How to Prepare for the Y Combinator Interview

Tristan Zier
Oct 29, 2015 · 6 min read

Interview decisions for the W’16 Y Combinator class went out yesterday — congrats to all those who received one! (For those who didn’t, see #4 under ‘Philosophical’.)

Zen99 went through Y Combinator in S’14, so I thought I’d share my tips on how to prepare.

Philosophical Advice

I’m starting with these because they are more important than the tactical advice below. (These are also applicable to the YC application, and fundraising in general.)

I think YC cares primarily about three things:

#1: A strong founding team

Statistically, most companies going through YC are going to fail. Many will pivot. All will have at least some iteration on the product. Each change is hard work and emotionally draining. You’ll want to have someone by your side who isn’t going to leave when the going gets tough. YC wants that too, because it increases your chances of survival.

If you and your co-founder(s) have a strong relationship, emphasize it. Particularly if you’ve worked together before, and even more so if it was something with traction/success.

(For us, my cofounder and I met in Sigma Chi during college, were close friends who had traveled together, etc.)

#2: Big potential market opportunity

This doesn’t mean “we’re a consumer product, so our potential market is every human on earth.” It means you’re riding some wave bigger than yourself.

(For us, it was a change in the labor market towards more “contract/flexible work”, and away from “employee/only one company” work.)

#3: Having relevant experience to execute on the opportunity

Ideas are cheap; execution is difficult. Execution is easier if you understand the industry, which normally comes from working in it. That’s also why I’d argue second-time founders are appealing — they’ve already made all the first time founder mistakes (which will happen, regardless of how much great advice you get).

(For us, it was me having my CPA and overseeing a workforce of contractors at Exec, and my cofounder’s experience with building web-based products.)

Those three points are less important if you can demonstrate traction. Being able to demonstrate you’re making something people want (and ideally are paying for) is the most important thing you can do.

A side note here: your 20 friends on the beta should not be equated with “something people want.” They probably want to be a good friend more than they want the product.

(For us, we applied at the idea stage, so we emphasized the three points above.)

Working with mean people sucks. YC doesn’t have to work with them, and won’t.

It’s relatively easy to pick up on someone’s personality in their application. It’s even easier during the interview; most people make judgments within milliseconds. If you’re not a nice person, don’t try to fake it. Compensate for it by having such a good business that they can’t say no. (But do try to become a nicer person — life is too short to be mean.)

The YC brand and community are phenomenally powerful and valuable. But just like fundraising, it’s an enabler and not an end. Its main purpose is to get you one step closer to building a great business.

YC is not necessary for success. Most billionaires didn’t go to college, or went to unknown schools. Stanford or Harvard may make the first step easier, but ultimately your drive and core values are what make you successful.

Everyone hopes for a silver bullet that fixes everything. The only secret you should know is that even though you expect a startup to be hard, it’s still 100x harder than that.

Startups are an emotional rollercoaster: the highest highs and lowest lows, alternating on a nearly daily basis. They often negatively affect your social life, personal relationships, and physical wellness, regardless of how hard you try not to let them. Those who win have hustled, and hustled hard. Prove you’ve done this and will keep doing it, and you’ll gain YC’s respect.

Tactical Advice

Once you’ve figured out the above, then you can start practicing these:

Think up a ton of questions you might get asked, then write out responses. Then cut down all of those responses to one (at most two) sentences so you know how to answer succinctly. Don’t talk for the sake of talking — they will have plenty of questions to fill the 10 minutes.

If you have a friend who has gone through the program, ask if they’ll interview you. They’ve been through it, and so are going to be much better about simulating what the interview is actually like. Plus it helps get you more comfortable with talking about your idea. If you can’t find anyone, watch office hours from Startup School to get a sense.

Don’t be surprised if you’re interrupted mid sentence, particularly if you’ve been talking for more than 10 seconds. It’s not meant to be rude — it probably means you’re not being concise enough. If anything, it’ll help you get back on track to questions that matter.

10 minutes is a very short time. When you walk in, give a brief handshake and introduce yourself. But don’t waste any time on other formalities, just get right into it.

I don’t think they designate a bad cop, but naturally some partners are just more direct than others — which can come off harsh if you aren’t used to it. Don’t let it phase you.

I talked 98% of the time during our interview; I think my cofounder said one sentence about his background. That’s not good or bad — it will depend on your situation. We were an early stage idea and I knew more about the space given my background.

They will likely ask you who is CEO though — they did for us. It’s probably ideal for the CEO to to play quarterback, and pass questions to the correct person if it’s not their area.

Have one pulled up and prepared (that is, have your laptop open and on the pages you would want to show to eliminate any load time). But don’t be surprised if they don’t ask to see it; they didn’t for us.

Other Resources

I didn’t apply by the deadline — should I still try applying?

I’m not sure if YC encourages this or not. They generally accept companies up until the program starts. At some point, it might become overwhelming for them if no one pays attention to the deadline so that may change. But they’re always interested in finding the best and brightest companies. If you can’t submit an application, figure out another way to get in front of them. If you can’t figure that out, you’re going to have a hard time figuring out how to get your product in front of users or other investors.

Read this next: Why You Should Apply to Y Combinator

Still on the fence about applying? Read this article on why we 100% recommend that you should.

Tristan Zier

Written by

CEO and Co-Founder of @Zen99