An Unofficial Guide to YC Applications

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Startup accelerator Y Combinator is accepting applications until September 25th for the upcoming batch. Danielle and I went through YC in Summer of 2012, and since then we’ve helped review thousands of YC applications.

YC applications are confidential, so I won’t share any quotes, but I can share patterns I’ve found that work. I feel comfortable sharing them, because they aren’t a hack to sneak through the application process–they’re a hack to make your company more successful.

Communication

Founders find themselves communicating all the time: with customers, early investors, and employees. The best founders turn complex topics into simple ones. If you can’t explain what you do in a single sentence with no B.S., you’re doomed. The best founders work hard to reach mental clarity and cut through the noise to quickly explain any issue about their company. They are judged on whether they can explain what their company does, because they should have spent significant time thinking about, refining and explaining the company’s mission long before speaking to YC interviewers.

It’s telling that the H1 heading on airbnb.com is something a five year old could understand, “Book unique places to stay and things to do.” There’s no mention of buzzwords like “marketplace” or “platform.” The “What is your company going to make?” and video portion of the application should both provide something as clear and succinct.

(Airbnb has come a long way from the tagline “a friend, not a front desk” in 2008 — check out the original airbedandbreakfast.com website on the Internet Archive)

Customers

All founders are hopefully talking to customers and building a product to serve them. The best ones are maniacal about this though; they do it so intently and so often that they’ve started to learn what Peter Thiel calls secrets. In Thiel’s words a secret is “something important and unknown, something hard to do but doable.” Airbnb’s secret might be stated as, “it turns out people are willing to stay in someone’s guest room or on their couch, and the experience of meeting a host actually turns out to be magical.”

There is a question in the application, “What do you understand about your business that other companies in it just don’t get?” It’s a great place to share your secret. The best secrets don’t have to sound mysterious or shocking, but they should be something controversial. The Fortune 500 goliath you’ll someday be competing with would hear your secret and say, “No, you’re totally wrong the world doesn’t work that way,” but you will know something from talking to your customers that makes it right.

Convincing

Founders that make it through the gauntlet of challenges have to convince their first customer to sign on, convince dozens of investors to invest in them, and convince hundreds of employees to join them. If you’re not extraordinarily persuasive, you’re probably going to fail. Any investor worth their salt wants to see this in action, and YC is no exception.

One idea for how to show this: as soon as you explain your idea in the application video, anticipate the doubts someone watching will have. “Now you’re probably thinking this won’t work because __?” or “I know you’re already thinking, this is just another ___.” One way that founders overcome these objections is with clear cut data. “We know it’s working because we’ve already signed up 100 users this month, and they’re three times more engaged than our closest competitor and we do it for a tenth of the cost.” It doesn’t have to be exactly those metrics, but something that casts you as a standout in your industry.

Is that everything?

Definitely not! There are many other factors that matter. The strength and bond of your founding team is crucial. The clarity and succinctness of your pitch video is a huge factor. But if you do these three things well, you’ll be making a better business, and giving yourself a great shot at an interview with YC.

If you are applying or know someone that is, we’re happy to help you with your application or interview. Shoot us a Google Doc with your application at editor@buriedreads.com.