Y Combinator — the aspiration of many fledgling startups. But the process of landing a spot at this prestigious Bay Area seed accelerator is no cakewalk.
You have to have a solid idea, a scalable business plan, and the stamina to withstand rapid-fire interview sessions where you’ll have just 10 minutes to answer nuanced questions about your company’s goals and strategy.
So what can you do to get in? There isn’t any magic formula. Dedication, hard work, an excellent team, and a scalable idea though — that will get you close.
The application process
Applying to YC is really straightforward. Go to their website, set HN account, and fill in the questionnaire about your startup and the founders. Be as precise as possible and never lie. After you've done all of that, run it through your friends, and make sure they understand all the questions. It is important so people that never seen your idea know immediately what it is about.
After you've sent the application, you wait! In fact, you wait for almost a month, so use that time to build as much as possible. If you get invited to interview, you'll be asked for progress — and a month is a ton of time to build something new.
Exploring the unknown
The experience can be nerve-wracking. We should know. We’ve been through it — twice — and wanted to take this opportunity to share some insider tips on how to become a YC success story.
We were first invited to interview at YC in 2016. Our small team had been working on Supernova for just about a year. We had an algorithm that would power Supernova for years to come, but our business model was almost non-existent and we didn't really know where to take it.
We created a demo of our technology, which was in itself quite an achievement, but we knew we were nowhere close to being production-ready. Still, we decided to apply to YC and much to our surprise were asked to fly out to California to answer some more in-depth questions about Supernova by a panel of tech experts.
Unfortunately, as with every first time, you really don't know what to expect — and so while we read everything we could find on the internet, the personal experience was vastly different. We've gone through 2 interviews in one day, something which is quite rare, so there was definitely hope, but we knew our answers were pretty weak and we had to be really “creative” for most of them (read: we had no idea what to answer).
In the end, we failed to convince them we had a scalable startup on our hands. It was also clear that our technology needed way more work if it was going to revolutionize software programming.
For some startups, applying with just an idea is enough, especially if the founding team is super strong — some companies CAN ship in 12 weeks and if you are one of them, apply right now!
But getting Supernova to work took 4 years and more than 1 million lines of code — so make sure you know the challenge before you apply.
Second time's the charm?
Fast-forward to 2018. We had just launched Supernova and landed some paying customers, providing much-needed validation that our product can succeed. More importantly, we also had a working business model that we iterated on heavily.
The timing seemed right to try our luck again at YC. This time, we included an extra oomph to our submission: In addition to a one-minute Founders video, explaining what Supernova does, we put together a two-minute video of SN creating a mobile app for YC-related news. We even came up with the design for it. (In retrospect, our 2016 demo video seemed more generic, simply showing the conversion of design to code.)
Lesson? Find a way to stand out. It doesn’t matter how big or small the gesture is; your efforts will go a long way with the judges.
We were one of more than 200 startups accepted to YC’s 2019 Winter Batch— and the first ever purely Czech startup to get in! Surprisingly, this was also the most difficult batch ever to get to because more than 12000 startups applied, an increase of 30% from the last batch.
What was different the second time around? For one, as mentioned earlier, we had a scalable business plan and a vision for the future. We cannot stress the importance of this enough. Make them believe you'll be the next unicorn. Works on everyone — even your future investors.
Preparation is the key to success
Speaking of the interviews, we upped our game there, too. We learned a lot over the last two years and were able to give more insightful answers. We presented the YC mobile app and walked the judges through the demo on how to turn design to code. They were impressed with our technology as well as our dedication to the product.
The tech questions were then followed by a volley of inquiries about business strategy, our customers and our vision for where to take it next.
The fact that we already had a number of paying customers was a powerful testament to Supernova’s lasting potential, a point that no doubt gave us a leg up going into the second interview round, and something to keep in mind as you prepare your startup for a future YC bid.
Our other secret weapon? We prepared. Incessantly. We had developed a mobile app which randomized a pool of 90 questions we could potentially be asked and drilled ourselves during late-night practice sessions after putting in a full day of coding #startup #life #is #not #easy.
The strategy worked. Many of the questions we had anticipated were asked, which allowed us to answer with ease and confidence that our team had been definitely lacking in 2016. Still, there were some that really surprised us.
For example, the question: “How do you take your linear growth and make it exponential?” is really, really hard to answer in 10 seconds. We had some ideas, but they mostly rejected them. Needless to say, we figured out the answer eventually, but that was 6–8 weeks into YC so you don't really need to have everything right at the interview, just convince them you can think of problems deeply :)
As a personal note, what really worked for me is to write down the answers to all the questions first. Then try to explain them again, but with less than half of the words. It is a great mental challenge and will help a ton to align your ideas and give them easily explainable form.
And to make it easier for you, we've published all of them — use them freely!
The suspense is killing us!
The call came in around 9 pm. Well, actually, we received two calls that night from YC headquarters. When we picked up the first time, the caller apologized, telling us she’d misdialed, before hanging up.
We all had a collective heart attack. No joke.
Five minutes later, our phone rang again. Same number. We picked up, hopeful, but guarded. This time it wasn't a mistake. We’d made it! Supernova was officially invited to join Winter Batch 2019.
Our gang of four — Jiri Trecak, Oskar Koristka, Ydus Lustek and Artem Ufimtcev —the core founding team of Supernova and people who do it all from the beginning — flew to San Francisco in mid-December to set up our own personal coding villa in Silicon Valley in order to hit the ground running when YC’s winter session kicked off at the start of January.
We had a lot of ground to cover before Demo Day 2019. When we weren’t networking with top VC firms, we were preparing to launch Version 6 of Supernova Studio. Needless to say, we’ve hardly slept in the last four months, but we are sure of one thing: Our efforts have certainly paid off.
The story continues
Did you enjoy reading about it? This is just the beginning! Over the next few weeks, we'll cover everything about going through YC, what to focus on and how to work your work up to Demo Day — an event that you'll remember forever.
Stayed tuned and let us know in the comments what you'd like to hear!
PS: If you need help with your future application, ping me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can give you a hand :)
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