[Timely note! We're hosting a Y Combinator Meetup in Seattle on Thursday Feb 25... details here!]
March 3 is the deadline for YC’s Summer 2010 session. I figured that I ought to throw my thoughts out there on the decisions that lead up to the application, the app itself, and the interview process that follows (if your app makes the cut!).
Making the Decision to Apply
- First off, I think the most important thing to emphasize as an entrepreneur is that you should optimize for your chance of
successa meaningful exit, NOT the magnitude of it, should it happen. It may seem like selling for millions to Google is a foregone conclusion given how brilliant you are, but it’s not. Startup success is a tough slog with lots of randomness outside of your control. If you can trade a little bit of equity to nudge up your shot at success by a few percentage points, you should do so. Thankfully, YC from this perspective is a no-brainer. No one can argue that it doesn’t improve your shot (with the amazing mentoring they provide, the investor introductions/credibility, and PR bump), and if you calculate YC’s take is if you sell for $100m (divided by the number of founders), it isn’t too painful.
- Think about what you’re building, what market you’re playing in, and whether it’s appropriate for venture financing. I think I recall reading about someone applying who was proposing to build an app to manage Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. While there’s probably a business there, it’s pretty unlikely that the pen-and-paper RPG market is going to be the next big thing to change the world. Pick a big market– or better yet, pick a small market that can eventually morph into a huge market (like classifieds for San Francisco, selling books online, or an online garage sale).
- Read everything here and make sure you agree with some of it, but don’t be afraid to disagree with some of it either!
- Do something bold. You aren’t going to be thinking to yourself on your deathbed that you really should’ve taken less risks. YC is a blast. You get to meet amazing mentors, other great startup founders, and a few fairly impressive robots.
- Consider how committed you are to your idea/market, your company, and your co-founders. YC has plenty of flips, but the majority of ‘em seem to be going concerns for years. Can you get excited about what you’re doing (and who you’re doing it with) for 7 years?
- Do a gut-check on your team. Do they have the rough ingredients necessary to kick ass? If the better mousetrap you propose to build is going to be better because of an amazing UI, make sure you have a great UI guy. If you’re doing a vertical search/UGC play, make sure someone is at least a little interested in SEO. If you’re going to sell software to businesses, make sure someone is willing to sell stuff. And, of course, if you’re tackling something with big technical challenges (like most of us are) make sure you have some great hackers.
The Application Process
- Read Paul’s essays. It provides good insight into what’s important to him (and YC). Reading Founders at Work is a good idea, too. It’s a great book and shows you some patterns for startup success.
- Remember that the app is a sales pitch and focus your answers on the things that are important to YC. The biggest risks to YC are:
- That you don’t have the chops to build something good. The best way to deal with this concern is to show them something good that you’ve built. Preferably several things, and preferably things that you’ve built with your co-founders.
- That you’ll get bored/discouraged and quit. So try to work in examples of times when you’ve persevered despite significant obstacles.
- That you’ll fail to make something that people want. So do what you can to show that you’re in tune with the market you’re proposing to serve. You can be a badass hacker with unflagging dedication, but if you don’t/can’t understand your users, you’re probably not going to be a big win for YC.
- Don’t be too shy or too arrogant to sell. I remember reading a comment on Hacker News that said, “My code speaks for itself.” No, it doesn’t. At least, not to investors, customers, employees, reporters, and the zillions of other people out there you’re going to have to sell to.
- Get working on your software ASAP. If you apply with a functional product (or even a launched product that people love), you remove a lot of the risks listed above.
- Get working on the YC app ASAP. If you’re unsure, apply! The app takes a few hours and it’ll help focus your thinking if nothing else.
- If possible, make sure that your whole team is ready to dive in whole hog. Starting something up is a commitment to your founders and to your new investors. Having a team member who has other commitments can be a source of contention.
- Hack the system! Every session I get emails from people asking me to review their apps. I usually do. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t do this… YC founders are people who wrote successful applications and spent at least 3 months getting repeatedly kicked in the junk by Paul Graham and friends. I’m sure we must know something about how YC thinks that might not be obvious. If you can’t bring yourself to ask a stranger for some time, how are you going to raise money after YC? How are you going to hire your first employee?
I don’t recall the stats on how many applications make the cut, but if you get asked in for an interview, congratulations! Now get to work building something (hopefully you already have).
- Get started on a demo. If you walk in and start monologuing, you’ll fairly quickly get interrupted and asked to start showing stuff.
- The “demo” will be less like Steve Jobs and more like Guantanamo Bay. You’ll be derailed almost instantly and peppered with questions and objections.
- Have a backup idea that you’re comfortable talking about. I know several founders who were essentially told, “we don’t like that idea. Do you have any others?” This may be a test of how much you love your idea as much as anything else. Founders who refuse to pivot often die from it. It also might be a test of your ability to have good ideas. If they don’t like your idea OR your backup, they might los faith in your ability to grok what people want.
- Practice. Ask 10 smart people to name 10 things that will make your idea fail. Have good responses for those objections. Don’t practice a speech. Don’t practice a 10 minute demo, practice little 1-2 minute chunks of a demo that you can string together if they leave you alone. Practice individual talking points and responses.
- Be willing to be wrong but also be willing to disagree. YC doesn’t want lapdog PG fanboys(and girls!), but they also want people who are coachable and willing to learn. Don’t be afraid to say, “That’s one of the things we’re going to have to figure out, but we have a few ideas.”
- Be dynamic and energetic. You’re a storyteller here. Your job is to get YC excited about your business. Make them believe that it (and YOU) are an investment opportunity. Work on eye contact, not talking to too fast, and thinking on your feet. Have someone role-play an aggressive interviewer.
That’s about all the advice I have. I’d close with this point– very very very few YC founders wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat. It’s a killer experience and it’s certainly a needle-mover during the most fragile part of your new company’s life. Applying is cheap in terms of time and rewarding even if you don’t get asked in for an interview. Do it!