Y Combinator Application Advice for International Companies

Before we even begin, you should have read this official guide thoroughly. Also, go over this FAQ which covers a lot of material for applicants in general, and some that deal with internationals as well (visas, moving to the Valley, incorporating in the US etc.).

There is a lot of unofficial advice also available online for companies applying to YC. But last year, when we were filling out the application, we were unable to find many resources that kept in mind international startups and dealt with their concerns / questions / doubts. So, I decided to write down a quick set of points for those who’ll be applying this year. Hope you find this useful!

This article assumes you are convinced about why YC is great for your company, the fact that the application is all that matters and that you don’t need recommendations and intros, and that you can even get accepted without having any users! Hence, it focuses more on the application that every company needs to fill out.

(Just incase you are not convinced yet about how YC can help an international company (or any company for that matter), try and catch them on their 11 country tour this September. You can find me at the Delhi (9/22) and Bangalore (9/25) events as well.)

By “international”, I am referring to those startups with a target user base not located in the United States. For example, Kisan Network is an online agriculture marketplace for India; Rappi is a hyper-local delivery service for Latin America etc. If you’re a startup located outside the United States with the target user base including those in the United States, then all the points below may not be relevant to you.

GENERAL ADVICE

  • Assume the reader doesn’t know anything about the problem you’re trying to solve, the country you are based in, the existing players in the space etc. Nothing at all.
  • Be precise. Answer what is being asked in a particular question. If you do that for every question, then all the important points you wish to convey will get covered in the application. Instead, if you try to provide context and extra info for each question, then you’ll just end up repeating yourself throughout the application, and make each individual answer unnecessarily long.
  • You aren’t being judged by how well you write, but if you write poorly, you won’t be able to communicate what’s great about your company effectively. So focus on the writing and keep it crisp. Even later on when you have to describe your company to a total stranger (like a new investor), you will need to communicate well and the effort put into this application will come in handy then.
  • Get your application read by someone else if English isn’t your first language.
  • Speak slowly and enunciate each and every word in the videos as the viewer may be unfamiliar with your accent.
  • Remember that it is not necessary that partners read the application in the order in which it appears. So avoid referencing your response to other questions in any answer. If it is unavoidable, then make sure you explicitly mention which other response of yours you are referring to.
Due to the sheer number of applications YC receives, a partner will not be able to give more than a few minutes to read each application. And that time duration is the same, whether you are a US based company or international. Your challenge is to make him / her understand your international company as well as a local US one in the same amount of time. It is a challenge and so your job is to make it as simple as possible for him / her to follow, understand and appreciate.

SPECIFIC QUESTIONS

I’ll go over all the important questions in the application that international founders may need to pay special attention to. Here are some things to keep in mind while answering:

Company Name

If your company’s name means something in another language, like “Kisan” is Hindi for “Farmer”, then this could be a good place to mention that. Else definitely put it in your answer to the question “What is your company going to make?”

Company url, if any

Make sure your website is available in English.

If you have an online demo, what’s the url?

It is advisable to submit one, especially if you’re an international company. For Kisan Network, we submitted a short video that showed our mobile app running on different devices (depicting different kinds of users) and that too in different languages. We felt it conveyed our product better than simply providing a link for the partners to try out themselves. If you too feel that your product is better understood by a video where you take the viewer through different aspects of it, then this may work for you as well.

Describe your company in 50 characters or less

Most important thing to remember for this question is to stick to the character limit. That is a must. As an international applicant, try and use some US based reference that makes it easier for the partners to understand. For example, Uber for X, Stripe for Y etc. This may not be possible for every company. In that case, just keep it as simple as possible and don’t over think it. Kisan Network’s response to this was “Online marketplace for Indian agriculture”.

What is your company going to make?

The question is precise and your answer should be as well. Avoid jargon. Avoid trying to summarize the entire history of the space in which you’re working over here. Avoid using acronyms, unnecessarily sophisticated vocabulary etc. Instead, get straight to it. You’ll be able to talk about all of that in other questions. YC partners talk very frequently about how they go through entire applications without being able to properly understand what the company does. This question, if answered properly, will ensure that does not happen with your application.

Let’s say your company is Uber.

Here’s an example of what does not work: Public transportation in country X sucks. In addition, the cab service is erratic and over priced. People are coming online these days using their smartphone and want to get information and services at their fingertips. So, we are making a mobile app where we connect people with cars in the city to those who want a ride…

And here’s what should be written instead: We are making a mobile app where you can press a button and get a car at your doorstep within 10 minutes.

Video introducing the founders

This is one of the most important questions in the application. YC has a list of sample videos from previous applications that you should definitely check out. For international companies in particular, it’s important not to try and cram too much of information into this. Think of it this way: If you had 1 minute to tell 2–3 important points about your company to someone important, what would it be? Have enough content for around 45 seconds and in the final recording, that’ll end up being 1 minute long. Don’t have 90 seconds worth of content and speed through them to fit it in 60 seconds.

Finally, people around the world have different accents. So enunciate each and every word so that the partners are able to follow. You can only do that if you speak slowly and cover only the most important points about your company.

Why did you pick this idea to work on? Do you have domain expertise in this area? How do you know people need what you’re making? What’s new about what you’re making? What substitutes do people resort to because it doesn’t exist yet (or they don’t know about it)?

This is where you can talk more about the space and its relevance in your country. Don’t assume the partners know anything about the space (even though they are really smart people and probably do). This means no acronyms, no assumptions etc. Make sure you talk about the size of the market and briefly about how you arrived at the number. This is extremely important because the partners like to know that the problem you are trying to solve, about which they were totally unaware till now, is faced by millions of people, wherever they maybe located in the world.

Regarding domain expertise or wherever you choose to talk about the founding team’s previous accomplishments, avoid referring to accolades that only those familiar with your country know about, without providing the required context. No reader is going to google any of it. If it’s a big deal, briefly state why it is. Don’t brag though — it will do more harm than good.

Who are your competitors, and who might become competitors? Who do you fear most?

Chances are there are others working in the same space. It is also very likely that the partners haven’t heard of them if they are local to your region. They maybe big companies in your region but refrain from referring to them as one would refer to Uber, Google, Amazon etc. Instead, provide enough information so that the reader knows that they’re a big deal.

What do you understand about your business that other companies in it just don’t get?

This is another way of asking what the “secret sauce” is? So far we have seen that it is imperative to not assume the reader knows much about the problem in your region. This question requires the same approach as the others, but a little extra caution should be exercised here. This is because you’re trying to explain, what is possibly, a nuance or subtlety about the problem that your company has discovered and is going to exploit. You would like the reader to be able to understand and appreciate this.

Lets take a hypothetical example — you are building Uber for your country but instead of cars, people take rides in motorbikes. Now why did you make this decision? Is there a cultural aspect that Uber doesn’t get but you, being a local, do? Is there a financial constraint drivers face in your country that makes bikes more feasible? Whatever the reason is, you’d need to explain it clearly so that the partners are able to understand.


For any additional questions, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @adi_agarwalla. Remember, the deadline for submitting applications is October 4, 2016 and the earlier you submit, the more time YC partners have to read through your application.

I’ll be back with Part 2 of this (dealing with the YC interview process for international applicants) next month, once invites for the interview are sent out. Best of luck to everyone!

Here’s the link to Part 2 that talks about the 10 minute YC Interview!