Atomized

How to have a successful YC application

  22 minute read

Disclaimer: I am not a YC partner or speaking on behalf of Y Combinator. Everything contained in this post is 100% from my own experience. What may have worked for me might not work for you. Your mileage may vary. Terms & conditions apply.

Background

I heard about Y Combinator (abbreviated as YC going forward) when I started looking into startups in late 2015. I was 21 years old, and up to this point – I have been working for over five years full time in various tech roles. Being naturally driven to push myself forward and try new things, I heard about startups and how much fun the risk and reward could be.

Reading a lot of Medium articles back then, I started to get hyped up. “One day,” I thought to myself, “I’ll work for a startup and perhaps even start my own.” In November of 2015, I ended up visiting San Francisco, and one of the stops I had was at the Mountain View office, in front of the YC sign. To me, this was something I wanted to aim for.

In February 2016, I was given an opportunity to join a fast-growing startup in Portland, OR area called PICR.

PICR was building an “Uber for Photography” platform. I joined the Customer Success team and later moved to QA. We were about to launch the product in the Portland market. We had everything ready, 100+ photographers on one side, a huge waiting list on the other side. Long story short – after launch, the platform didn’t have the success the team wanted. Two months later, the leadership made hard decisions: the team went from 30 people to 8, and the focus shifted from a two-sided marketplace to one-sided. PICR eventually became Bloom.

Those short five months on the team were the most valuable time I’ve had and formed me into who I am today. Even though PICR didn’t work out the way I wished it did, the startup fire has been lit for me, and I was looking to start my venture eventually.

Frontline

After leaving PICR, I worked in various infrastructure roles and heard more and more about DevOps. The concept seemed awesome – allow developers to move at their own pace, safely, and in the best way possible. 

I started to look at potential problems in the space and quickly discovered that companies are unfortunately spending an insane amount of weeks to harden cloud environments. The existing solutions also didn’t help, and documentation on the processes was obscure and not automated. Out of these hardships, I started to work on Frontline. The goal with Frontline was to help companies deploy secure, compliant cloud environments with ease.

I started to work on the project in late 2018, working nights and weekends. In December 2019, I was out on paternal leave and decided to work full-time during the night hours to get Frontline going further. All of a sudden, I hit a new benchmark – $738 MRR. Wow, I finally made it. The following month, I doubled the MRR to $1648. Then I started to experiment, which resulted in no growth. The following month, I got past the $2000 MRR milestone. I realized I stumbled upon something that could potentially keep growing. 

After talking to my wife, I decided that it was perhaps time to apply for YC. I told her that we would have to live in SF (2,000+ miles away from home) for a couple of months if I get in. Then, in March, COVID-19 became a real issue. YC announced that the batch would be remote. Worked out for us perfectly. If we got into YC, we wouldn’t have to move anywhere.

I decided to be serious about what I am building and how I can be successful with my application. I reached out to several YC alumni over LinkedIn and Discord, and to my surprise, people were willing to help. One of the founders was someone local from the Charlotte area. Several others were all over the world. Suddenly, I felt like I opened a new door before even being a part of YC. I didn’t know that people over the internet would be so nice to help me out. They didn’t owe me anything but were willing to help.

I learned a valuable lesson – sometimes, all you have to do is just ask. The worst that can happen is someone can say, “no.”

I sent my rough drafts to these alumni with time and patience, and they provided some candid feedback. I recorded the video founder intro video over 80 times over three days.

I improved, tried again, and then I was ready and submitted my application on March 16th at 6:01 PM.

It felt like a weight has been lifted. Now it was go-time to continue building out the product to progress my application and potential interview.

Over a month later, I haven’t heard anything back yet, but we ended up adding another 25% to the revenue in that month, and I just kept my head down, building the product further.

On April 20th at 10:01 PM, I received the email. I was invited for an interview. Insane. No way. I did not believe it.

I quickly opened the email and scheduled a date for the interview – April 30th. I had ten days to get ready and prep.

I quickly reached out to my YC alumni buddies, and we went hard into prepping for the interview. I will do a post about the interview process on a different day, but to say it was intense would be an understatement. My four-year-old Macbook Pro started to have overheating issues and freeze during the Zoom calls, and I started to get worried.

April 30th came, and at 12:03, my interview started. It was precisely 12 minutes long. It felt like a breeze. I left the call feeling a bit uneasy, not knowing what the outcome would be. Thankfully, my laptop didn’t freeze. I quickly went for a drive to clear my head and recorded a video of my thoughts.

At 7:40 PM, I got an email asking for more information/confirmation on revenue for the last six months. I quickly responded with screenshots and a detailed view.

Throughout the entire day, I was going through all sorts of emotions, and my heart rate was all over the place.

Then, at 10:23 PM, I got the call from my YC group partner – they liked my interview and want to fund me and allow me to participate in the YC S20 batch.

As a first-time applicant, I was in as a solo founder without any connections to the Silicon Valley, living in a smaller city that only had three other YC companies. But I was in. It felt great, but now the real work began.

My first purchase was a brand new laptop.

The purpose of sharing the background was to provide context on how I felt and where I come from. I believe many other founders could be in similar boats. Just know to hang in there, and resilience is what defines a successful founder.

How to succeed with your application

Going through the YC application is a great way to answer some hard questions about your business and make sure all your bases are covered. Some have described it as an informal business plan. To me personally, I think of it as an extended pitch of your business.

Before you start your writing the responses to your application – know your audience. Your audience is investors. Investors are experts in identifying great potential businesses; they’re (most likely) not subject matter experts in what you are building. If your product is technically complex – you need to make the concepts easy to understand. 

It would be best if you always answered every question with the most condensed answer that actually answers the question. Often founders get stuck in a trap of over-explaining and providing too many details on things that don’t matter.

You need to convey on your application that you are building a business that has billion-dollar potential and that you have all the right puzzle pieces in place. In my honest opinion, you need to address these underlying questions in the best way possible specifically:

  1. What is your company going to build?
  2. Have you launched, and do you have traction and startup growth?
  3. What is your unique insight, and why now?

The first question is the most important one: What is your company going to build?

After reviewing over 50+ YC applications, this question is one that a lot of first-time applicants miss. They think they should use bold buzzwords and the latest tech terms. They think that they should fill this question with so much detail as if to confuse the reader. Instead, this should be the most straightforward question to answer and should be 100% clear. If you mess up on this question, the rest of your application won’t matter.

The answer you need to convey in this question has three parts: what you are building, the pain point you’re solving, and why it matters.

The second question is about your progress: Have you launched and have traction and startup growth?

One of the key indicators to a successful startup is launching quickly and getting someone to use the product and potentially even pay for it. On repeat, exponentially. 

A mistake I commonly see on applications is someone saying they spent 2+ years building a prototype in the dark and haven’t launched yet. I believe this might be okay in specific sectors (e.g., biotech), but in software – never. You should be able to launch your MVP as soon as possible, get feedback, get some traction, and figure out why. Then rinse and repeat.

The best way to answer this question is you have launched, “Yes, we launched in March, already have 50+ customers, and continuing to grow 5% to 7% every week”. Boom. Immediately apparent that you launched quickly and since then managed to get people to continue paying for the product and sustained the growth, which means more and more customers are falling in love with your product.

If you haven’t launched, do whatever you can to launch as soon as possible. Still, in the meantime, you should answer this question the following way, “We are heads down working on our product, expect to launch next month with several key design customers, and our waiting list is over 500 people”. The risk you need to alleviate here is to show that you can launch and have people already lining up at the door waiting for the product.

The third question is a foundational question for which you must have a good answer: What is your unique insight and why now?

Some founders follow trends. They see companies raise millions and think to themselves, “Why not me?” and chase the same idea. What often is missing is a unique insight. What view do you believe in that will make your company a billion-dollar company? Slack wasn’t the first chat company in the world. Facebook wasn’t the first social network. But these companies each had their unique insights and powered through them. 

Your unique insight has to be first unique, but second, something that you can back up with hard data—the question of “why now” should be answered with this unique insight. 

Always lead with your strongest point first.

If you can answer these three questions in the best way possible, I personally believe you have a higher chance of succeeding. The only remaining questions that matter after this point is the team you will build your product with and your go-to-market strategy to get it in front of more and more customers.

Some other thoughts:

My YC Application: A couple founders asked to see my YC application that I submitted to YC. I’d be happy to share that with you. If you want a copy, please sign up on the waitlist and then reply back to the email asking for a copy of the application. I’ll send it to you!


Founder video: your founder intro video should be one minute long and be in this structure: your name, title, and company name. Then, go into what you are building for 30 seconds. If you have traction, share it quickly (launched three months ago and already have ten customers, of which two are paying). Lastly, end with your background, why you and your team are the best team to continue building this, and WHY you will succeed. That’s it. Don’t provide too many details—just straightforward answers to the most basic questions.

Reaching out to others: I didn’t have any connections to Silicon Valley. Yet, I quickly learned that people are willing to help if you ask them. Most YC alumni are willing to spend time with you because, chances are – someone else has spent time with them. Plus, it’s a lot more fun to see others that you helped succeed than for you to win alone.

How to make connections: Slack workspaces (such as Founderopedia), LinkedIn, Startup School, and Reddit are great places to reach out to people and make new connections. I highly recommend that you join this Slack workspace specifically. There are several YC alumni and it’s generally a really welcoming community. Make sure that when you are making these connections and trying to build these relationships, you also do not waste the time of the person you are trying to connect with. Ask smart questions. Be conscious of the other person’s time. And then follow through on the advice.

If you are a solo founder: I recommend that you get at least one co-founder. Going through the journey of being a solo founder is pretty tricky, and it’s a lot easier when you have a co-founder who is on the same mission as you are. YC has a fantastic co-founder matching tool that I recommend.

If you haven’t launched: Launch as soon as possible and get some early users in. Michael Siebel has a great video on the topic of how you can get your early users

On fundraising: Most businesses can survive without fundraising. Think of fundraising as fuel to add to an existing fire. It would be best if you only used it when you have a fire going. Funding will not guarantee that your business will be successful. Only raise funds if you truly need it. Most likely, you don’t.

Magic numbers: I don’t believe there is no such thing as a magic number that YC wants. What matters more is that you can launch something quickly and get users to use it quickly and fall in love with it. Don’t focus on a magic number; focus on building a great business.

My offer:

I personally have reviewed over 50+ YC applications. I also try to recommend startups that I believe in. So far, I have recommended about 15 startups, of which 9 got interviews, and five got in. Not a bad success ratio. 

If you need help reviewing your YC application, I’d be happy to do so on a first-come, first-serve basis. My only ask is that you actually spend time on your application and answer every question carefully and with thought. I’ve seen several applications that just put very minimal effort. Take time; it’s not a race. Put time and effort into it.

To submit your application, here is my form to be able to do so.

Parting thoughts

I believe that going through YC is a rewarding experience. I highly recommend all startups go through the application process, even if you don’t think you’ll need it. It’ll help you answer some of the tough questions and provide clarity not only for yourself but to others as well.

Lastly, I want to plug what we’re currently building. We’re building a platform-as-a-service that helps companies build, launch, and scale applications in AWS. Our platforms allow small and large teams to launch well-architected infrastructure in AWS without needing a cloud expert. If you want to learn more, please feel free to join our waitlist, and I’d be happy to chat with you!

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