Roughly 1 year ago we had just begun working on Lob and decided to apply to Y Combinator. Y Combinator was a great experience that was the perfect way to get our company off the ground that helped us learn and grow as founders. Along the way, we got tons of advice from other YC founders and with the YC application deadline coming up, I wanted to pass on some of our own advice on the application.
Everyone applying to YC should take the time to read PG’s Essays. PG does a great job of explaining the type of people and ideas that YC is looking for. The YC application focuses on two general areas: founding team and the idea/company. Here is some advice on each of these and how to stand out from the crowd:
1.) Founders: YC invests in you, not just your idea/company
Looking at the application almost half the questions are about the founders and how they work together. One of the common phrases that PG uses to describe founders is “be relentlessly resourceful”. Wil Chung’s advice and examples he pulls from PG’s essays also zone in on key traits that great founders demonstrate. As you answer the first few questions keep in the back of your head and point to specific examples where you demonstrated these traits. Another thing to note is showing that you and your founder can work together (this is especially important as founder breakups are the #1 reason startups fail).
I want to particularly call out attention to one question in the application to help you stand out: Please tell us about the time you, hnusername, most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage. In PG’s essay about founders he specifically states that this is one of the questions YC pays most attention to.
I believe the key to this question is demonstrating with a concrete example how you demonstrated the ability to be relentlessly resourceful and overcome an obstacle by thinking outside the box. As an example, in our application, I specifically discussed how I overcame terrible customer support lines (ie. cable companies) by carpet-bombing executives w/ strongly worded but polite emails using contact information I hunted off the internet until they couldn’t ignore me and sent an executive support member to solve my problem.
2.) Idea/Company: Solve a hair on fire real problem
The biggest mistake you can make while writing your application is being wordy or making it too complicated to understand what you are doing. Be specific, be brief, and get to the point! Drew Houston’s Dropbox application for YC is a prime example of doing this really well.
YC is looking for companies/ideas that are solving hair on fire problems. The litmus test I use when evaluating new ideas is asking myself: “would someone pay to use my buggy crappy v1 of this product because literally the solution I am providing is still 100x better than what he/she had to do before?” Garry Tan’s recent blog post on the YC application does an excellent job explaining this.
One strong indicator in an application is demonstrated traction or interest. Regardless of the stage of your company/idea, you should have taken time to speak with real or potential customers and be able to point to solid metrics that prove what you are building is something people want. This is a key differentiator and having the numbers to back up your thesis/company helps build an exceptionally strong argument that what you are building is valuable.
I wish everyone the best of luck with their applications. There is tons of great advice out there (Zain has an excellent one on answering specific questions) and don’t be afraid to ask for help from YC alums. We all got a little bit of help along the way and will do our best to pay it forward. The application deadline for Summer 2014 is March 28. Apply now.