from San Francisco we didn’t realize how long it would take to get from downtown San Francisco to Mountain View. I had the luck of staying with a good friend who had spent significant time fundraising in the valley. This night was pivotal for our chances of getting in.
Over drinks my friend pointed out that I was speaking about our business in “pitch language.” I had been pitching angel investors for so long I was no longer being intellectually honest about the way I thought of the company.
The honest way I thought about the company as an interesting concept in a large market with a small but worthwhile chance of success. After a few months of pitching angel investors I had begun to believe that we were a logical extension of existing models of success with low downside and huge upside. That’s the pitch that was successful, and after a few months of selling it that way – I had forgotten the reason I got into this.
Having those conversations the night before made me remember who I was, and I believe, were necessary for being able to speak to someone like Paul Graham about our idea. I really don’t know if I’d have gotten in if I’d walked into YC without having this realization.
The next morning we took an early train down and walked into Mountain View anxiously. We were early so we spent a few hours hanging out at a coffee shop. After a bit we walked over to the YC building and immediately did the tourist thing – took pictures of ourselves next to the Y-Combinator sign out front. You should do this. Don’t worry about looking silly.
We were at first impressed by how understated the YC office is. The office is really just a large room full of fancy picnic tables with a podium. There are several smaller side rooms used for conferencing. It is impressive because it is designed with purpose built efficiency. It’s what you’d get if you went to Ikea and bought a startup accelerator. Everything you need, nothing you don’t
We just sat down on a bench and nervously chatted. While waiting we were approached by several YC alumni who asked about our business. They mostly asked questions and were friendly. Evan from TeeSpring was awesome. He just sat with us and tried to get us to laugh and relax. That is exactly what we needed at that moment.
I tried to figure out whom we’d be interviewed by so as to prepare. I can’t remember when exactly I was told, but it was not long before our actual interview. We were to be interviewed by Paul Graham. My monkey brain came up with many ill-formed reasons for why pg wanted to interview us himself. I still don’t know why. Eventually we were called in.
Regarding the interview itself, I’m going to use my answer to a quora question for this section, it was written right after getting accepted.
I will say that it was intense. Several alums had told me "don't worry it's not as intense as they say it is." They were lying; it was more intense than they said it was.
Maybe it was my group; I had PG leading the interview. He was cutting me off, I was re-cutting him off and then he would re-re-cut me off. He was very nice, but definitely I got the feeling that he was in fact trying to rattle me. Pretty successfully too ;)
Jessica was quiet for most of it but did ask my partners about our equity split at the end. The other interviewers, whose names I don't even know if I got, were quiet almost the whole time.
Paul Graham really reminded me of pitching Jonathan Coon. Ridiculously smart guys who are trying to take a measure of you by being leaning hard and seeing if you can stay up right.
The handshake at the beginning seemed longer than the entire 10 minutes of discussion, that's how quick it goes.
[…] I think looking back on it he already liked our team and idea going into the interview and his goal was to see if we could communicate.
I was a complete wreck after the interview. I was completely sure that we weren’t going to get in. I was literally shaking from nervous energy. My co-founders were much more positive about the whole thing; that might have just been an equal and opposite reaction to how negative I was.
We walked to a bar in Mountain View and just drank. I bought a yo-yo so I would have something to do with my hands because they were shaking. Later Alex and I took the train back to San Francisco and went to another bar, our friend Daniel walked over to join us. By that point I was planning for life after YC rejection.
Then the phone rang. My phone was lying on the table at the bar and I saw it light up before it made a noise. I grabbed the phone and sprinted out of the bar onto the street.
I answered the phone “Hello.”
A soft-spoken man with a smile in his voice says, “Hello is this Amir?”
I reply, “Yes.”
The voice says, “Hi Amir, this is Paul Graham.”
In an embarrassingly high pitched and shaky voice I reply: “Hi Paul.”
“We’d like to fund your company. We’re offering $xxx for y%. If you’d like to take some time to think about it and call me back you can.”
I replied in a big boy voice: “I don’t need to think about it, we accept.”
Paul replies “Great.” Followed by a statement of logistical information
He then asks, “Do you have any questions?”
I replied: “I have to tell you Paul, I thought our interview went terribly. Like abysmal.”
Paul replies “Well we are hard on companies we like.”
I thank him, and the call ends.
I run, full speed back into the bar and scream to Alex & Daniel “WE GOT IN!” I then high five them and hug Alex and repeat variations thereof a few times. At this point everyone in the entire bar is looking at us. I don’t care even a little bit. Strangers then begin to volunteer to take pictures of us being celebratory. One woman seems to really want to be part of the celebration. She starts asking me questions about the company. I eventually reply to her “I forget.” It was kind of mean but I didn’t care I just wanted to celebrate with my friends at that moment.
Months later I again asked pg why he let us in. He said that we were one of the few companies that was a “no” but changed to a yes during the interview. He said that I said something smart during the interview that made him think I wasn’t naïve and actually knew how to get users. So perhaps my advice is to just concentrate on being smart?
Advice to applicants
Read pg’s essays
Seriously he spells out exactly
what he wants to see repeatedly in the most explicit terms possible. He says
things like “This is what I want to see.”
Explain don’t sell.
For me, this is the thing that is the hardest to do. You need to be most concerned about them understanding what you have in mind, not making them believe it’s going to be great. Your ability to explain yourself clearly and concisely is one of the biggest selling points. You will have opportunity to sell them in your responses to their questions, and they will have many.
YC has a very low tolerance for bullshit, and a really broad definition of bullshit. Their definition of bullshit is something along the lines of: “Words that don’t add to understanding.”
Don’t be gimmicky
Everything I’ve seen about YC leads me to believe that they will be unmoved by gimmicks you attempt in order to get their attention. I’ve spoken to a few different people who were gimmicky either on their application or following their interview. They universally agree that the gimmick did not help them. Some got in, some didn’t. None who got in attributed it to their particular gimmick.
Don’t go in on the defensive
You don’t know how they are thinking about you; so don’t try to pre-answer their questions. The criteria by which they are judging you are not going to be the criteria that you judge yourself on. If you spend a lot of time trying to explain away the concerns you perceive in your own startup, you’re likely wasting time on things they aren’t worried about. Or you’re successfully worrying them about things they weren’t thinking about. I later found out that a big part of the reason we got in was simply that “reviews are fundamental.” Reviews are an underpinning of eCommerce on the web and a startup on this area is worth trying.
Don’t talk over each other
This has been said before but even if you desperately want to cut off your cofounder DON’T DO IT. Just politely let your cofounder finish their point and then expand upon it as necessary.
Un-learn your Angel pitch
I spent a couple of months
pitching angel investors before my YC interview. This could have spelled
disaster for my YC Interview if I wasn’t smart enough to speak to alumni before
going in. The language and type of reasoning you use to pitch most angels (especially
non-SF angels) successfully is designed to convince them that their money will
be at minimum refunded – but most likely will have some significant return as
well. You’re talking angels down on risk as much as you’re talking them up on
opportunity. YC is the opposite. Risk is even attractive in some ways because
it implies a barrier to entry.
What YC wants is a fundamentally valuable market, a unique or competitively advantaged approach, and an A+ team. They want first order thinkers with a shot at the big leagues. They don’t care about getting their $20k back.
Network with alumni before your interview
This will help you understand how YC thinks and what they look for. It will also give you exposure to people who exude the personality traits they are focused on finding.
Explain your startup to your non-technical friends
If you can explain your startup to your non-technical friends or relatives in such a way that they fully get it, and can explain it back to you easily – you are probably going in the right direction. I am lucky because my wife is non-technical and serves as my sounding board. If I can get her to really understand it, I know that I’m getting close to a working explanation.
The most common question I get about Y Combinator is: was it worth it? My answer is unequivocally yes it was.
I've never been into to branding myself with my college or team t-shirts, but I own exactly two Y Combinator hoodies and they feel very important to me. My wife wanted one of them and I told her no (to some indignation, I might add). The experience is powerful enough that I find myself wanting to not let YC or my batch down.
To all of you considering applying for YC in the Winter 2014 batch, and the future I wish you the best of luck. This experience will in fact change your life.